Out of the gutter | ELTOUKHY Nael


Al khourouj min al bala’a
Dar al karma, Cairo, Egypt, 2018, 454 pages



Out of the gutter is a most unusual read: A saga that mixes tragedy, and a dark, off the wall humor.

Houriya, or Harankash, as her father used to call her, is a conventional, candid, middle-class bigot, who, when the novel opens, is recovering from her husband’s suicide and her father’s recent passing. Raising her mentally challenged son Mahmoud on her own, Houriya, a math school teacher, seeks happiness.

This is when Kamal irrupts in her life. A widower himself, Kamal is the father of Houriya’s pupil, Haitham. They start an affair, days of bliss that are only darkened by the children’s, Haitham and Mahmoud, difficult relationship. Finally, a few months into the love affair, Houriya and Kamal decide to marry, and Houriya ecstatically gives into her impression of having made it out of the gutter.

Yet, on the third night of their marriage, after a violent confrontation between Mahmoud and Kamal at the dinner table, the man wakes up in the middle of the night, beats Mahmoud to death, and commits suicide by throwing himself out of the balcony.

The novel’s first book ends with Mahmoud’s death and Kamal’s suicide. This is where Houriya’s real story begins, she says. At that point of the novel, the reader understands that Houriya is telling her tale, the story of her life, to women inmates in a prison’s cell. The remaining five books of the novel build the path to prison.

After losing her son Mahmoud, and her husband Kamal, Houriya falls into depression. Kamal’s  older brother Atef, convinces her to visit his mother, Adala. The old woman never liked Houriya and was against Kamal marrying her. Adala was convinced that Houriya, already the widow of a man who killed himself and mother of a mentally challenged son, was a bad omen. After a violent verbal confrontation, Houriya leaves the house, only to learn the next morning, that Adala died of a heart attack.

With tragedy continuing to irrupt in her life (her girlfriend Hind is shot in a protest; Haitham whom she wishes dead is also shot; her elderly neighbor is killed by a teargas canister in her presence; and more), Harankash is convinced that she brings death to those she loves or to those she hates. Consequently, Harankash thinks she has an unusual destiny and a godly mission: Getting rid of evil.

As the narrative unfolds, growing increasingly strange, Harankash transforms on the background of a transforming revolution. Her madness becomes more apparent to the reader, as her dead son makes increasingly frequent appearances, keeping her company, smoking joints with her, and drinking whisky. Until she ultimately commits murder, killing her married lover, who is no other than Atef, Kamal’s older brother.

While Houriya’s life is tragic, the account of her misfortunes is completely offbeat, and makes of Out of the gutter an unusual and captivating saga. This post-modern tale that borrows its form from traditional story-telling, weaves together first-person and third-person narratives, creating layers of reality.

[More details available upon request]

Translation sample

Translation sample

Translated by Robin Moger 

Harankash had never lost faith in her marksmanship. Everywhere and anywhere she went she would pick out a distant target, extend her forefinger, and fire. It was just eye and finger, hardly what you’d call training, but she never, ever lost faith in herself.

Harankash was quite sure who her enemy was (it was Haytham), and she knew the means of her vengeance (the pistol), but what she did not know was the time and the place: where and how she could get a shot at Haytham and put paid to him. Her enemy gone for good. She looked carefully into all the possibilities. Obsessively stalked the child’s Facebook page. She was keeping an eye out for anywhere he went alone, far from the gaze of other people, somewhere she could finish him and bring this chapter of her life to a close.

And start a new chapter in prison.

And it was right in the midst of her fevered search for the places where Haytham went that the world, once more, stopped turning. War got into people’s heads and onto their social media pages and battles in and around Tahrir Square broke out afresh. From her window, Harankash looked down and saw the plates and tea glasses flying back and forth over the heads of the demonstrators, wounding wherever they fell. She saw people dropping from the impact of the glass, the fragmenting china, from the tear-gas, and amidst the flurry of defiant, bellicose posts, Haytham wrote: I’m going to Tahrir, who’s with me? In her heart she smiled and murmured, I’m with you, sweetheart.

Harankash went out. She took up her gun, wrapped in its reams of plastic, splashed her face with Pepsi the way the demonstrators did to protect themselves from the gas, and she ran and tripped and fell and stood and ran again, and fell again, and a demonstrator trampled her arm and gave her a graze that she would live with for weeks afterwards, and this time no one told her, No chicks allowed into the square. This time no one dared call her ‘chick’. But she didn’t see Haytham. For three days she demonstrated, did her duty as a revolutionary and combed the square for Haytham. And couldn’t find him. Her heart thumped violently all the while, but it didn’t put her off her plan.

By day four Harankash was approaching the outer limits of despair. She left the gun at home and sat, face buried in her hands, on the kerb in El Qasr El Ainy, two streets away from her own front door, looking across at what had once been a petrol station and was now an empty, tarmacked lot where demonstrators gathered.

It was raining: a light rain, a sign of good things, an omen that the world would get better. And there, on the tarmacked surface of the petrol station that was a petrol station no more, she spied Haytham. When she saw him she started to shake and she ran down a side street so he wouldn’t see her.

Get home, Harankash! Get the gun!

Okay! Okay! she muttered and didn’t move. She was scared. Even Harankash got scared at times. Haytham was sitting in the lot smoking a cigarette with a couple of friends. You’re smoking, Haytham? Little faggot. How old are you that you’re smoking? She was watching him from behind a cart selling hot chickpea and tomato broth and a man hawking candy floss. She could make out bits of him, jumbled and blurred through the gaps between the customers and the bags of floss and the steam rising off the hot broth, and she was filled with hatred towards him. The hatred, rising off her heart like steam and the sound of his voice echoing in her mind: Is your son retarded? She gave a great shudder, she scraped her feet hard against the ground, and she felt a nausea, as though the hatred was climbing up from the boiling centre of her stomach’s juices and she was going to flood the street and the bystanders and the cars and the demonstrators with puke, that the puke would spill over the walls and buildings of El Qasr El Ainy. During it all she never dropped her gaze from Haytham, from the broken, ghostly bits of him. And inside her was this buzzing hum, which, once a few seconds had passed, she would hear as the voice of her father, whispering to her, stubborn and insistent: Focus, Harankash.

Haytham was lighting a fresh cigarette from his previous cigarette and suddenly she saw him slump, and the tarmac was all blood and screams and chaos.

[Longer translation excerpt available upon request]




RAYA represents the author for the world rights of this title.
World rights available.

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