The protagonist is Nageh Tayseer, a 29-year-old literature graduate. His name means "successful", but is clearly at odds with his sorry existence made up of a series of disappointments and failures. Desperate and unemployed he decides to join the army and, at one point, works as a security guard for an chic building, where he is essentially transformed to a gatekeeper of prostitutes.
The story begins and progresses in an unidentified prison cell. Through a stream of consciousness, we learn about Nageh's uneventful history, his family and neighbors. His father is El Shiekh Tayseer, a wall painter and a casual druggy who suddenly turns to religion after spending one year in Saudi Arabia. But despite his new-found religious awakening, he continues to sleep with the two daughters of the local coffee shop owner.
El Shiekh Tayseer is one of the novel’s many characters living in a sex-starved community governed only by the laws of poverty, a primitive microcosm of the capital where only the strongest can survive.
In 120 pages, Abdel-Moreed draws a vivid portrait of El Zarayeb neighborhood and its residents. None of his dysfunctional characters have tasted success or known joy. Nageh’s uncle for one used to be a handsome, dreamy young man. He had majored in science in college, worked as a teacher after graduation and moved to Iraq at the beginning of the 80s where he worked in a lingerie store. Soon, he would return to Egypt to marry a domineering woman and fully succumb to his unfortunate fate.
In a different segment, one bright, young ambitious man from Upper Egypt considers marrying a French man to leave the country.
An inescapable sense of defeatism runs through the novel, yet anyone who’s ever visited the neighborhood will acknowledge the authenticity of Abdel-Moreed’s account. “Kirieleison” thus is no mere bleak story about a particular place and its particular people; it’s a dissection of a hypocritical society on the verge of collapse.
The man behind the words
Born in 1973, Abdel-Moreed graduated from Ein Shams University, where he studied computer science. He currently works as an IT consultant and a graphic designer for a number of companies.
In 2003, he published his first collection of short stories “Eghma’ Dakhel Taboot” (Passing Out in a Crypt) which won a Ministry of Culture award.
In it, Abdel-Moreed envisioned Egyptians as trapped alive inside tombs.
After publishing a novel in 2003, he released another collection of short stories titled “Shagrah Gafa Lel Salb” (A Dry Tree for Crucifixion) in 2005. His most politically charged work to date, “Crucifixion” contemplates the concept of authority and how citizens are the ones who fuel dictatorship with their complacency.
Following the release of “Crucifixion,” Abdel-Moreed enrolled in a new government project that required him to work in the Zarayeb neighborhood. Initially, the severe destitution he witnessed deterred him from writing.
“I thought, what’s the use of writing when you’re in the middle of all this insanity and brutality?” he told Daily News Egypt in a phone interview
Soon, he decided to record his experience with El Zarayeb and the various characters he encountered in a rather nightmarish disjointed narrative.
Since the majority of El Zarayeb residents are Christians, a district also known for the grand monestary of St. Simon the Tanner, Abde- Moreed chose a Christian title for the novel (Kirieleison is a Latin word that means God’s mercy), whose relevence to the events and characters is revealed in the final pages.
Abdel Moreed rejects how the El-Badeel article tried to sum up him relationship with his mostly Christian friends in a novel.
"My novel is about a society that’s going down, about the people who are completely surrendering to these atrocities. The religious beliefs of my characters were never a concern to me,” he says.
A few Christian characters sporadically turn up within Nageh’s recollections. None of Abdel-Moreed’s characterizations of both Copts and Muslims is flattering. Julia, the sole female Christian character, is married to a gay man she catches in the act in the couple’s living room. Consequently, she begins to have an affair with another man.
Shocking themes, sex and style
“Kirieleison” does however, contain an abundance of Christian imagery. At one point, Nageh regards himself as a Christ-like figure, rationalizing his tragedy as a sacrifice to save his people.
The story of the 10th century St. Simon is also centeral to the events of the story.
“The monastery of St. Simon and his story is an integral part of the El Zarayeb. A few people actually know his story and the history of the area. I simply couldn’t ignore it.”
The convoluted, loose plot could prove challenging for some readers and it is difficult to grasp the entire novel from a single reading. Characters usually pop up with no introduction and narrative voices change multiple times within the same page and time frames rapidly change from one paragraph to another.
“Stories have been told since the beginning of humanity. There’s nothing fresh about the crude concept of a story,” Abdel-Moreed said. “What makes one story different from another is how you tell it. I found my voice in such structure.”
“Kirieleison” takes a few jabs at the government. Abdel-Moreed depicts a particular army general as an amoral profiteer, coercing the rich to donate funds to his unit while forcing the poor ones to steal street labels and other public props. Another character, a private, has a homosexual affair with his superior.
Sex is another fundamental theme in the novel, which is peppered with some shocking scenes.
“Look, sex is the primary concern for all Egyptians. It’s the one thing everyone is lusting after. Who are we fooling exactly? And why are we trying to deny it? Besides, the nature of El Zarayeb and the crammed households makes sexual interactions easy and sometimes unavoidable. I don’t think those scenes were sensational or out of context.
“As for my criticism of the government, there’s nothing wrong with it. There are no institutions beyond criticism. The government has to be accountable," he says.
Although reaction to the novel has mainly been positive, some friends in Abdel-Moreed’s circle had qualms. “A Christian friend was offended that a cross [drawn at the back of the novel] appears on a book that contains sex and stuff like that,” he said. “Another Muslim friend of mine was obviously revolted by the sex and ‘vulgarity,’ sent me a message saying ‘beware of God’ and broke all relations with me.”
Abdel-Moreed promises to continue exploring the world of the marginalized. His next novel is about a doomed relationship between one adolescent and an old belly dancer.
Kirieleison is published by El Dar for Publishing and Distribution. Price: LE 15
جريدة دايلي نيوز Daily News بتاريخ 9 أغسطس 2008