Beer in the Snooker Club: Egypt Then and Now
Beer in the Snooker Club by Waguih Ghali. 220 pages. Serpent’s Tail, 2010. £7.99
A half-century ago, Egyptians gathered in streets and public squares to protest an illegitimate regime. Thousands were injured in the clashes, and hundreds were killed. But the desire for freedom proved stronger than fear: protests continued, the Brits fled, and a jubilant Egypt cheered new, indigenous leadership. Yet as the years passed and dictatorship took hold, “New” Egypt sank back into old patterns of cronyism and disenfranchisement. The arc of this movement—from revolution to stagnation—forms the backbone of Waguih Ghali’s classic Beer in the Snooker Club, re-released in the U.K. in December 2010.
First published in 1964, the novel follows young Egyptians in their search for dignity and freedoms. It is narrated by Ram, a brilliant, impoverished young man with ultra-wealthy relations. In his early twenties, Ram battles against British forces at Suez, gets into a fistfight with one of his American-allied cousins, and falls deeply in love with a Jewish-Egyptian woman. But, six years later—after time spent both at home and abroad—he is unable to build on his ideals. He can neither join with the elites nor shake the elitist predilections of his British-formed character, and his protests turn from sincere to clownish. Instead of a righteous fistfight with his wealthy cousin, he pushes the cousin into a social-club pool.
Egypt has changed many times since the publication of Ghali’s novel. Yet Beer in the Snooker Club’s critiques remained relevant, and the novel has been a cult phenomenon in Egypt and beyond. At one Cairo bookstore, Beer in the Snooker Club appears on bimonthly best-seller lists, off and on, because of the staff’s passionate recommendations. And the book, written in English, recently received a fresh Arabic translation from celebrated poet Iman Mersal and translator Reem al-Reyes.
In the spring of 2011, the novel grew even more relevant. Egyptians again gathered in streets and public squares. People again demanded the expulsion of illegitimate rulers. Because of striking similarities between 2011 and 1953, it is tempting to lay Ghali's book, like a map, over the current Egyptian landscape. America's support of the Mubarak regime would roughly line up with British rule, the January 25 youth with the younger, idealistic Ram and his friends, and the current higher military council with Gamal Abdel Nasser's “free officers.” Such a reading oversimplifies both the book and the current landscape, but the resemblances are real.
The book’s portrayal of Arab elites, for instance, prefigures Edward Said’s Orientalism and remains a vivid critique of Egypt’s upper classes. Ram and his friends are part of a small, European-educated minority who come to see their nation’s landscape through the French and British literary imagination. As a result, they find it nearly impossible to communicate and connect with the mass of Egyptian people. As Ram observes: “Cairo and Alexandria were cosmopolitan not so much because they contained foreigners, but because the Egyptian born in them was a stranger to his land.”
Those most estranged are the foreign-educated, like Ram. They have become unmoored from their surroundings, no longer able to judge Egypt without reading Flaubert or Time magazine. Many cannot speak naturally in Arabic, and they do not read Arabic books or listen to Arab music. Ram’s aunts are incapable of appreciating the great Egyptian singer Um Kulthoum, who is too “Oriental” for their tastes. Ram and his closest friend Font, despite their ideals, fall into the same trap. They find that, rather than taking part in and changing their society, they are drinking beer in a Cairo snooker club, pale and voiceless imitations of their former colonial rulers.
Waguih Ghali was, like his protagonist, a tragic figure who was never able to effect desired changes in his life or in the world. A few years after the publication of his only novel, he committed suicide by swallowing an overdose of sleeping pills at his friend Diana Athill’s home.
Athill tells the story in her 1984 memoir, After a Funeral, and an excerpt from this work makes up the preface to Beer in the Snooker Club’s 2010 edition. It highlights Ghali’s many contradictions: He was “a modest, tender, and gazelle-like being” who was a compulsive gambler, a member of the Communist party, and worked as a manual laborer in Europe. He, like his protagonist, came of age in a colonized world that manifested deep social, cultural, and class divisions. He spoke English and French at home far more than Arabic. Ghali belonged neither to Egypt nor Britain, neither to Christianity nor Islam, neither among the world’s wealthy nor its poor. This in-between-ness allowed him to move between different universes, but also left him unable to claim any place as his own.
