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Idris Ali
Translated by Elliott Colla
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 220
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    “This is your last day. Be strong. Don’t hesitate. Cut and run. An exit with no return." Idris Ali’s confessional novel opens with these words, spoken on an unbearably hot August afternoon in downtown Cairo, where the Nubian narrator has just decided, once and for all, to end his life. Delirious and thirsty, he wanders around venting his resentments large and small, his sexual frustrations, and his sense of powerlessness in the face of unremitting injustice. He seeks to expunge his failed life in the Nile: the river that had been the life blood of his country for millennia, and that—with Egypt’s new dam—now drowns Nubia, flinging her dispossessed sons north and south into exile. Many years ago, the narrator was one of those sons, fleeing flood and famine only to arrive in Cairo, penniless and shoeless, in time to see it go up in flames, the old regime overthrown by “the men in tanks." Poor is the story of a life of hardship, adversity, and emotional starvation. It is also the story of opportunities squandered and hopes traded away for nothing—of a life lived, at times, all too poorly.

    eISBN: 978-1-61797-150-1
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[viii])
  2. Merely a Question
    (pp. 1-2)

    I need to be frank with you: I lost control of the narrator of this story. He slipped out of my hands and began to rant about forbidden things. Present conditions do not permit his sort of effusiveness. He was unrestrained, as if he was speaking in the wilderness. I tried to direct him, but in vain. He comes across as disrespectful, hurtful, and harsh. He tries to harm the protagonist of his story and to slander his reputation, as if he’d never heard of al-Azhar, the censor’s office, or the agents of the contemporary Islamic inquisition. It’s as if...

  3. Cairo August 1994 Homeland. Torture. Departure.
    (pp. 3-34)

    This is your last day. Be strong. Don’t hesitate. Cut and run. An exit with no return. The end of the game. You’ve tried many times before. Today your decision is final, coming after a desperate life journey. That steady misery. You’re serious this time. Determined. A heavy pall blocks every opening before you. There’s no escape but death. The only possible conclusion. A depression colonizing you ever since you were born. Your condition drops in bad weather. Murderous Africa, home of the sun and oppression and homicidal rulers: damned, desperate continent. You’ve never lived like other people. As the...

  4. Northern Nubia 1948 Hunger
    (pp. 35-62)

    Confess to her, man. Let it out. Summon your memory and tell her the story of a Nubian child of the post-Aswan Dam generation. Tell her frankly, “People of Egypt! This is what you have done.” Without fear, without embarrassment, ask them, “What have you done to this country? This country that is also your country! Why did you dam up the Nile over Nubia’s lands? Why do your trains stop at Aswan? Why did you draw the border at Aswan, and with it, the government and public services and development schemes?” Tell them about their hero Mehmet Ali who...

  5. The Great Escape
    (pp. 63-68)

    When things get tough, you don’t hesitate to leap into the unknown, even if it’s worse than where you’re at. That’s how your decision came about, and how you wasted the safety of the known by trading it for a dark, amorphous future. You regret the fact that you’re an impulsive creature, rushing without thought to flee the pressure of the situation you’re in. You’re always anxious. On edge. You dream of a promising future, though the conditions are not there, nor any reasons to expect success. You move from a stumble to a fall—the kind of fall from...

  6. Gate of the Nile
    (pp. 69-76)

    This city of Aswan is the capital of your civilization. They call it the Gate of the Nile. It was from this spot that the tribes of the Kinz seized a large part of your country. From here too were hatched many plots against Nubia. Many distant generations ago, long before your birth, the battles churned between your people and the pharaohs, then the Arabs, then the Mamluks, each one striking, then retreating to take control of this city. That distant past. Now you set foot here as neither conqueror nor one desiring to conquer, but as a penniless transient....

  7. Cairo Arrival
    (pp. 77-80)

    After real hardship, you arrive in Cairo: ‘Mother of the World.’ If Cairo is a mother, what are her children like? You’re not one of them—they do not go around like barefoot vagrants. The scene in front of you isn’t pretty. Crowds so thick, everyone jostling one another. Some move with incredible speed, while a few dawdle and block their pace. What gets your attention is the sheer number of beautiful women—white-skinned, gorgeous, chic. Are they the daughters of Cairo, or the daughters of houris? Ever after, you will continue to fall for them, to chase them, and...

  8. Bulaq Abu-l-Ela 1950 Rock Bottom
    (pp. 81-104)

    From the absolute poverty of Nubia to the relative poverty of Bulaq. From the post-dam scarcity of food to the abundance of it here, at least for those who can afford it. From the healthy climate there, where the sun is strong, the air is pure, and the houses are roomy and clean, to here, where the alleys are narrow and the rooms suffocating, inhabited with humans packed in like beasts. Here, where the miserable inhabitants fight over the single bathroom and struggle for use of the sink to wash and perform ablutions. The orphan sink where spit and phlegm...

  9. Gorky
    (pp. 105-114)

    Now it’s time for you to submit to your harsh reality, boy. You’re not going to soar and touch this city’s skies. Your place is on the ground. Actually, your place is at the very bottom. You’re no more than a servant who will work round the clock in exchange for clothes and board and one pound a month. From now on, no dreaming of the future. You’ll spend your entire day uttering only a few words, “Yes, sir,” “Yes, ma’am.” You will badly miss your friend the reader, and even Sharbat, despite the fact that she might have been...

