Sunday, May 20, 2007

How to be kind? And thoughts on Beer in the Snooker Club

It occurs to me that people in England, at least, are starved of opportunities to be kind, to be useful. If one watches the eagerness with which people jump up on the bus when someone even approaching old age gets on, and the keenness with which a stranger directs you to the address you cannot find, or gives unsolicited advice in a shop, then one feels the terrible and unexploited desire to be 'good', when so many situations call for one to be cynical: critical and uncompromising for fear of being taken advantage of, being laughed at, being 'unnatural'.

Our suspicion is thus killing something in us, for it reveals to us day in, day out, the frightful, hard, trapped creature we have become, with our knowing faces frozen in a semi-permanent frown or sneer.

On a suffocating coach ride, Bath-London, the hulking vehicle turned a difficult corner, and I observed from the window an elderly man making a signal to the driver that is was clear and safe for him to advance. It was a completely superfluous, foolish act, as red-lights prevented the other cars from advancing into our slowly turning rear end, but who amongst us would have wanted to shout out, "what are you doing old man; there is no need for your help."?

After I finished reading Beer in the Snooker Club by Egyptian writer Waguih Ghali, I lived for a long time with that book in my flat in Cairo overlooking the depressing Ministry of the Interior, and wandering the streets of downtown, burdened further with the thought of Ghali killing himself in the spare bedroom of British publisher, Diana Athill. I felt an immense sorrow that I could not fully explain by my own loneliness as a foreigner.

Later I returned to the novel and considered Ram's role in his own life, and found it an excruciatingly circumscribed and pitiful one. Ram, that narrator of Beer in the Snooker Club, born to a landowning Coptic Christian family, is the only son of the poor relative: his mother was widowed young and now relies upon the generosity - with all its attendant obligations - of her siblings. He has been educated in the British school system in Cairo, and dreaming of the mythical London of Piccadilly Circus and pubs, he and his best friends, Font and Edna, travel to England to experience sexual and political freedom and find as well dreariness and meanness and small-mindedness. There he and his lover, Edna, drift apart, and he returns to Cairo understanding that England has 'killed something natural' in him.

What Ram subsequently fails to do is to act out his compassion, and desire for other people. And this is during a period in Egypt, the late 1950s, post the 1952 'revolution', when the young people are moving out of the spaces and roles formerly proscribed entirely for them by their parents, a corrupt elite and the British presence. Font - a dogmatic Marxist, scornful of his privileged roots, adopts the garb and posture of a street vegetable seller. Ram, finds this absurdly and depressingly 'gimmicky' just as the communism of Edna, an Egyptian Jew, and her incessant championing of the fellaheen leaves him cold.

So, he reasons, to act 'righteously' in the defense of the downtrodden, is to be a parody both of oneself and ones roots, and of those that one is claiming to stand up for; it is to proscribe who and what is authentically Egyptian and to disdain and reject everything - even one's innocent childhood - and everyone else that does not take this purging seriously.

Ram does act briefly - alone and secretly - to send photographs to the newspapers that expose abuses by the government. But he jokes that for his pains - the real risks involved, he prefers the idea of having gone to prison, rather than the heroic act of actually going.

His potent hatred of his wealthy French-speaking family's disingenuineness, their greed and cowardice and sham magnanimousness, does not provoke him to act and speak upon any legitimised, public platform against both them and their class. Rather, Ram chooses to expose himself to ridicule and mere disapproval by performing apparently childish pranks - pushing his odious American-educated cousin into the pool, making a scene at a society party. By making it impossible for anyone around him to consider his protests as serious and legitimate political acts, he can be disruptive and irreverent from within; but it is a lonely and claustrophobic role which engenders only greater cynicism and emotional numbness in the young man.

As long as Ram divides his time between his politically committed friends and a depraved and decadent elite, he has only the rare opportunity to show kindness, for with the former he feels too self-consciously as if he is performing a political or social role, and with the latter in order to resist the powerful obligation upon him to be the good son, he can only be flippant - 'naughty' and 'rude'.

There is, though, one small incident Ram's character narrates that I keep returning to:

"It took more time than necessary to park the car in front of the house where Font lives; [...] A little boy watched me lock the car.
'I'll look after it for you,' he said.
'It's all right,' I said. 'Don't bother.'
'I'll polish it too,' he promised.
'All right,' I said and started going upstairs. Then I returned to the car and told him he could sit inside if he wished. I unlocked it and showed him how to work the radio. He was thrilled; his bare feet contracted with shyness. 'I'll clean every bit of it,' he said. 'Thank you very much,' I said and went upstairs.

Later Ram returns to the car with Edna and Font

"We heard music as we approached the car, and I remembered the little boy who offered to clean it. He was curled up in the front seat, asleep, the rag with which he had cleaned the car still clasped in his hand. We all peered at him as I explained how he came to be there. Edna put the radio off and woke him gently.
'Where do you live?' she asked. He rubbed his eyes and looked at us from under his eyebrows, his head bent. Then he saw me and smiled.
'I've cleaned it three times,' he said.
'It's beautiful,' I said."

Ram and his friends realise the boy is an orphan and homeless and Ram watches Font's face: "I could see the genuine frustration and the anger at his inadequacy and the injustice of it seep up to his eyes and blind him with useless fury."

Ram's own response to the boy is far more poignant; his comment on the cleaned car: "It's beautiful" is a gift to the child, and in giving, Ram briefly unburdens, to the child and the reader, a heart heavy with unexpressed love and pity for the other.


Hala said...

i'm a filmmaker livining in cairo, i'm reading beer in the snooker club right now and wondering about the writer's personality.. do you know any thing about him? is it his name or not, assuming so coz his publisher friend who wittnessed his suiside in her flat was calling him didi, and ruining every picture of him later on, her name is Diana Athill, let's talk about it if u want to.

Sarah said...

hey everyone...Can anyone talk about the Western assumptions and values related to the visions of the main character (Ram) and other characters in this novel?

Sina said...

Beautiful piece--where are you these days and why don't you keep writing.

I love it.

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