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Boeke | Books > Rubrieke | Columns > English > African Library

The African Library: Beer in the Snooker Club (1964)

Annie Gagiano - 2008-09-04

This unusual novel was reissued in a New Amsterdam Paperback in 1989. It is the only known published work by its author, who committed suicide in 1968. Ghali’s life resembles that of his main character in many respects in terms of class position, location shifts and political ideas.

The text concerns mainly the lives of a small group of Egyptian friends who belong to the international left wing of the time, but whose progressive political attitudes are complicated by their access (through relatives, friends or by inheritance) to the privileges and money of the enormously wealthy upper class in Cairo. The novel is made by its tone and everything we are told is filtered through the personality of Ram (full name Ramos), narrator and focaliser of the text. Ram is a brilliantly perspicacious observer of the swirls and undercurrents of privileged society (mostly in Cairo, but also during a period in London).

Beer in the Snooker Club is often referred to as a satire. This is not an inaccurate description, but as a satire, too, the work is atypical, since Ram’s unselfrighteous vision is as self-critical as it is critical of others. The whole text is permeated with a wonderfully wry humour, although unsparing in its condemnation of cruelty, greed, shallowness and pretence. For all its many comic moments, the narrative is shaded with melancholia. The underlying sadness of the narrating voice is not immediately apparent, nor are the depth of feeling and moral integrity of the narrator. Ram is apparently content to live the life summed up in the novel's title, of idling his life away in drinking, gambling and outings with his large and financially generous group of friends. He is hugely well read, politically sophisticated and a fairly caring (only) son to his still youthful but widowed mother. He is also stylish and well dressed, but unemployed. In truth he is sponging on his rich but to him despicable relatives and his wealthy friends. He lives with his mother in a flat paid for by the richest of her three (also widowed) sisters.

The setting is Egypt in the early fifties, after the so-called Revolution which toppled the last king, but subsequent to which not very much has changed in this society (in Ram’s experience). Titles have been abolished and land ownership is now limited to a maximum of two thousand acres per person. Yet the city’s club continues to cater for the wealthy, now joined by top military officers in their expensive and sometimes decadent leisure activities. The fellaheen (peasants) still own very few if any plots, renting or perhaps beginning to buy small pieces of land from rich landowners, such as Ram’s most influential and bullying aunt.

The novel opens with a scene where Ram is studiously ignored by this same aunt. He came to her in an attempt to borrow a thousand pounds, probably to try and return to London, where he was happier and felt more useful – because he could do ordinary work – than he does in Egypt, where (like his friend Font) he is trapped by his class into not being able to do anything useful. His aunt sits at her desk, seemingly signing away, piece by piece, eight thousand of her ten thousand acres of land to the peasants, but will not lend him any money. Ram knows that, although her "land [re-]distribution" will be reported in the papers as a magnificent act of philanthropy, she is actually getting paid for every piece. A friend of hers joins them; this woman has just bought a new Cadillac (as Ram knows), acquired (so she claims) simply because her previous vehicle was becoming too heavy on petrol!

Ram is a man of conscience as well as being highly intelligent. In his idiotic cousin Mounir (the son of the richest aunt) the novel illustrates the kind of man Ram might have become had he not had the subtle moral awareness that colours all he does and experiences. Mounir (the cousin) comes back from a spell of studying in the USA spouting cheap capitalist slogans. He is a complacent fool, but is praised and cooed over by everyone in "society" as well as being set up for immediate entry into high political office. Ram says:

[…] what sickened me was the knowledge that he would get it. It made me sick because apart from Font and myself, all the other students dying at Suez were from poor families and Mounir and Co. were going to lord it over the survivors.

"England," he said, "must stay at Suez [in other words, continue their occupation of the Canal area] and protect us from the Red Menace."
Politics or no politics, that was too much for me. I don’t remember what happened exactly; we came to blows and I told him to "wipe his backside" with his American democracy. Of course my mother started crying, and the servants separated us, and even calling the police was suggested.

