Beer in the Snooker Club

For years, I've been told what a great book Waguih Ghali's Beer in the Snooker Club is. But the person who would mentioned it would always have lent or lost their copy; when I'd remember to look, I wouldn't find it at bookstores in Cairo or for order online. So when someone mentioned that the AUC Bookstore had copies, I immediately went and picked one up. And you should as well--this is a book that lives up to its reputation.

It's not a perfect work, but it is an incredibly assured and graceful first novel, witty and original, a real pleasure to read. Ghali chronicles the seemingly carefree dissipation of a largely autobiographical alter-ego, a charming young sponger who belongs to the penniless branch of a wealthy family. We are in the early years of the Nasser regime, and things are changing for that family--much as it clings to its privileged ways. The narrator's mother badgers him in French; his friends go to the Gezira club to pick up foreign nannies; he spends his days drinking whiskeys paid for by others and playing snooker with two fat, cheating and hilarious Armenians.

One of the many things I liked about the book is how much it trusts the reader to get the jokes and get the context--nothing is over-explained. And in its light way, it touches on all matter of complicated questions--of class, of politics, of nationalism, of the identity crisis of post-colonial elites. It wobbles perfectly on the edge between cynicism and sentiment, and applies humor to the tension between the two. 

In its best satirical scenes, Beer in the Snooker Club brings to mind A Confederacy of Dunces (although it does not have the same rollicking brilliance). There is another unfortunate parallel: Ghali killed himself after writing this first excellent book. His friend and editor, Diana Athill, wrote a book about this by all accounts extremely charming and extremely self-destructive writer, entitled After a Funeral. It is being translated into Arabic (Ghali's novel already has been) and there was a long review of both in the last issue of  وجهات نظر (only available online to subscribers), although I found the analysis a bit simplistic and the tone strangely sanctimonious.

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.