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Women of Karantina

Women of Karantina: A Novel

Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 308
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  • Book Info
    Women of Karantina
    Book Description:

    Back in the dog days of the early twenty-first century a pair of lovebirds fleeing a murder charge in Cairo pull in to Alexandria’s main train station. Fugitives, friendless, their young lives blighted at the root, Ali and Injy set about rebuilding, and from the coastal city’s arid soil forge a legend, a kingdom of crime, a revolution: Karantina. Through three generations of Grand Guignol insanity, Nael Eltoukhy’s sly psychopomp of a narrator is our guide not only to the teeming cast of pimps, dealers, psychotics, and half-wits and the increasingly baroque chronicles of their exploits, but also to the moral of his tale. Defiant, revolutionary, and patriotic, are the rapists and thieves of Alexandria’s crime families deluded maniacs or is their myth of Karantina—their Alexandria reimagined as the once and future capital—what they believe it to be: the revolutionary dream made brick and mortar, flesh and bone? Subversive and hilarious, deft and scalpel-sharp, Eltoukhy’s sprawling epic is a masterpiece of modern Egyptian literature. Mahfouz shaken by the tail, a lunatic dream, a future history that is the sanest thing yet written on Egypt’s current woes.

    eISBN: 978-1-61797-615-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])

    • 1
      (pp. 3-6)

      The dog, which was in the habit of rummaging through the trash, could not find the trash it was in the habit of rummaging through.

      It was March 28, 2064. For many reasons, to be related herein and here-after, this day was the grimmest in Alexandria’s history. Everyone suffered its sting, but the one who felt it most was the dog that couldn’t find the trash. He hunted along the Metro station’s wall where the great heap should have been, with clouds of circling flies hovering above it, but found nothing. Not even the wall itself. The neighborhood was strangely...

    • 2
      (pp. 7-16)

      In that distant time, 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?

      We shall now relate a charming love story: a story that brought together two young hearts as they started out through life.

      Ali, thirty-two, with a little fixed-rent apartment in East Ain Shams—twenty-five pounds a month—and powerful prescription glasses, lives with his...

    • 3
      (pp. 17-28)

      I’m Sousou. My name’s Said, but call me Sousou. I prefer it.

      . . .

      You scared of me, or shy, or what?

      . . .

      Don’t be scared. I’ve never hurt anyone in my life, and I never will, God willing.

      . . .

      We do good by God’s grace alone.

      . . .

      Where you two from, anyway?

      . . .

      Didn’t I tell you? You’re scared of me. What, I’m asking you because I want to hurt you?

      We’re from Sohag.

      No finer folk, my friend. Cigarette?

      Sheikh Hassan is a kind man, the kindest man Ali...

    • 4
      (pp. 29-44)

      In those days Alexandria was simmering.

      The seaside city had engaged in many struggles in defense of its independence and that of its citizens. Indeed, the only way to describe Alexandria’s struggles against the Egyptian authorities is as a manifestation of the margin’s struggle against the center. The authorities against which Alexandria struggled were not just the Egyptian authorities; they were local as well.

      One day, Alexandria awoke to news of a young Egyptian’s murder—a young man called Khaled Said—at the hands of police informers. The young man was tortured, beaten up, and his head staved in. That...

    • 5
      (pp. 45-62)

      And why couldn’t Inji be government?

      Who was it who had appeared in Ali’s life out of the blue, with no prior warning, convinced him to travel to the South, and got him mixed up in a murder? Who was it who had resurrected an ancient debt of honor and plotted to turn him from a clothes seller, minding his own business, into a criminal? Who had been so keen on Ali’s decision to kill his brother?

      It’s true that Inji did all this, but if we are to accuse her of being government, we must first exercise a little...

    • 6
      (pp. 63-74)

      The only one who didn’t steer clear of Ali during this period was Abu Amira. Despite everything. Ali was suspicious of everyone. Beyond a doubt, all that time sitting at home had negatively affected his nerves, and the departure of his wife and child had only made it worse. But Abu Amira stuck with him.