I found myself in the street. Strangely, I was in a good mood. I even laughed when I remembered the way my aunt had shouted "murder, murder". It was too late for the Pyramid Road tram-line, and I started walking the seven-mile journey home. My mother still had her car then, and I thought she might pick me up later on. I heard my name being called, but walked on without looking back. Then footsteps started running towards me.

"Stop, blast you!" she said.

"What do you want," I asked, looking at the Salva girl.

"Your mother tells you to take her car; here are the keys."

"How will she get back?"

"My parents will drive her." (49)

This is a key moment in the text. The "Salva girl” is Edna, who becomes the great love of Ram’s life. It is his standing up to his cousin Mounir’s trumpeting of his vulgarly capitalist and imperialist sympathies that arouses her interest in him. Edna’s parents are also in the millionaire class, but she detests their values. This young woman of noble spirit becomes the great inspiration of Ram’s life as he falls deeply but hopelessly in love with her and undergoes a political education at her hands.

It is Edna who funds Ram and his bosom friend Font’s journey to Britain, to broaden their horizons. She patronises them (she is four years older than the two then twenty-one-year-olds and far more knowledgeable and sophisticated as well as wealthier than they are), but she eventually allows Ram to become her lover and these three are for a time inseparable. The love relationship is always unequal, however, because Ram does not know very much about Edna and he always feels himself unworthy of her high idealism. She is Jewish, which has its own complications at the time of the Suez crisis and in terms of the role of the newly founded state of Israel as ally of the British, who have invaded the region around the Canal to try and protect thoroughfare for their ships. Then, too, Edna’s sympathies are communist at a time when the Nasser regime is persecuting, imprisoning, torturing and killing all those suspected of supporting communism.

Edna mysteriously goes and returns several times while they live in London. Ram decides to become self-supporting and works for a time as a labourer. Font and Edna return to Egypt at the eruption of the Suez crisis, but Ram stays on in Britain, is ejected because his visa has lapsed, and then works for a period in a factory in Germany. He is afraid of seeing Edna again when he gets back to Cairo and he also avoids seeing Didi Nackla, a young Egyptian journalist who had later lived with them in London. There he had turned to Didi, despairing of Edna’s feelings for him, and initiated a sexual relationship with her.
Some time after his return (the "present" of the novel) Ram is finally assured by Edna that she returns his love. Yet this is also the occasion on which she irrevocably breaks off her relationship with him. Edna had secretly, some years previously (as Ram now learns for the first time), married a Jewish communist who had had to flee from Egypt to Israel after being shot on escaping from torture and imprisonment. Even though she does want to go on living in Egypt, her land of birth, Edna will not continue the relationship with Ram:

I stood up. "You know, Edna, you are not Egyptian. Not because you are married to an Israeli or because you are Jewish; you are just not Egyptian. I’ll tell you why. Do you remember you told me once that I am not Egyptian because I belong to the élite, etc.? But I am Egyptian. Like Jameel and Yehia, I am real Egyptian. I have our humour. Even though my 'Egyptian' has been enfeebled by my stay in England and by the books I have read, I have the Egyptian character. You haven’t," I told her. "You have no humour, Edna. We would all have died a long time ago if we didn’t have our humour."

"I haven’t got much to laugh about," she said.

"God," I said, going to her. "I loved you and love you more than anything in the world, and these last six years would have been the happiest ever lived if you had had some humour and not frowned upon mine; if you could have been light-hearted at times. It wouldn’t have made any difference if you were married or not. It still doesn’t make any difference. Do I care? We can live together until we die and that’s all I care about. You know I can get a job any time I want. My aunt would see to that. Or we could go and live in Upper Egypt with my uncle. Even open a school there, if you wanted."

I drank another glass of whisky.

"If it’s politics," I said bitterly, "that I lack, I’ll find something to do." I told her about Dr Hamza. (185)

Self-deprecating as he is, Ram allows us only glimpses of the actually hugely risky political business he is engaged in. He has been collecting evidence of the torture and murder of political activists in Egyptian jails, where (in a pattern typical of this society) wealthier or higher-class prisoners will not be subjected to such treatment. He has now been cast off by Dr Hamza, who recruited him to the task, because he sent the evidence of the atrocities (anonymously) to the press, since Dr Hamza never seemed to get to the point of doing anything useful with the material.

