The Automobile Club of Egypt by Alaa Al Aswany
Publisher: Canongate Books
Release Date: 2015
Genre: Historical / Political Fiction
My rating: 3.5 Stars
Setting: Cairo, Egypt
Cairo at the very end of Ottoman rule. Behind the doors of the Automobile Club of Egypt, Egyptian staff attend to the every need of Cairo's European elite - the way they have always done, it seems. But soon the social upheaval out on the street will break it's way through the club's gilded doors, and it's inhabitants above and below stairs must all confront their choices; to live safely without dignity, or to fight for their rights and risk everything. (Source: book blurb)
As I was reading this book, I came to the stark realisation that I knew very little about Egypt. For instance, are Egyptians predominantly Arabs or Nubians? Was the country colonised and if so, who were the Imperial powers? Was it the Turks or the Brits or both? What were the race relations like in colonial Egypt? And what about colorism? All questions quite relevant for the book.
I recently attended a book club discussion on this book and a majority of the attendees seemed just as clueless as I was; so suffice it to say, the discussion was quite shallow and I didn’t draw much from it. We ended up focusing solely on which characters were likeable and which ones were not. After the meet up, I had to do quite a bit of research to understand the context of the book and the time period it is set in to be able to make sense of it all.
The Automobile Club is a historical fictional book or political book set in Cairo during the last years of the Ottoman Empire rule. It is not expressly stated, but I could deduce that this must have been in the late 40s or early 50s. The book begins with two characters, Kamal and Saleha, accosting the author and demanding an audience to tell their version of the story, and surprisingly enough, these two characters are given their own voices in the narrative. All the other stories are told in 3rd person. Though I found this interesting, I didn’t quite understand the significance seeing that the two characters were not for me outstanding in any way.
The rest of the story revolves around the Automobile Club, an exclusive member’s only club reserved for the Turks and Brits and other vetted foreigners. Only the upper echelon Egyptians, such as the king, were allowed membership. This in itself speaks on the political structures in Egypt at the time.
The beating and eventual death of Abd el-Aziz Gaafar, Kamel’s father, a former wealthy land owner, now storekeeper at the Automobile club, sets in motion a chain of events that drive the rest of the narrative. The plot is tightly and neatly interlaced a lot of suspense and humour. Most chapters end in cliff hangers but luckily, he revisits in subsequent chapters to fill in the gaps.
The development of the characters was for me the highlight of the book. Aswany took time to develop his characters. They were all so believable and real, even the villains in the books were well crafted, no exaggerations. In discussions with the Author, he did reveal that most of them such as Alku, were drawn from actual people which would explain why they felt so real.
The book covers a multitude of themes: racism, colonialism, sex, the place of women in the struggle for self-rule, change and resistance, Religion, Social class, democracy among others.
I would recommend this book, however, ensure you have a basic understanding of Egypt in the time period the book is set it, otherwise most of it will not make sense. Aswany does not provide historical context for the book and it upon the reader to undertake some research to figure it out.
Have you read this book? What are your thoughts?