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Private Pleasures

Private Pleasures: A Modern Egyptian Novel

Hamdy el-Gazzar
Translated by Humphrey Davies
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 224
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt15m7mrt
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  • Book Info
    Private Pleasures
    Book Description:

    Private Pleasures describes the three-day sex, drink, and drug binge of a thirty-something newsreader in the back streets and crumbling apartments of his native Giza, that pullulating mass of humanity that, like an ugly sister, sits opposite Cairo on the Nile’s west bank. Pursued by an unshakable sense of impending doom that is only partly attributable to fear of retribution at the hands of a sadistic police officer with whose wife he is conducting a frenzied affair, the narrator observes, with fascinated horror, his own stumbling progress through a world of menace and wonder inhabited by philosophical prostitutes, nightmarish butchers, serene Quran-readers, pious family members, religious con-men, autistic tissue-sellers, and others. Milleresque in its treatment of sex, the novel captures the essence of the phantasmagoric world of the Egyptian mega-city, disintegrating under the pressures of its home-grown horrors while pining for the sublime.

    eISBN: 978-1-61797-364-2
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. A DAY AND A NIGHT

    • 1 UNDERPASS
      (pp. 3-11)

      Behind us, Giza Square is a raucous, pullulating, raging inferno, filled to its farthest limits with lights, sounds, and shapes and crowded to over-flowing with bodies, objects, and goods of every conceivable kind. The square is a giant, twisted oblong bathed in the evening lights shining from the buildings and tall towers scattered about the corners of its celebrated streets: Murad, University, el-Sanadeeli, Saad Zaghloul, Salah Salim.

      Salah Salim was originally el-Rabeea el-Gizi. Its buildings are old and low-rise, some unsound to the point of collapse, their ground-floor premises occupied by the Bank of Egypt, Ghalyun’s, Cinema Fantasio, the Samar...

    • 2 HARIS
      (pp. 12-20)

      With his long, hurried strides, he was always ahead of me, hands swinging right and left, long legs moving forward as though wading through mud.

      I’d be behind him, moving like an aged elephant, my steps slow and heavy.

      From the back, Haris looked tall, with a large oval head stuck directly onto narrow shoulders, and a thin body. His black hair was short and kinky and sprouted from his huge head like esparto grass. His neck wasn’t simply very short, he seemed to have been born without one. As a specimen of the human race, Haris deserved the heartfelt...

    • 3 COPULATION
      (pp. 21-28)

      Haris’s room on Saad Zaghoul is ideal for lying low on one’s own, just as it is for the clandestine introduction of a woman, suspect or honest, since the permanent crowd standing in front of the stores, large and small, and surrounding the peddlers provides cover. Men and women jostle one another the length and breadth of the street in front of and around the sellers of underwear, women’s accessories, fruit, cheese, mish, and bread, children’s toys, and anything else you can think of. Some salesmen spread their wares on the ground; others set them out on palm-frond chicken crates...

    • 4 EVENING PRAYER
      (pp. 29-31)

      The evening prayer is an “audible” prayer. The imam speaks in an audible voice while reciting the opening chapter of the Qur’an and the two chapters that follow during the first and the second prostrations.

      The opening chapter is being recited by the most beautiful of the voices of my childhood, that of my boyhood idol, Sheikh Hubb el-Deen.

      The sheikh’s delicate voice is as sweet as honeycomb. It casts a protective shade over the house and emanates from it, because the zawya’s loudspeaker hangs above us, at the top of a tall pole stuck into the roof of Haris’s...

    • 5 NASHWA
      (pp. 32-34)

      I could feel that Haris had fixed his gaze on my face in amazement, was staring at me in astonishment. I could see his phantom standing there unmoving, like a tall black reed.

      I’m behind her, my eyes half closed. I gather all the powers of my body. I quiver and shudder like a wild stallion. I whinny from the depths of my being and all that is inside of me and outside of me shudders as one, shaking and roaring.

      I hone every one of my senses. I polish them and smooth them and sharpen them like a razor...

    • 6 SIMONE
      (pp. 35-38)

      I finished and slumped off, hiding my privates with my pants.

      After a silence as long as death’s, she laughed. Her voice rang out in plentiful, false merriment, the roof of her mouth vibrating with a resounding horselaugh. Her body shook long and hard with the force of her meaningless mirth as she picked up her brassiere and put it into her small silver bag.

      She slapped palm against palm in a mime of helpless mirth, now gesturing toward the door through which Haris had exited, now toward my naked chest and the pants on my lap.