  10. The Blow
    (pp. 115-118)

    You’ll never forget the injustice of that blow as long as the blood throbs in your veins. You will always stand up for your dignity, even before you’d defend your country. Saving face drains your energy and becomes another complex. Whenever you see a palm raised against someone’s face, you’re overcome with rage and intervene to help the one being beaten. You do this even if the one giving the beating is a police officer—they’re always the quickest to raise their fists. When you speak out against your boss, you pay a heavy price for what you’ve said. When...

  11. January 1952 Fires and Conflagrations
    (pp. 119-132)

    Fire, smoke, and chaos. Today they dismiss you from school without an explicit reason. On your way home, you pass by once-prosperous places that have become ashes: Daoud ‘Ads, Chamla, Chicorel, Cinema Rivoli. The smoke rises into the city skies. Kids descend on a soft-drink stand in front of Cinema Radio, making off with bottles of Pepsi and Coke. These are the street kids who are addicted to licorice drinks. They are ecstatic to see the conflagration, and they impede the efforts of the fire department, screaming hysterically and cursing, “Fuck them! Let it burn!”

    These kids vie with one...

  12. July 1952 The Tanks
    (pp. 133-138)

    The same tanks that filled the streets during the January fires amass again to occupy strategic sites, including the royal palace in Abdin Square where you used to play, back when the crown prince Ahmad Fouad was born. Like the fires, another puzzle. They call them the ‘Free Officers.’ The ‘Blessed Revolution.’ You’ve been curious ever since the bookseller told you about the Russian Revolution and how it came about and who led it. Here, the revolution springs up while everyone is fast asleep. Like all children, you cheer on Muhammad Naguib and you play with paper, folding it to...

  13. 1954 The Big Fall
    (pp. 139-146)

    Apart from the tanks, apart from your friend the bookseller who disappears like Abduh the hashash, apart from the depression that afflicts the pasha after the man he’d fired is reinstated by direct order and then appointed to a prominent position in the workers’ union at the company, and apart from your impressive academic failure … apart from all this, there is a positive development with respect to your family life. Your sister’s marriage necessitates moving the whole family to Cairo, and relocating to a larger place. Your house consists of two rooms in a three-room flat on another alley...

  14. Umm Sonya
    (pp. 147-158)

    After he’d opened your locked windows, Roy’s hasty departure from your life makes you feel exhausted and limp. You look all around, wandering the markets and alleys. You loiter for long stretches of time in front of girls’ schools. You’re searching for a substitute that will quench your thirst. You’ve inherited the contagion that afflicts your father. Still, he is superior to you—he didn’t inaugurate his conquests with Roy. All your reading has failed to teach you any manners. You’ve become a creature who hunts his prey in the jungle. You forget about reading and schools and the entire...

  15. Big Shots
    (pp. 159-168)

    Umm Sonya’s departure from your life makes you sleepless. Everybody enters your life quickly, then leaves again just as fast. Why? You’re unable to hang onto a friendship or lasting relationship. Like a madman, you go searching for someone to take her place. For no good reason you visit Sharbat’s home. She treats you like a boy, even as you show her you’re not a kid anymore. She ignores you and changes the subject, “How’s your father?”


    “Did he send you?”

    “I came of my own accord to rekindle old family ties.”

    “I’m honored.”

    “Would you like me to...

  16. Dina Tantawi
    (pp. 169-184)

    Among those who thronged to congratulate your mother on your safe return was the landlord’s daughter, Dina Tantawi. She was your age and very beautiful. Better looking than any other girl on Wannan Street and maybe in all of Bulaq. She had green eyes and long, flowing, golden hair. You saw her for the first time the day you moved into the apartment, but you didn’t notice her then because you were so preoccupied with your sexual forays. She asks your mother, “How is he?”

    “My God—they really beat him up!”

    “What was he doing going around with those...

  17. Death. Love. War.
    (pp. 185-196)

    What’s left of you, man? You wasted all the easy opportunities that presented themselves. Don’t try to justify yourself or blame it on circumstances. Even chameleons drive themselves crazy changing their colors so often. You could’ve fought back if you hoped to win Dina. Now, you exist in a lonely void, possessing nothing in this world but a stock of jumbled readings that add up to nothing. Granted, you’ve crammed all the books in the world into your memory. You are, quite simply, a walking library. You possess general knowledge. But in the real world, you’re nothing. You’re on par...

  18. Translator’s Afterword
    (pp. 197-204)

    A literal translation of this novel’s Arabic title would have beenBeneath the Poverty Line. In rendering Idris Ali’s novel into English, I opted for the blunterPoor, because it better caught the work’s unadorned harshness. The literal translation also sounded too narrowly sociological and risked masking the literary slant of this work. A consideration of the title’s translation is quite constructive since the issue of how to read this work—as fiction or nonfiction—is central to what Ali is up to in this novel.

    It is tempting to readPooras purely nonfictional autobiography about a life of...

  19. Glossary
    (pp. 205-209)
  20. Back Matter
    (pp. 210-211)