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Essam Youssef: A 1/4 Gram
The saying 'Don't judge a book by its cover' completely applies to A ¼ Gram. Its pale white cover has nothing to do with the turbulent action and turmoil of feelings in this novel.
If you haven't grown up in Egypt, most of the names of places and neighbourhoods will not ring a bell. To the translator's credit, a footnote is attached to every page; explaining in detail all what might seem unfamiliar to the reader.
A ¼ Gram follows the story of Salah and his friends in their struggle with drug addiction. What adds to the authenticity of the novel is that it’s based on a true story; a friend of the author actually asked him to write about his life.
What starts out as a thrilling new experience ends up becoming a life-threatening addiction. What begins as a harmless ¼ gram leads to a completely hopeless addiction to heroin. The novel exposes the intricacies of the world of drugs and addiction in Egypt.
The characters in A ¼ Gram are three-dimensional and are very believable. Youssef succeeds in persuading unexpected emotions in his readers: you won't feel sorry for the characters for falling into the trap of addiction; you may even feel angry, want to shake them with all your might and slap them back to reality. Pity and sympathy are reserved for the characters’ suffering families. Loss after loss doesn't bring them back to their senses, and readers will feel the utter desperation of their situation; but there's always a light at the end of the tunnel.
If you have the chance to read A ¼ Gram in Arabic; do so. The English translation doesn't capture the essence of the Egyptian society as accurately as the Arabic version does. Originally written in colloquial Egyptian Arabic, the Arabic version conveys the characters in a more familiar and personable light. It's no fun reading commonly used Egyptian expressions transcribed in English; and the difference between a translated novel and a novel originally written in English is extremely tangible.
The structure of the book is difficult to map out. While the story is chronological in the bigger sense, events tend to jump back and forth, where each child slave’s full story is only revealed the further you read. We do not know exactly how either of them came to be until to the end.
Other distractions from the story line are religious references. Using Biblical references, verses from the Quran and the history of Moses and Adam, Thompson uses mythical tales to reflect on the characters at hand and the trials they face. He even has a character and element that bears an uncanny representation of Noah and his arc.
Apart from his use of history and religious fables, Thompson also tells a very aggressive, and often times, dark story. Dodola is married off as a child and upon turning to prostitution is subjected to rape and mistreatment. Zam is a slave who sacrifices his manhood out of a loss of a better life. They are both abused time and time again and having their misfortunes sketched out for the eye to witness adds a shocking element to the novel.
This brings us to what makes the novel so wonderful at the same time; the illustrations. The detailing of the sketches and the exemplary hand-work at play is extremely commendable. Action scenes have your eyes rushing through the pages as frantically as one seen on a TV screen. The beauty in the details is endless; the graphics are looming and grand but also sensual and precise. There is a lot of calligraphy incorporated, which makes for an interesting experience for those who can read Arabic.
Another interesting aspect is his combination of the new and the old. Though the story takes place in today’s world, a lot of the prevalent ideologies are from nomadic times; primitive and beastly.
There is indeed something quite poetic about the story he tells – and the manner in which it is told – regardless of the gruesome, harsh aspects; on the contrary, it is these parts that make the novel that much more meaningful.
Born and raised in Texas, Gretchen McCullough's teaching career has taken her to Egypt, Turkey and Japan; currently, McCullough teaches writing in the Department of Rhetoric and Composition at the American University in Cairo.
Released earlier this year, her latest publication is titled ‘Shahrazad’s Tooth’; a compilation of short stories revolving around a host of eccentric individuals and their experiences in Cairo. A large bulk of the stories are driven by the thoughts rummaging through the characters minds and, more often than not, they transpire to be both charming and relatable.
‘Shahrazad’s Tooth’ has a colourful team of characters with strong presence, charisma and an air of familiarity. Digging deeper into their personal lives and problems, her writing style is distinct, bringing an American charm and non-linearity to her stories, which builds a pleasant intricacy.
With many of the characters connected by a single building in Garden City, McCullough allots the main characters in her stories as small cameos in others, spreading the characters' presence and allowing for further development.
In ‘A Little Honey and a Little Sunlight’, we are given insight into the raging nature of Professor Gary by his dying neighbour, Joe Pulaski - a poet - reminiscing his days spent living in Cairo. Many pages later in ‘Pure Water’, we find ourselves reading from the eyes of Dr Gary as he spends time with his bulky Greek friend, Kolombos, in a mental asylum before the uprising of January 25th. The title story, meanwhile, sees two main protagonists; journalist and teacher, Mary Beth Somers, and her dentist, Dr Samy. Far from sappy, the two fall into a love which avoids the overt romantic notions seen in cliched literature, despite ending on a melancholic note.
Aside from the characters, Cairo as a city is portrayed as an integral player in the stories. On regular occasions, vivid descriptions of popular places in the city are given, such as El Horreya, Windsor Bar, the Gezirah Club and Koshari Abou Tarek. Having visited all these places ourselves, it's obvious that McCullough has immersed herself in the city, and amongst its people, well beyond the point of a touristic escapade. She’s become a sort of semi-native, in touch with Cairene culture, but maintains enough outside insight to give a new perspective to those who’ve been living in the city for too long.
With its mix of emotions and interesting character troupe, ‘Shahrazad’s Tooth’ promises an entertaining, comforting read for both locals and foreigners alike.