      Ali walks the streets these days and no one knows him. Abu Amira smiles and says, Good. Let them forget you for a bit. That’s better for you. The translation of which, as Ali understands it, is that no one in the neighborhood knowing who...

    • 7
      (pp. 75-84)

      Of course, things didn’t go quite so smoothly at first. Ali and Inji took a while to get used to one another. Certain incentivizing factors were in place to set the old familiarity flourishing between them: a shared interest in the boy, in TV serials, in petty squabbles.

      After everyone had departed Inji was silent. She didn’t speak. The boy slept and she fell silent and her silence dragged on for hours: nothing but the plainest pleasantries. Ali assumed that she was shy. He asked her where the kitchen was and impassively she answered, Right next to you. He didn’t...

    • 8
      (pp. 85-93)

      Taar, or honor killing, is a story of its own, one from which Egypt has suffered greatly, particularly in the poor and ignorant South, etcetera, etcetera, and Ali did not know much about it, about taar in the Old South. He welcomed Sousou into his home and told him about the Amin family, about a taar that dated back some twenty years. Not a word more than any child in Akhmim could have told you. This made Sousou’s task all the harder, but a job was a job. Before he left, Ali said, smiling, Ask after my family when you’re...

    • 9
      (pp. 94-120)

      Inji does what she wants. Always has done. She goes where she will, from the time she made up her mind to return to Egypt from Abu Dhabi, to pushing Ali to take his taar, to building up her empire in Karmouz, brick by brick.

      Inji decided to track down her departed great-grandfather herself. She turned to Ghada, asked her if any of her clients came from Kom al-Dikka, and Ghada said no. All right then, Ghada. What I’m going to ask of you now I want you to consider a personal favor, and there’ll be a very generous reward....


    • 1
      (pp. 123-135)

      Art is fire.

      No one knows just when it first afflicted man, or how. How many successful men have been thus stricken, have seen their souls consumed and become the lowest of the low? How many complete unknowns have been seared by Art’s flame and raised to fame? Art is an affliction from God, and divine afflictions may bode ill, or well.

      For a long time now, Egyptian cinema has been bewitched by the idea of Art. We all recall that scene with Anwar Wagdi and Fairuz in the patched cloaks and pointy hats of sorcerers, singingThe heron of...

    • 2
      (pp. 136-150)

      Inji had a soft spot for Sousou. The only member of Abu Amira’s family she still had a soft spot for and whose company she still enjoyed. Soft spot here means soft spot, nothing more. In his troubles he’d come to her and ask, What shall I do, dear lady? and she’d complain to him about Ali. The man’s an idiot, Sousou. He doesn’t see things right. The soft spot started, as we know, with Sousou’s lengthy phone calls from the South, and as soon as Sousou had returned, as all the residents of Karantina knew, he’d married Minna, and...

    • 3
      (pp. 151-163)

      There are always nine ways to respond in the affirmative to a question like The afternoon prayer’s yet to be called? You can say, Ah, you can say, Yes, you can give a slight and self-assured nod of the head, you can give a wavering, unconfident nod of the head, you can echo the question back in a decisive tone, The afternoon prayer is yet to be called, you can say, God willing, you can say, As God commands, you can say, As long as we have life, and you can say, As long as we have life, God willing...

    • 4
      (pp. 164-180)

      More than one hundred years before Abu Amira died, in 1933 to be precise, Tawfiq al-Hakim wrote a novel entitledReturn of the Spirit. We could talk about this book for hours if we had to, but what concerns us here are a few paragraphs in which the author sets out a discussion between an English inspector of irrigation and a French archaeologist about the nature of the Egyptian people. The Englishman views them with disdain, with a blind prejudice against the civilizations of the Orient, whereas the Frenchman is enamored of the hidden essence shared by all Egyptians and...

    • 5
      (pp. 181-194)

      One chilly day, Prince Rizq Bin Nayil was journeying through the desert wastes, alone. He was troubled and the cold pierced his bones. Victories no longer concerned him: vanity of vanities, all is vanity and clutching at the wind. The prince looks back over the past and cannot say what it is he has achieved. He gazes to the future and finds nothing: poverty, a sundering into as many grains as the desert sands, emptiness on emptiness on emptiness. What be the profit from worldly things, the battles, wars, and victories, if all must come to naught? The prince had...