Ram is similarly enlightened and paralyzed by his alienations. He grows ever more eloquent and charming as the book progresses, yet he cannot put his tongue to any use, either in Britain or in Egypt. In Britain, he is marginalized. In Egypt, he is unable to speak to the audience that needs him most. If Ram had written a novel, we can assume that he, like Ghali, would have been unable to write it in his mother tongue. Others in Ram’s circle are similarly stuck in a no-man’s land. Font is highly educated but lacks connections. Here, Ram ruminates drunkenly as Font rails against Hugh Gaitskill’s betrayal of the anti-nuclear movement:
Admittedly he began by being furious about Egyptian internal politics as well, but that too was ludicrous, like a Lucky Jim would have been in England during Dickens’s time. It was like trying to ice a cake while it was still in the oven. Font knows how to trim a cake, and frost it, and garnish it with the latest decorations, but he doesn’t know how to bake the cake. So he has to wait for Nasser to bake it for him before he can add his own refinements—and he’s not too sure that he will be allowed to do that, even later on.
Indeed, young men like Ram and Font are not allowed to add their own refinements. Font tends bar at a friend’s snooker club. And the only job Ram holds throughout the novel is secretly gathering photographs of those tortured in Egypt’s political prisons. But nothing ever comes of it: newspapers refuse to publish the photographs, and his employer, fearing jail and torture, tells him to burn the rest.
By the late 1950s, Egypt was a fully “independent” nation. Despite this, much of the nation’s post-colonial machinery was designed by Britons and Americans who were in turn influenced by Egypt’s Westernized elite. An American character named Jack is on a fact-finding mission in Cairo, and is accompanied throughout by Ram’s wealthy cousin Mounir. Upon Ram’s request, Jack enumerates a few of his “facts”:
“Back in L.A. where we live,” he continued, “we have one maid and one cook and no more. My wife Caroline has to do a lot of housework her own self. Well, here the housewife does not do any housework, she has a gardener, a chauffeur, two cooks . . . I believe,” he looked at Mounir for verification, and Mounir nodded wisely, “and a servant for the housework.”
Jack gathers the material for his book solely from Egypt’s tiny English-speaking, club-dwelling class. Although Ram has a chance to confront Jack, he is either unable or unwilling to communicate what lies beyond the end of the American’s nose.
In a sense, Beer in the Snooker Club is a “never-coming-of-age” novel. Ram cannot hold a real job or marry the woman he loves. He cannot use his great and entertaining eloquence, and he finds it impossible to become part of the machinery grinding out his country’s future. The nation’s stagnation becomes Ram’s own, and leaves him stuck between past and possible Egypts. At the end of the book, Ram is unable to engage with anyone’s future, even his own.
Nearly a half-century after Beer in the Snooker Club’s original publication, its characters continue to resonate. The gap between Egypt’s rich and poor remains as wide or wider. Elites still send their children to private, European-language schools. Tools of political torture, censorship, and repression were calcified under presidents Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, and corruption grew like weeds. Although the recent uprising has increased young Egyptians’ confidence, voices like Ram’s still find it difficult to speak and be heard.
In Beer in the Snooker Club’s closing pages, Ram announces his engagement to a woman he neither loves nor respects. He seems to give up on everything, asking only for his fiancée’s money so that he can drink and amuse himself. The final scene falls off abruptly, closing off all hope for the future. And yet the end is so abrupt that the reader is left almost mystified, wondering how we could have fallen so far so quickly, and how the future might yet be different.
M. Lynx Qualey moved to Cairo, Egypt, in the summer of 2001, and the city has since become home. She writes about Arab and Arabic literature for various publications and blogs daily at arablit.wordpress.com. (6/2011)