Once a respected landowner, Abd el-Aziz Gaafar fell into penury and moved his family to Cairo, where he was forced into menial work at the Automobile Club—a refuge of colonial luxury for its European members. There, Alku, the lifelong Nubian retainer of Egypt’s corrupt and dissolute king, lords it over the staff, a squabbling but tight-knit group, who live in perpetual fear, as they are thrashed for their mistakes, their wages dependent on Alku’s whims. When, one day, Abd el-Aziz stands up for himself, he is beaten. Soon afterward, he dies, as much from shame as from his injuries, leaving his widow and four children further impoverished. The family’s loss propels them down different paths: the responsible son, Kamel, takes over his late father’s post in the Club’s storeroom, even as his law school friends seduce him into revolutionary politics; Mahmud joins his brother working at the Club but spends his free time sleeping with older women — for a fee, which he splits with his partner in crime, his devil-may-care workout buddy and neighbor, Fawzy; their greedy brother Said breaks away to follow ambitions of his own; and their only sister, Saleha, is torn between her dream of studying mathematics and the security of settling down as a wife and saving her family.
It is at the Club, too, that Kamel’s dangerous politics will find the favor and patronage of the king’s seditious cousin, an unlikely revolutionary plotter–cum–bon vivant. Soon, both servants and masters will be subsumed by the brewing social upheaval. And the Egyptians of the Automobile Club will face a stark choice: to live safely, but without dignity, or to fight for their rights and risk everything.
Full of absorbing incident, and marvelously drawn characters, Alaa Al Aswany’s novel gives us Egypt on the brink of changes that resonate to this day. It is an irresistible confirmation of Al Aswany’s reputation as one of the Middle East’s most beguiling storytellers and insightful interpreters of the human spirit.