Western audiences may not have first-hand experience cramming into Tahrir Square with two million other souls in protest, but we are more than ready to believe in ghosts.
The hauntings in Slipping, Mohamed Kheir’s fourth novel (translated by Robin Moger—the first time Kheir’s work has appeared in English), take place in a post-Arab Spring Egypt, yet we recognize quite enough of ourselves in them. These ghosts advise, interfere, and criticize in such a human manner that it quickly becomes impossible to tell who’s a ghost and who isn’t. To be alive or dead is not binary.
Whatever realm they’re in, we spend much of Slipping traveling around with Seif, a journalist, and Bahr, a former exile making a less than triumphant return to his native land. The men wander Alexandria with what seems to be great purpose, though we don’t always know what that purpose is. Ostensibly following Bahr to report on his expeditions, Seif never really probes him about the point of their travels, and we don’t get the sense that Seif will ever set down to write anything. He seems too busy trying to decide what to believe.
In our first encounter with them, Bahr leads Seif to a precise spot between two tracks where streetcars approach in speed and fury from opposite directions, forcing the men to remain utterly still. “If we’d shifted even a centimeter we would have been run down.” While the cars roar by, Seif sees his dead mother who expresses surprise that he’s grown. As moms do.
The ordinary continues to overlap with the inexplicable throughout the narrative. Bahr recalls visiting a friend’s gravesite as a youth, the most common of rituals, only to find that his tomb has been cleared, the bones “gathered up and interred far away” to make room for the freshest bodies. “Why the tomb, then?” Bahr wonders.
Anyone can identify the everyday noises of a breeze passing through a window or rain pattering against a rooftop, but Seif’s lover Alya can perfectly reproduce these sounds through song. Additionally, she has given each sound its own name—or rather, she has somehow gained the knowledge of these names the same way she’s come by her strange musical gift.
Slipping has been compared to the work of Carmen Maria Machado and Kathryn Davis, writers who also create worlds whose rules are shrouded in mystery. But whereas Davis triggers uncertainty at almost every turn, Kheir lulls us into a false sense of understanding before dropping a sentence that calls into question all our previous assumptions. In the most intriguing example, we’re meant to believe that Seif’s colleague Leila has set up his assignment with Bahr for much of the book, until we hear Leila say, almost in passing, “and who’s this Bahr?” The rules quickly change, and we must reorganize the narrative in our minds to make it all hold together.
Connecting the fragmentary and seemingly contradictory details of the novel’s architecture makes for a thrilling read. It would take many passes to join every last piece of the puzzle, but as any puzzler knows, part of the fun comes from those small epiphanies that get us a tiny step closer to illumination.
If ultimately our quest for the answers proves futile, that may be an answer all its own. Bahr rails constantly against fighting one’s fate. In his view, nothing good comes from resistance: “if you insist on being master of what you call Your Destiny (the insolence!) then life itself might come out and force your mother to her knees.” And: “you live and die without philosophy, as we all should.”
Such futility echoes the greater failure of Egypt’s revolution. Having thrown out an authoritarian regime in 2011, it didn’t take long for Egyptians to find themselves under the thumb of another strongman more than happy to trample over the rights of his citizens. Slipping may not offer solutions, but it at least identifies some darkly hilarious problems with the status quo: “There were unfulfillable orders to cancel certain papers, miles of speed bumps laid down along main roads and highways, the traffic light network was reengineered to fail.”
These issues are no accident of incompetence. The government in Kheir’s novel has created these life obstacles deliberately, lest the populace get too much leisure time to organize and revolt. Everyday drudgeries work, too (“think of all the young people whose otherwise joyful lives are marred by the inescapable monotony of their workdays”), but if there aren’t enough jobs, an oppressive power has to get creative.
One of the few certainties in Slipping is that Seif and Bahr have both suffered traumas in their pasts—traumas brought about directly or indirectly by the state’s relentless brutality. While the pain remains present in their daily lives, Bahr at least has not lost his sense of wonder. After introducing Seif to the “safe point” between the streetcars, Bahr then shows him how to walk across the Nile: “for those few minutes a raised stretch of riverbed was brought right to the surface and, in that brief interval before the floodgates reopened and the raised bed sank back beneath the rising water, they could use it as a shortcut. They’d walk from dry land to dry land seeming, to those not from this place, like prophets or saints: striding splendidly yet humbly over the waves.”
In a country where Bahr has declared change to be impossible, minor victories like standing between moving vehicles or traversing a temporarily shallow river become all the more poignant. A government can no more sap the joy from these endeavors than it can remove “the sound of the high crashing waves in whose clothes-soaking spray we used to delight.” Alya calls this sound lajab, and anyone who’s walked the Alexandria harbor will recognize it instantly.
While the novel’s darkness can’t be denied, black humor cuts through the narrative at every turn. The wind grabs hold of a giant “corpse flower”—taller than an adult human and “looming over them like something out of sci-fi”—and sends it “several streets away through the air, like a warplane.” It eventually kills a small boy.
In a rural, impoverished village, the inhabitants sleep in homes without roofs to remain undisturbed by the frequent earthquakes. “They would wake in the morning to see the rubble in the middle of the room, the cracked stones in the courtyard; would peer out at it all from their corners, then go back to sleep.”
A white, ceramic cow becomes a lowing alarm clock.
A rattling sound caused by nearby construction suddenly emanates from one’s “own middle ear perhaps: a growling hum that came from nowhere.”
Conscripted to help the local bakery pack fino rolls into bags and tie them shut, Bahr sneaks extra rolls into every other bag in an attempt to “spread a little joy” among his fellow citizens. But in the days that follow, he never finds a single extra roll in any bag he purchases. Do not mess with fate, even to score an extra baked good.
Enough bizarre elements have been thrown in to please almost everyone, even if some readers won’t find them all as funny as I did. The absurd touches elevate the novel, forcing us to reconsider the mundane elements of our reality—roofs, flowers, bread—we take for granted.
You don’t need to have been drenched by Alexandria whitewater as its lajab drowns out your thoughts to be mesmerized by Slipping. One of Egypt’s most accomplished novelists operates at the height of his powers, and he’s more than capable of raising the dead. We can only hope other translations of Kheir’s work come our way, preferably arriving on our shelves while we’re still more alive than not.
by Mohamed Kheir
Two Lines Press
Published on June 8, 2021
Matt Matros lives in Brooklyn, NY with his wife and son. His work has previously appeared in Electric Literature, Necessary Fiction, the Washington Post, the Ploughshares blog, and The Westchester Review, among other places.