    • 6
      (pp. 195-208)

      Cairo is the capital of Egypt.

      After all the conflicts we’ve witnessed over the preceding decades, after the surging cataracts of gore, after the heroics, betrayals, and feuds, after history new and old has been written, after history new and old has been erased, after all that, Cairo, not Alexandria, remains the capital of Egypt.

      The Alexandrian, my friend, stands in awe of two things: Cairo and the computer. Indeed, the Alexandrian—both before Ali and Inji appeared in his life and afterward—never gave up on his ancient dream: that Alexandria, his beloved city, its arms held wide to...


    • 1
      (pp. 211-225)

      In the late thirties the Shanghai Tunnel was opened, an event that captured the attention of the whole world.

      “Shanghai Tunnel” was the name given to a huge project on which work first began sometime around 2028: a long borehole excavated through the earth, starting from Shanghai and surfacing on the far side of the planet, in the Atlantic Ocean off Argentina’s coast. Obviously, the project aimed to reduce the distance between Asia and Latin America, but its primary goal was to entertain wealthy individuals who wished to view our planet from within. It was overseen by an American travel...

    • 2
      (pp. 226-242)

      There’s this old TV drama series where the husband, Tamer, threatens to throw himself into a volcano. His wife, Shawqiya, continues to eat her food, unmoved, and advises him to wear a parachute. For an instant the husband is silent; then he asks her with a sneer what she thinks she means. Does she want him to roast slowly, for example? A nice slow grilling? Then he interrupts his question with another, more pertinent query about what she thinks a volcano is, anyway. The wife clearly believes a volcano to be some massive pit, some rock-bound ravine with thundering waterfalls,...

    • 3
      (pp. 243-257)

      Over the course of history, in the cause of brevity, Egyptians have worked hard to devise a number of alternative vocal renderings for such unwieldy, yet popular, lines as, “And upon you be peace and the mercy of God and His blessings.” The heroic Egyptian people have set such excessive verbiage at defiance, with innovations like “Ponyoubepeaceamlessins,” or “Ponyaeessings,” or even “Peessings.” Nor is the phrase “Peace be upon you”—to which the line above is the proper response—an exception. “Peace be upon you” is frequently found as “Peassonyou” or “Psonyou,” all the way through to “Pyoo.” Only Amira...

    • 4
      (pp. 258-272)

      War is give and take. A day your way, a day against you. Yehya Volcano had always held this to be true.

      One day, the communist and, more recently, elected government of China—with the agreement of the Argentinian government—decided to nationalize the Shanghai Tunnel. The decision came as a total shock to the U.S.-based Beneath Corporation, which had overseen the digging of the tunnel and the running of the glass vessels back and forth between China and the Atlantic. Making an enemy of Beneath was no laughing matter. The corporation owned a considerable number of shares in the...

    • 5
      (pp. 273-286)

      One night Lara saw herself in a dream, alone. She is alone and comfortless, walking down a shadowy road, and abruptly everything is illuminated. She sees Hamada in the distance, sitting with his friends, Farouq and Sheikh Mohamed. She approaches, and Hamada folds away the Monopoly board on which he’s been playing and strokes her hair. He kisses her forehead and asks her, Why so upset? She is about to speak when he shudders and slaps her face. Farouq tries to calm him, but to no avail. Suddenly, Farouq pulls a switchblade from his pocket and slashes Hamada’s face. There’s...

    • 6
      (pp. 287-298)

      Alone in the darkness at one in the morning, a woman in a niqab walked down the street from Sousou’s Karabantina to Ali and Inji’s Karantina.

      No one could tell what she was thinking, especially given her covered face, nor why she was abroad at this late hour, nor how—more importantly—she managed to cross the checkpoints that divided the two Karantinas with such assurance, untroubled by the search committees installed in no man’s land.

      A munaqqaba in a billowing black robe, striding past the sleepless youth and encountering a checkpoint, proceeding on her way without answering the men...

    (pp. 299-300)
  6. Back Matter
    (pp. 301-302)