By Mohamed Kheir
(Translated by Robin Moger)
Two Lines Press — June 2021
ISBN: 9781949641165 — Paperback — 260 pp.
Struggling journalist Seif decides to pursue a risky, but intoxicating story: a fresh exploration of Egypt that penetrates into the mystical and arcane realms that exist alongside the mundane, echoes from the past and hopeful susurrations of the future, scenes unnoticed and unfurling outside time. He partners with Bahr, an older man who has recently returned to the nation from exile, and carries within him expertise on the location and properties of these ethereal corners of the ancient land, urban and rural.
Along the journey Seif discovers insights into his past: unexpected connections between their fragmented discoveries and his own tumultuous experiences, between the characters they meet and people who have shaped his own life. Most notable is his former girlfriend Alya, a radiant woman with an otherworldly talent for song who disappeared from his life amid the chaos of the Arab Spring, and its revolutionary potential.
Slipping is an apt English title for Kheir’s novel. He constructs it with a fragmented architecture that mimics the parties and voices within the Egyptian state. The characters fluidly slip through time and space, dry reality and seemingly magical realms, memory and aspirations, in fractured revelatory moments. As Kheir steps around the investigatory tourism of Seif and Bahr, he intermixes chapters of other characters in unresolved flashes, people who turn out to be connected to a spot where the pair eventually visit (or visited). By the end all the loose threads and haziness clarify into coherent interconnected fabric of existence. Again, like a national identity composed of individual souls.
This architecture makes Slipping a bit of a challenging read. It’s a novel that’s short enough to easily be worth rereading, and seeing how things are constructed after already knowing how they all fit together. The challenge of Slipping also exists in its nature of magical realism. While technically qualifying as fantasy for some, it’s not always clear what is real, what is imaginary, what is symbolic, etc. But, in the end, I’m not sure if that matters much. Only in the sense that it gives the novel a very surreal kind of feel that celebrates uncertainty and even a bit of confusion.
Kheir (and Moger) temper the relatively heavy demands of following the plot and characters of Slipping by placing a huge portion of its artistic and entertainment value in the melody of its phrases and the richness of its atmosphere. The mysterious vocal talents of Seif’s girlfrind Alya are in part a personification of the musicality of the language in Slipping, a celebration of a culture and a nation though words. Not only written, but in their sound. Many parts of Slipping are outright poetic, demanding not just to be read, but heard. Performed.
This became particularly obvious to me when I had the opportunity to attend a remote online session organized by the publisher of the English translation here in the US, Two Lines Press [It may have also been sponsored by a book store, if memory serves. It’s been awhile now, at the height of the pandemic, so I can’t recall exactly, apologies.] The event featured a discussion between author Kheir and translator Moger, an enlightening bit of insight into the magic that went into making this text available to English language speakers here.
As part of that event, Kheir read a short section in the original Arabic. I cannot speak or decipher Arabic (though some of my current research students are now teaching me a bit :D) But, my goodness was it a beautiful passage to listen to. I followed along with Moger’s translation within my copy of the book. Like when listening to music with no words or lyrics I can’t decipher (hi early REM and Michael Stipe) the sound of the Arabic conveyed the mood, the emotion, set by the text exactly. Not telepathic, it was empathic. Robin Moger then also read from his translation and spoke a bit about the choices he made when working on being faithful to the text and its musicality.
Even without that event, Slipping is a testament to the power and preciousness of literature in translation. Though a challenging novel in many ways, it is easily emotionally resonant. Anyone who is in particular a fan of magical realism would also want to look into this, a gift to unwrap from the complexities of modern Egypt.