A peculiar paradox in Egyptian society is its insistence that certain aspects of people’s private lives be made public while other aspects remain hidden behind closed doors.
In a city as overcrowded as Cairo, lives are led outdoors; living rooms appear on street corners and shisha-smoking men occupy pavements.
This perhaps explains why the dividing line between public and private is so permeable in some areas – who loves whom, who is ill with what, who was seen last night and where. The community has given itself the license to know.
And yet there is a contradiction, the cloistering of the shameful and the unsavory in this society obsessed with image, reputation and honor, and the strenuous efforts made to conceal the darker aspects of everyday life.
Drug addiction sits uneasily at this dividing line. Serious heroin abuse is impossible to conceal, it being a disease accompanied by a host of anti-social habits – lying, theft, even violence – anathema to the upstanding family concerned with its reputation.
Essam Youssef’s debut novel “¼ Gram examines the way heroin abuse ripped through Egyptian society in the 1980s and forced addicts’ families to confront – often publicly – the destruction it reaped.
The story, based on the true story of a group of friends destroyed by heroin, is told from the viewpoint of Salah (aka ‘Saso’), a member of a group of six life-long friends.
Readers are first introduced to Salah when he is already a savvy, streetwise six-year-old who uses his pocket money to bribe the maid into not telling his family that he doesn’t get on the school bus.
We watch him develop into an edgy, charismatic young man able to use his considerable resourcefulness and charm to maintain and conceal his heroin habit.
Why, I asked Youssef, did he choose to start the story at the beginning of Salah’s life?
“For kids and teenagers to be able to understand the concept of addiction, you have to give them the chance to feel related to the characters, he said. “If I come up to a kid, a 12-year-old, and tell him that Ramy, who loves guitar, is now an addict he will tell me, ‘I don’t know who Ramy is.’
“But if I tell him that Ramy is the one who used to smoke cigarettes in school, and he used to play football, and he loved guitar and he drove a BMW, he would know who Ramy is and would feel related to him, Youssef explained.
He says that he has succeeded in enabling readers to identify with the novel’s characters.
“I wanted kids to feel related to the characters and this is what happened. I found kids saying ‘I am Bono . I am Ramy . I am Mido.’
As Youssef explains in the novel’s preface, he wrote the book in order to “carry the message at the request of real-life friend Salah, who is described as the actual author.
An appendix at the back of the book contains information about Addicts Anonymous as well as the famous Twelve Steps program.
It is this, he says, which explains why the detox process in the hospital is described in precise, almost tedious, detail.
“The hospital section is important for psychiatrists and addicts, in order to feel the transaction. Unfortunately, this book is not for you. It’s for addicts, number one; they are my first [target]. And after the addicts, the families, the parents and the kids. The last one is the reader, to be honest.
“I didn’t do this to entertain people.
Youssef was the managing director of an environmental protection company three years ago when he began the “¼ Gram project.
He originally planned to turn the story into a film straight away but this changed after a chance encounter with American producer Laura Wagner.
“What happened is that three years ago I met a friend of mine from the United States who was visiting me and I told her that I was interested in producing a movie called ‘¼ Gram,’ Youssef explained.
“She told me that by coincidence she had a friend coming from Hollywood for a visit to Egypt and she wanted someone to take her around.
“When Laura arrived, she told me that she had made up her mind not to work in production again but, she told me, ‘I don’t mind listening.’ And when she listened, I remember she said, ‘I can tell by the look in your eyes that you have something different, and I’m interested.’ Finally she said ‘I can see the camera rolling. This is a red carpet movie and I’m going to do it.’
Wagner insisted that Youssef write the novel before working on the script.
“I started writing and it took me two years. She said that she felt it as a novel and it would make things much easier for everyone if I wrote it.
“¼ Gram was eventually released in March and, within eight days, was the number one bestseller in Diwan bookstore and Virgin Megastores. Shortly after, the book also toppled the Kotob Khan and Sherouk book charts.
First and second editions have already sold out and a third one was released earlier this month.
While Youssef knew that the book would sell, he says that he didn’t expect it to become so popular so quickly.
He attributes its success to the way it presents addiction from inside, from an addict’s perspective.
“Parents are buying and reading it and kids are loving it. This is the first time a book talks about drugs ‘internally.’
This authenticity, together with its unflinching realism and Youssef’s use of Egyptian colloquial Arabic for character dialogue and the inclusion of little-known drug lingo, is key to the book’s appeal.
While it may not rank amongst the best Arabic novels in literary terms, its compelling storyline and the unique approach to an under-exposed problem in Egypt are perhaps what explain its current success.
Youssef says that an English translation of the novel will be available by the end of 2008. The Arabic version has been distributed in 22 Arab countries.
“¼ Gram the film is currently in the pre-production phase. Produced by Montana Studios (the company Youssef established to make the film) and directed by talented Egyptian director Ibrahim El-Batout (“Ithaki and “Ain Shams ) whose ‘non-mainstream,’ ethereal style of directing one does not immediately associate with a “red carpet film about heroin.
Youssef is, nonetheless, confident about the success of the film.
“It’s going to be a great movie. It will be artistic as well, but it will carry a message which everyone will understand, from the guy who uses drugs under the bridge to the filthy rich guy in the castle.
“Most Egyptian films about drugs are not realistic . they describe the addict as someone crazy or a criminal.
“They don’t understand that when the addict is sober he’s smarter than anyone around him. That’s why when they stop using they enter the community and are very successful. You have to be smart to wake up and make LE 300 every day,
The novel’s authenticity has prompted much speculation about whether the novel is in fact autobiographical rather than an account of someone else’s experience. This suspicion is compounded when one meets Youssef in person. He possesses the same brand of streetwise charm and wit as his protagonist, Salah.
Youssef keenly protects the anonymity of the book’s characters – who he says in real life are his “best friends – and will not be drawn on the subject, other than to say, “Consider me the friend who didn’t write about himself. I was the witness.