      As I stretched...

    • 7 KAGHA’S UNCONTROLLABLE TEARS
      (pp. 39-51)

      When I entered the room, Haris gave me a strangely suspicious look. Unlike Shawqi, he didn’t get up, didn’t put out his hand to shake mine, and stared unwaveringly at my face with veiled anger. So I behaved as though he wasn’t there.

      After Shawqi’s greetings and Kagha’s hugs, I sat down in my place; in my usual corner on the colored plastic mat and on top of the black leather pillow, I sat myself down. I stretched my legs and bare feet out in front of me as far as they would go, deliberately directing them toward the face...

    • 8 ANWAR GABR
      (pp. 52-57)

      In my mind’s eye, I see Anwar Gabr, face to face.

      I summon my willpower and call him up before me so as to know him. I gaze on him and strip him of his uniform. I make him walk the way we do, a cipher on the street, like any other human being.

      He comes to me wearing a shirt and pants. There’s nothing to distinguish him from the rest of the passersby. He walks with the stride of the native son, confident of his ground. He approaches with disdain from the direction of Greater Ocean, makes his way...

    • 9 A SLAP
      (pp. 58-66)

      Nashwa’s insouciant, Laughing face will be with me forever. It falls into the chaos of my mind to cover Anwar’s, concealing it and pushing it from my sight, from the darkness of my thoughts, from the ceaseless churning of my mind inside my black brain.

      Yesterday’s events still grind me under their weight, bend my body to snapping point, torture my soul, and there is no way to escape from their feverish domination of my very cells, my sight and hearing, my evil, stupid heart.

      The self-annihilation microbe is normally associated with what is called (since no other word can...

    • 10 A KILLER
      (pp. 67-69)

      How was I to get down from Shawqi’s room on my own?

      I woke alone, after each of them had gradually fallen asleep, with Shawqi stretched out on his wooden settle with its hard mattress, Haris on the plastic mat, and, on the other side of the mat, Kagha, his suit in a mess, his red bowtie still in place. He had been the last to fall into the bottomless well, after some staccato sobbing. He had fallen asleep fearful of impotence and sterility, without confiding to me, as he usually did, any new personal secrets selected from his endlessly...

    • 11 A MOTHER
      (pp. 70-74)

      As soon as day breaks on the roof and the sun’s rays enter Shawqi’s room, falling on the bodies of the three sleepers, I put on my shoes and go down, leaving behind me the ceaseless symphony of their snores. I walk the short distance from the lane to our house in Bank of Athens Street like a sleepwalker. I struggle to open my eyes, and the bright sunlight hurts them. I put my hand to my forehead to ward it off. Yielding to force of habit and familiarity, I make my way over the dirt, asphalt, potholes, and bumps...

    • 12 A CHAIN
      (pp. 75-78)

      I lie on my stomach, my arms open as far as they will go, forming a pitiful cross on the white bed sheet, the back of the cross to the ceiling, its front buried in the softness of the cotton mattress—but still my body finds no rest. I turn onto my right side for two minutes and feel small insects invading via my pajama legs, climbing from my feet to the tops of my thighs, biting and sucking. I don’t feel annoyance or pain but they bother me. I change position, ignoring the things crawling over my body, and,...

  4. YESTERDAY

    • 13 TWO KILLINGS
      (pp. 81-92)

      Twice the pistol’s muzzle was held hard against my forehead. Four hands held my fate in their grasp—hands capable of killing me easily and without emotion. In the viselike grip of four hands, the pistol pressed so hard against my forehead that the tip of the barrel dug into the skin, making the place between my eyebrows bleed.

      Both times the distance in time between my brain and its disintegration—its detonation, its vaporization, its pulverization—was only a few fractions of a second, an instant, that of a single, easy pressing of an index finger on a trigger...

    • 14 A PROGENITOR
      (pp. 93-110)

      My father.

      A thick black beard, trimmed with exquisite care, the few white strands scattered here and there among the long hairs giving his round white face a special benevolence and kindliness that are confirmed by its lack of any mustache other than a thin clipped line above thin lips.

      A man in his mid-fifties with a cheerful face, of medium height, stout, always elegant in his office clothes—three-piece suit, black or navy, no third color summer or winter, and tightly knotted tie, usually plain.

      In the pocket of his shirt is a small tooth-cleaning stick that he takes...