In these moments of utter, final sincerity with Edna, Ram at last learns more about her tragic personal history. He also diagnoses the source of his own malaise as stemming from the “terrible knowledge” (191) that he possesses, which results in the uncomfortable state of self-acknowledged insincerity in which he exists:

"If," I told Edna, "someone has read an enormous amount of literature, and has a thorough knowledge of contemporary history, from the beginning of this century to the present day, and he has an imagination, and he is intelligent, and he is just, and he is kind, and he cares about other people of all races, and he has enough time to think, and he is honest and sincere, there are two things can happen to him; he can join the Communist Party and then leave it, wallowing in its short-comings, or he can become mad. Or," I said, "if he is unconsciously insincere, he may join one of the many left-wing societies in Europe, and enjoy himself."

I put my glass down on her desk and started walking about the room.

"And what are you, Ram?"

"I am insincere," I said, "but honest." (189)

Yet he knows, too, that he does love Egypt and belongs in it, though he does not know how to direct or apply his insights.

The final section of the novel shows more of Ram’s irrepressible, humane humour and wholesomeness of spirit – which, strangely, survives within his seemingly decadent lifestyle. Half by chance, he goes to see Didi Nackla, the young journalist who had been with them in London. Didi is intelligent and cheerful; he finds her sitting alone, quietly binding a book in leather in the apartment (in her hugely wealthy parents’ house) where she lives. This is how Ram sees her:

There was peace in that room, a peace which someone of my type hardly ever comes across or even knows of. Serenity: a serenity which suddenly descended upon me in its profound beauty. […] Like Edna, she has no mannerisms or affected poses. […] (196)

Ram knows that his manipulative aunt is working hard to manoeuvre Didi into marriage with his awful cousin Mounir. Although Didi knows that Ram has for years been in love with Edna, she has loved him since her time with them in London, when she and he had had a sexual relationship (he was her first lover). Ram has an affectionate respect for Didi. His relationship with Edna having come to an end, he tells Didi: “If you don’t like Mounir, you might as well marry me” (208). Ram knows Didi well enough; unlike Edna with her profound sense of moral duty, Didi is one of the journalists who has refused or been afraid to publish the evidence of politically motivated atrocities happening in Egyptian jails that he sent to the newspapers. Ram screams at her for this failure, and for defending the regime (205), describing to her the “mutilated body” of a girl with whom she had gone to school; the valuable young professionals kept languishing in concentration camps for their oppositional political convictions; a young man of their acquaintance, “killed in a concentration camp” (205), all victims of the present regime. As a personality, Didi has the qualities of happiness and humour that the perpetually serious Edna lacks, but then, Edna, who made him “lonely” (191), does (as she says) not have very much to laugh about. There is a wryness, yet also something appropriate, in Ram’s decision to persuade Didi to marry him, and she accepts that his mother will need to be looked after by them. Marriage to Didi is, after all, also a victory over the obnoxious Mounir and all that he represents, socially and politically.

Told so baldly, this account may make it seem as if the great cynic Ram is finally brought to his knees into accepting a type of "class destiny", but the strange humour which illuminates the text indicates that Ram will retain his "disguised" integrity of spirit and remain unpredictable and uncontrollable. He cannot bring himself to ride in third-class train carriages (as Edna does) as a gesture of solidarity with the poor; he is too self-aware and too conscious of the futility of such symbolic acts. Imagining Ram’s future is difficult but tempting. He may have a family life with Didi and live lovingly with her and their children, or she may (as he warns her) end up despising him (or he her); he may engage in more risky political activity and become a victim of the regime, or he may despair and, like his creator, end his own life. But he will most likely remain a gadfly in his dealings with his lazy and complacently rich compatriots and a secret warrior against the cruelties of the regime.

Unlikely hero he may be, but Ram’s story has poignancy and a quirky, humane appeal which makes him an unforgettable addition to the gallery of African fictional characters of our time. Like the personality of Ram, the text is the product of profound and sincerely moral principles and cutting insights, almost hidden under a seemingly frivolous surface and a teasing, tongue-in-cheek manner that nevertheless refuses to look away from ugly realities.