Private Pleasures – Hamdy el-Gazzar

“All I know is that when I whisper to dirt, my conversations are less than meaningful.” ― Maggie Stiefvater

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I was drawn to Middle Eastern literature after reviewing A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. I enjoyed the book so much that I had to see what else there was on offer. Also, and this may seem a bit naïve on my part, I have really enjoyed other translated texts I have read, in particular French translations, and the work of Haruki Murakami – so I was interested to see how an Arabic translation would read.

I chose this book in particular because I was intrigued by the synopsis in the publisher’s catalogue:

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.

Sex, drink and drugs – it seemed like it could be interesting, so I requested a copy.

For me the book got off to a good start, you know I am a sucker for a rich description, and I was drawn into el-Gazzar’s initial portrayal of Giza square:

Behind us, Giza square is a raucous pullulating, raging inferno, filled to its farthest limits with lights, sounds, and shapes and crowded to overflowing 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.

This wasn’t the most beautiful description I’ve ever read, but it really appealed to me. This scene does not paint Giza Square in a particularly romantic of light, or spread the square out in front of the eyes of the reader to scrutinise in the smallest details, there is no description of the buildings themselves, or the eyes of the people encased within the square. Instead it is described in its entirety as a teeming cess pool of activity filled with bodies crawling over one another, likes rats in a ship’s hold.

Unfortunately, after my initial delight at the author’s descriptions, it all went downhill.

I first got the inclination I wasn’t going to like the book when al-Gazzar introduced Simone, the beautiful, fair-skinned street walker. Any liking I had had for the author’s description of Giza went out of the window with his crude analysis of Simone. Her breasts are, ‘round and large as pomegranates’, she is chewing a ‘large piece of bubble gum in her small mouth’ which she rolls around with her ‘red tongue, popping it like a child.’ – These description are nothing like as evoking as those previously used. They are almost childlike, and then, as if to prove my point, he rounds off his description by summing up her face as ‘innocent and attractive’ – one of the vaguest statements I have ever read.

The introduction of Simone seems like a good time to bring in the sexual aspect of the book, I say ‘aspect’ but really there is little in the book which is not sexualised to the highest degree possible. I don’t mind overly sexual books, but this one is nothing short of obscene and downright ludicrous. I was most perturbed by the protagonist’s sudden interruption of his friend in the midst of doing the dirty with the fair Simone:

Impetuous and crafty, I galloped towards them like a donkey in heat, grabbed her breasts hard with both hands, plastered myself against her from behind, and plunged it between her white buttocks.
I lifted her thighs from the floor and put her into a kneeling position so that she looked like a coddled white bitch quietly standing there, and then I spread her legs apart till her buttocks clenched and quivered.
With schooled professionalism, she raised her backside into the air and displayed her two red passages.’

I didn’t just dislike this description; it made me cringe to think that anyone would ever describe sex, however primitive, in this way.  The idea of someone raising their backside up with ‘schooled professionalism’ is completely perplexing, even more so is the fact that she displayed her ‘two red passages’ – I’ve never heard the female anatomy described in this way before, and I don’t think anyone should ever use it again.

Unfortunately, this was only the beginning of a too-long succession of sex scenes, perverted streams of consciousness, and other randomly sexualised scenarios. The most ridiculous of which is a lengthy tale about a young girl possessed by a demon who made her overly sexual in every way shape and form:

Her family lived in constant fear that her breasts would burst forth in the faces of the passersby, that she might on some occasion reach down to her drawers, rip them to pieces, and throw them in people’s faces.

Yes, her family lived in fear that ‘her breasts would burst forth in the faces of passersby’. I’ll leave that at that, I don’t feel as though I need to explain why I found this ridiculous and unnecessarily perverse. By all means be in fear of the fact that she may disgrace the family, but not that her breasts will ‘burst forth’, no one lives in fear of that.

I felt at one point close to the end, when the three day-drink and drug binge which gave birth to two hundred pages of perverted stream of consciousness and overly self-pitying reflection was over, that the protagonist may have been about to redeem himself. After his wife had spent three nights devotedly feeding him warm milk while he recovered from his self-inflicted wounds, I thought that perhaps he would see this as an opportunity to make things right with her, to start again, from fresh, but I was to be disappointed.  Instead, after eating the food his wife prepared for him he went out again to smoke and feel sorry for himself some more.

One the whole, I found the book to be, not only perverted and grotesque, but completely self-obsessed and self-pitying. The protagonist was one of the most unlikeable characters I have ever come across. I was so relieved to have finished the book, after committing far too much of my time to struggling through each and every page.

With this as my first experience of an Arabic translation I have to say that I do not think it works well in English at all. Perhaps it reads much better in its native language, but I found it to be difficult and ugly to read. There was no beauty used to the language; it was harsh, and awkward. The whole experience has put me off of the idea of reading Arabic literature, if not for good, then for a while at least. Perhaps I will try again with something a little less controversial, but for now I feel happy to be ending this chapter of my reading life.

I was sent a copy of Private Pleasures by the publisher in exchange for a review.

2 thoughts on “Private Pleasures – Hamdy el-Gazzar

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