    • 15 A WOMAN
      (pp. 111-118)

      When, after meals, you no longer remove the empty plates, pots, and pans from the dinner table with Afaf, carry them into the kitchen smiling at her, wash the glasses and the forks and knives and polish the sink with her, your hand holding hers; when you no longer pick your teeth clean, in preparation, with a wooden toothpick, wash your hands but don’t wash your mouth, place your palms on the two pomegranates of her shoulders and seek to encompass her whole body inside your embrace, playing with her long tresses, licking her neck, and kissing her tenderly, whispering...

    • 16 A GRANDFATHER
      (pp. 119-125)

      On rare occasions I think of my grandfather. He is resurrected from his darkness and nothingness and leaps into my head as I lie stretched out on my bed of loneliness, gazing at the ceiling, in my room on the ground floor. He’s in his antique bed on the third and topmost story, so I’m separated from him by two high ceilings and there are approximately ten meters of high walls between us. Nevertheless, he is lying directly above me, his bed being in the same place in the room, in the corner next to the wall, right over mine....

    • 17 AN ASCETIC
      (pp. 126-132)

      I can see him still, in his jubbah, caftan, and turban, tall as a wooden electricity pole of the kind that’s now disappeared, his chest and shoulders broad, his body firm, his face dark brown and pockmarked, the eyes unseeing, his moustache as luxuriant as an Upper Egyptian’s, his long beard still black despite his fifty years. His walking stick of yellow cane, with its downward-curving crook, rises in the powerful grasp of his right hand, cleaving the air before him and descending to strike the ground in advance of his steps.

      He walks in utter darkness, his heart full...

    • 18 SAMIRA
      (pp. 133-137)

      I didn’t weep over her departure long enough to go blind, but I did come close to killing myself.

      Perhaps if I’d been able to put an end to my life so innocently, if I’d possessed the strength to do that, I would never have reached the point I’m at now. My life would have been steadier, less punishing, more refined . . . a lot nicer.

      I recall her, a grateful smile on my face, my eyes flashing and shining as they watch her phantom, my heart leaping in my chest like an innocent boy’s.

      Samira was the icon...

    • 19 A LOVER SURPRISED
      (pp. 138-144)

      The scandal was waiting to happen, foretold by the events of that day not too long ago. (Three months ago? Two? A month? Have you forgotten?)

      Remember, ladies’ man! Recall, my dear sir!

      I went to her despite the peeling, despite the little bumps on my member from our last ravenous lovemaking, which hadn’t yet healed and still hurt every time I moved or stood or sat, and even though I’d told her I was tired and afraid. I’d told her I couldn’t take her any more and couldn’t take myself any more and “I don’t want you!” and “You’ll...

    • 20 FLIGHT
      (pp. 145-146)

      You know. . .

      that the best way to flee what you fear is to not flee at all, but to stand up straight where you are, like a man, breathe calmly, open your eyes wide, monitor your surroundings, be alert, and wait, steadfast and patient.

      You wait for the switchblade to bury itself in your breast, for the length of its whetted blade to disappear into your heart, for the blood to spurt, to fall prostrate on the ground, your eyes wide open; or for a bullet to strike you on the forehead, between your eyes, so that...

  5. EXIT

    • 21 BLAST
      (pp. 149-157)

      How did I go to sleep, and when? At what time did I lie down on my bed and sink into sleep, or death? How many hours did I sleep? What day is it? What happened after I entered the house just before the Friday prayer? What came over me after that long rant, that crazy debauch that went from sunset on Thursday till mid-morning on Friday? What happened after I swallowed that enormous dose of hashish and alcohol, after the copulation and the laughter, the eating and drinking, the chatter and the fear? How did I get back to...

    • 22 AN OLDER MAN
      (pp. 158-166)

      I want to walk through the streets. I have to get out of here, and damn the consequences. Three days and two nights I’ve been stuck here in the house like an old man too sick to move, like “bones in a basket,” as the saying goes.

      The house is stifling me. Even the air I’m breathing chokes me.

      Full of forebodings and lassitude, like a rat coming out of its hole, I quietly open one half of the building’s sliding gate. The gate has two leaves of wrought iron painted with black shellac. It still looks nice, with all...

    • 23 BUTCHERS
      (pp. 167-174)

      I traverse the heart of Giza unconscious of my surroundings. I walk through the crowds like one wading through a wilderness of reeds, scrub, weeds, and thorns. My feet mechanically traverse the alleys, lanes, and streets. My legs know the way on their own by virtue of familiarity and the habit of long years.

