The Utopia, the ideal society, in Ahmed Khaled Tawfiq s new best-selling novel Utopia is, in fact, a dystopia: the most imperfect state. Tawfiq portrays a near-future Egypt divided in two parts: a small community, immoral and filthy rich; and the desperate and deeply impoverished masses.
Known for his popular ’90s horror/mystery series Ma Wara’ Al-Tabeaa (Beyond the Natural World), Tawfiq’s first novel is an acute departure from the current realism wave dominating Egyptian literature. The readers embark on a dark journey with the novel’s protagonist, travelling from a monotonous Utopia into a bitter, post-apocalyptic wasteland.
Tawfiq paints an extreme picture of Egypt’s current social structure. The steadily and rapidly diminishing middle class has finally and irrevocably disappeared. The rich have become richer and the poor even poorer. Hope for social and political change has taken its final lethal blow: Welcome to the age of the ultimate social divide.
The unnamed main character of the novel is a spoilt teenager, residing in an ultra luxurious home in Utopia, the fenced state located in the Egyptian northern coast and guarded by the US Marines. Utopia’s residents, surrogates of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death, are rich, immoral, and totally bored. The reason for such overwhelming boredom is simply because no means of pleasure is lacking or will ever be lacking.
British author Thomas More, who coined the term Utopia back in 1516, would’ve certainly dismissed Tawfiq s Egyptian Utopia. Who would have believed that perfection breeds boredom? It is easy to accept Tawfiq’s vision though, since this Utopia is confined solely to wealth.
The protagonist is an intelligent rebel, smarter than most Utopians. He dismisses the idea of committing suicide simply because it is “baladi (not cool). The protagonist decides to cross the Utopian gates and go on a hunt for a living souvenir from “the Others. His hunting party is supposed to be his rite of passage to adulthood, or so he likes to believe.
After an exciting escape from Utopia, the teen and his girlfriend find themselves in the land of the Others, Al Ataba. As expected, the brutality of harsh reality kills their excitement.
Outside Utopia, things are quite different. Citizens have the legal right to purchase alcohol and drugs, and it’s no longer possible to tell a person’s religion from his/her name. Aging women have turned to prostitution after failing to secure potential grooms. Stray dogs no longer haunt the streets; instead, it’s the people who hunt the dogs and use them as meat.
The two strangers decide to hack off a limb from a prostitute and take it as their souvenir. The pair makes the mistake of picking a certain prostitute constantly watched by her pimp and his gang. Gaber, an ordinary citizen of Al-Ataba, comes to their rescue.
Gaber is the most engrossing and identifiable character in the novel. He is as desperate as the rest of the Others, yet he’s able to hold back his desperation from contaminating his humanity. He’s not sure why he’s helping those outsiders.
Even though we never find out why the two Utopians can’t make a simple phone call and return to their “perfect world, Tawfiq uses this quandary wisely to acquaint us more with Gaber. An avid reader himself, he explains to the pair how the Egyptian divide evolved.
After the invention of Peyrol, a kind of advanced fuel, petrol was no longer needed and Egyptian workers in the Gulf were forced to return. Privatization penetrated every field until the government consequently collapsed. Israel entered the game, hiring cheap Egyptian labor and further dispersing their intelligence inside the country. This is how Israel became a close friend to Utopia yet still an enemy to the contemptuous Others. “This is how two societies were formed; one owns everything, the other nothing, Gaber comments.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the story is how religion is seen by both sides. Gaber disparages Utopians who spend outrageous amounts of money to perform the Muslim umra pilgrimage every year, while totally neglecting social justice. The Utopian teenager, on the other hand, believes that the Others’ religion is fake, used only to justify their weakness.
Through the course of the protagonist’s journey, Tawfiq highlights the gap that may some day be left behind by the Egyptian middle class. Lacking a solution, Gaber blames the current young generation for the nightmarish near future. “When you smell the smoke and don’t warn those around you, you have contributed somehow to starting the fire.
Overall, “Utopia is an entertaining, original novel capitalizing on the numerous present fears and dangers plaguing Egyptian society. The parallels and allusions to the present are devoid of any thorough philosophical dimensions in the vein of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World, Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road or Phillip K. Dick’s futuristic thrillers, for example, and the message Tawfiq presents sometimes feels too direct and simplistic.
“Utopia is no great literary work; it is, nevertheless, a highly imaginative novel that has succeeded in injecting new blood into the current literary scene.
Utopia is published by Merit Publishing House. Price: LE 20.