Women of Karantina: Egypt's female crime bosses

Women of Karantina: Egypt's female crime bosses
Review: Nael Elthoukhy's latest futuristic novel is part slap-stick, part social criticism and centres on Egypt's female crime bosses in 2064.
4 min read
14 February, 2015
Women of Karantina: Part slapstick, part social criticism and part great Mahfouzian Novel [Getty]

If you only read translated Arabic literature you might get the impression Egyptians are a rather serious lot. While so-called "sarcastic" Egyptian novels are very popular, they're generally seen as non-literary and often are not translated.

But Nael Eltoukhy's recent Women of Karantina, published in Arabic in 2013 and in English in 2014, crosses the line from satiric to serious and back again. "Many writers describe the book as a sarcastic work but I don't think so," Eltoukhy said at a recent book event in Cairo. He agrees it has a sense of humor but it "is not sarcastic".

     Hear me, judging panels: ride on his coattails or be crushed under foot.

- Robin Moger, translator

Funny books are usually written off as second-rate by Arab critics. But Eltoukhy does not places his rollicking, over-the-top Women of Karantina in the company of contemporary satires, but as a successor to Palestinian writer Emile Habibi’s darkly humorous Said the Pessoptimist. Indeed, Eltoukhy's novel has many antecedents: It's part slapstick Egyptian film, part social criticism, and part great Mahfouzian Novel, resembling a funnier version of Egyptian writer and Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz's Children of Gabalawi.

Like Habibi's seminal novel, Eltoukhy's begins with a science-fictional element. The novel opens half a century into the future on 28 March 2064. The world of our protagonists' dreams has just been obliterated, and all that is left is an unnamed woman and a couple of mangy dogs in love, both of which are killed in the first chapter.

We then flash back 60 years, to a long-ago time when "the sun was ever beaming down over Egypt, the nights were quieter, the days more joyful, and the Nile flowed by all the while. Everything was wonderful in Egypt. Or that was how Egyptians felt about their country. The truth is what people feel, not objective, physical facts. Who cares about physics?"

The early parts of the novel centre on the lives of a clothing-shop proprietor, Ali, and a recent college graduate, Inji. The two are second cousins, but meet for the first time as adults, when they fall in love. It quickly becomes clear that between Inji's pride and Ali's heated temper, the two will push each other into trouble. Indeed, they they kill their first man before they marry and must flee Cairo for Alexandria.

The novel takes us past the events of 2010 and 2011 as experienced in Alexandria, and on into the future. It is one of a number of "future histories" recently penned by young Egyptian novelists, much like Mohamed Rabie's recently released Otared.

But Eltoukhy's book, which focuses on the "Karantina" neighbourhood, is particularly interested in the lives of powerful women. Inji is one of a number of female crime bosses who accept traditional Egyptian values, yet are not afraid to kill a man who crosses them. Inji takes on more religious garb as time passes, in part from conviction and in part for appearances. But wearing the niqab curtails neither her sexual desires nor her business ventures, which includes managing prostitutes.

     Although the book largely takes place in the future, there are few nods to new technology or sociopolitical shifts.

Although the book's tone veers between the epic and the comic, it doesn't downplay women's real difficulties. Amira, daughter of one of Inji's rivals, attempts to control one of the metro tunnels that has become a battleground between crime families. At first, she is successful. But then "the men themselves resented being ordered around by a woman like Amira, a little girl who knew nothing of the world and acted as though she'd been born yesterday." They take over Amira's apartment and drive her into a backroom, although Amira still manages to regain some of her control.

Although the book largely takes place in the future, there are few nods to new technology or sociopolitical shifts. Eltoukhy said in an interview that he wanted to keep the book realistic and did not think it was possible to predict future technology. He also said: "The third reason is that I'm basically hopeless at science and I'd never be comfortable writing about something I don't understand."

Still, keeping the country largely the same seems to echo the current feeling in Egypt: that not much changes.

The translation, by South Africa-based translator Robin Moger, follows Eltoukhy's work punch for punch, shifting when need be from the lyrical to the plainspoken to the vulgar. Moger's translation does not just bring the book's roughed-out meaning into English, it captures the prose's light touch.

Earlier this year, As-Safir, the Lebanese Arabic-language daily newspaper, ran a satirical story that had Eltoukhy winning the Nobel Prize in 2048, 60 years after Mahfouz. In translator Robin Moger's words, you can see from the article that "Nael's evolution into a heavily-garlanded literary monster is already underway. Hear me, judging panels: ride on his coattails or be crushed under foot."