      I reach the market. Battles and fights here are daily, have no end, and are never settled. As soon as one is broken up, another erupts, usually only a short time after the first has been set to rest and in more or less the same...

    • 24 FANTASIO
      (pp. 175-180)

      Mahmud Himeida and Layla Elwi are two huge, panic-stricken, horrified faces covered with dust and dirt looming above Cinema Fantasio. The main billboard is mangy, large, and square, its chalky colors dominating the upper façade of the entrance to the cinema on Sanadeeli Street. The upper parts of the yellowing walls are covered with more advertisements forI Love the Movies, the same panicked faces repeating themselves in an infinite number of smaller posters, some pasted on top of each other, that are distributed all over the walls of the featureless ancient building. The walls are dirt, damp, and ooze...

    • 25 CD
      (pp. 181-189)

      Walking on Saad Zaghloul, I called Simone’s cell phone. I told her I needed her and wanted to see her. She sounded pleased to hear from me and cheerful. She told me it was only three days since we’d been together and asked if I’d missed her so soon, saying with laughing coyness, “Have you fallen for me, baby?” “You can think whatever you want,” I told her, but said that I truly needed to see her, within half an hour if possible, and asked her to come to Haris’s room. She said she was at home in Maadi lying...

    • 26 UMM EL-MASRIYEEN
      (pp. 190-193)

      I bound down the stairs, almost fall as I stumble on impact with the edge of the last step, and exit, rushing from the darkness of the entrance to the Gabr family’s ancient house into the lights of Saad Zaghloul. I run toward the square, slowing down a little when I get to the corner with the La Manche restaurant. I turn left on the crowded sidewalk and follow its many twists and turns, pushing my way through the throngs of passersby and the vendors’ stalls by keeping my right hand extended in front of me to move the people...

    • 27 TRAVEL
      (pp. 194-197)

      Haris arrived before I’d finished my tea. He sat in the empty chair on the other side of the table and looked at me with his sad face, biting his nails as he talked.

      He said I’d done well to leave and that Boss Farag had kept up his curses and insults and humiliated him before the whole hospital. He’d come close to rising from his seat, taking him by the throat, and breaking his head open with his stick. He also said that it would be two hours before Shawqi left the operating room.

      “Our Lord be with him!”...

    • 28 DROWNING
      (pp. 198-200)

      It’s much better if a person ends up alone. I want to be totally alone. Sit on my own and smoke and think calmly and without pressure. But where?

      About two in the morning I found myself on the Abbas Bridge. It was still bustling. The weather was pleasant and refreshing and there were lots of people: singles, couples, families, sitting on the low plastic chairs drinking tea and hot chickpea broth from small carts parked the length of the bridge. Amateur fishermen were casting their hooks with their long lines into the water and the lights were low and...

  6. TOMORROW

    • 29 WASHING THE BODY
      (pp. 203-205)

      Tirrrrrrrrrrrr!

      The old black alarm clock on my bedside table rang. The sound was loud, long, and continuous, and filled the entire room.

      Five a.m. Monday, the day of my return to work after the short vacation I’d taken to be free for love, for Nashwa, for . . . .

      The six days, with their seven nights, were over—the worst and blackest days and nights of my life, though blacker and darker lay ahead. I would continue to flee so long as I breathed.

      I was no longer alive.

      Looking at my face in the oval mirror over...

    • 30 CROSSING
      (pp. 206-209)

      I put on my best black suit and sprinkled it, and my cheeks and neck, with drops of Gucci perfume. Happy with life and the morning, I left for work.

      At a quarter to six in the morning the square is virtually empty and relatively quiet, the sounds few and far between. The normal noise and clamor of the day have yet to begin. The streetlamps on the flyover and the illuminated signs on the façades of the buildings still provide the square with pale yellow light and the sky is still gathering up the threads of darkness. The sun...

    • 31 HIGHLY CONFIDENTIAL
      (pp. 210-210)

      When the university clock rang the strokes of seven a.m., I was in Studio 12, the live-broadcast studio. I was sitting on my seat behind the microphone, the pages of the news broadcast in my hands, complete, after I’d checked them once, twice, three times.

      I was poised to begin the newscast with the first item of the summary when Mahdi, the director, behind the glass wall of the control room, suddenly stopped. He stood up straight in a panic and waved both his shaking hands to tell me not to say anything or start reading the newscast.

      As the...

  7. GLOSSARY
    (pp. 211-217)