Slipping drops you right into the middle of things. A man named Ahmed has realized that his dead father is speaking through his mother and issuing orders for the running of the household, as though death is no obstacle. Just as you settle in to learn more about Ahmed and his extraordinary circumstances, chapter two switches gears, and suddenly the narrator is speaking in the first person about a man named Bahr who has found a way to stand between passing streetcars at the exact spot where one won’t get run over. Just as the streetcars pass one another, the narrator sees his dead mother, who remarks, “You’ve grown, Seif.”
Vignettes like these, set in Egypt, post-Arab Spring, make up the lovely, haunting story that is Slipping. The line between life and death is almost nonexistent, people wake up without knowing where they are, lives are changed by mass protests, and through it all, Bahr (a former exile) leads Seif (a journalist) through the magical and mysterious corners that most Egyptians don’t know exist. Bahr, then, is the Virgil to Seif’s Dante. During their tour, Bahr tells Seif about the terror he experienced after being arrested years before, his flight from Egypt and wanderings around Europe, the woman he settled down with, and his hasty journey back to Egypt to avoid another arrest.
For the first half of the book, characters like Ahmed, Ashraf the doctor, and Salaam the stutterer-turned-singer seem to exist apart from one another, offering us interesting perspectives on Egyptian customs, occupations, and social mores. By the second half, however, all of these characters settle into a kind of orbit around Seif and Bahr, who talk about their lives and the women who have shaped them: Leila, Seif’s love interest and colleague at the magazine; Alya, a prophetic woman he had lost during the Arab Spring protests; and Irene, Bahr’s wife in Europe whom he never saw again.
Occupying the space between “novel” and “collection,” Slipping follows the logic of dreams. Characters surface at unexpected times, their experiences described from multiple perspectives in noncontiguous chapters, resulting in a fractured effect. Seif’s increasing confusion about who his guide really is leads us to wonder who exactly Seif is. He speaks in the first person but might just be one of the most detached first-person narrators this reader has ever encountered. This aloofness, we realize, is actually an effort to distract us from focusing on the lonely, troubled, and haunted Seif.
With so many intersecting stories told from different perspectives, it’s as though Kheir has created not a book but a four-dimensional structure: we are offered different sides of the same scene or experience, but it takes time to unfold as we read. Ahmed, whom we meet in the first chapter of part one appears in the first chapter of part two, only this time, his father appears to him to warn him that his mother is dying. What does Ahmed have to do with Ali the bridegroom who, back in part one, chapter three, wakes up in a strange place without knowing how he got there and then stumbles upon a mysteriously empty village? It turns out that this village is Wahda, Ahmed’s hometown. The village is empty because, as we later learn, the entire town but Ahmed was lured away to foreign lands by someone who had been to Europe and spoke of its freedom and beauty.
We learn about Ashraf, the doctor, who is recruited to work with a team of specialists to maintain the health of a single wealthy man. The oblique reference at the end of that chapter to the wealthy man’s daughter and a young man who follows her around becomes the basis for a later chapter on how Salaam (the young man) can barely speak because of a bad stutter but can sing beautifully only in the company of the wealthy man’s daughter, Sherine. And then there’s the story of the shaking building and its rattled residents as a hotel is being built right next door. A single young man lives in the building by the time Bahr and Seif visit, and it’s that man who, a few chapters later, we learn works in the Egyptian bureaucracy. Realizing that his section has been created for the express purpose of stealing back the free time of Egyptian citizens, Yehyia develops insomnia, which only the shaking building can alleviate. It’s also Yehyia who comes across the file of a talented violinist named Hossam Yousry, whose problems with police in part one, chapter twelve, because he looks different than his ID, are solved in part two, chapter five, when Yousry, rather than change his photo, simply changes his own appearance.
Through it all, we see more connections between Bahr and Seif—both are on the run, though Seif has never left Egypt; both lost women they loved; both have been caught up in civil unrest. By the end of the book, Leila starts asking Seif questions about Bahr that throw into question everything Seif has told us about his tour of Egypt’s mysterious places.
Thanks to skilled and prolific translator Robin Moger, we have the opportunity to read this unique and intense story about Egypt and Egyptians after the Arab Spring. The living and the dead mix together, dreams and memories swirl around events, and unexpected connections among people and places abound. Highly recommended.