Reading Slipping by Mohamed Kheir (published by Two Line Press) is like falling into a dream. Not only does it capture the rather ethereal feel of the dream state it has the disjointed landscape of the sleep world which only begins to make sense the more you allow yourself to drift into it.
We are given pictures of a life in fragments and in no particular context. However, while Kheir scatters these pieces like breadcrumbs on a trail that appears to lead nowhere, he circles around and returns to each one until the pieces begin to fit together. Our guide through this disjointed reality is a struggling journalist, Seif, and his guide through some of the strange and magical places in Egypt, a former exile named Bahr.
After the hopes of the Arab Spring, which saw the ouster of a corrupt government, were dashed by the reality of an equally corrupt government rising as its replacement, many in Egypt were left to try and pick up the pieces of their lives. People disappeared, others shut down, and many had their lives ruined forever.
Seif is one of the damaged ones, and through Bahr, he learns the stories of others who also suffered repercussions from the lack of real change. Wealthy elites still control society to the extent they can dictate where people are allowed to work and live and to conscript the best medical care for themselves.
People lose entire days of their lives and find themselves waking up in neighbourhoods they’ve never been in and no idea how they got there. According to Bahr this is because they’ve been picked up by the security forces, drugged, held in secret somewhere, and then dumped. Sometimes for no reason other than to prove how much the population is under their thumbs.
The initially fragmented approach Kheir takes in the telling of this novel helps to create the sense of a society that has been decimated. With Seif the author takes us deeper into how oppression impacted individuals on a personal level. Since the crackdowns, in which his partner vanished, Seif’s career as a journalist has come to a screeching halt. He’s only kept on at the newspaper he works at out of pity.
Even stranger is the fact he keeps seeing people he knows are dead. It will only be glancing views; out the window of a tram he’ll see a person sitting at a cafe, or walking down the street he’ll glimpse a figure in a doorway. When he looks back they’re no longer there.
Some of the ghosts are people he knew, others are people who were part of his landscape – the owner of a neighbourhood store or a person who frequented the same coffee shop Seif went to. He knows all of them are supposed to be dead but he sees them anyway.
It’s like he’s living with one foot in the past with the ghosts of his life from before the Arab Spring. As Bahr takes him on the tour of the damaged and disjointed people of Egypt and North Africa Seif releases he’s not alone.
From deserted towns where entire populations decided to pack up and attempt to cross over to Europe by boat to the individuals who lives were destroyed by the security forces Kheir paints a picture of a traumatized country. It feels as if nearly the entire population is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Kheir has created a haunting portrait of Egypt in the years since the failure of the Arab Spring. The hopes raised by the crowds calling for change and their initial triumphs have withered on the vine. The people who had moved for change, people from all walks of life, saw hope swallowed up by those with money and power.
It is a bleak and unsettling landscape in which people are struggling to survive. Somehow Kheir has managed to bring this all to life in the small details of everyday life. We barely hear of the violence that must have accompanied the crackdowns, but we see its impact on existence. With Slipping Kheir has managed to create a work that is both beautiful and heartbreaking. It will tell you more about life in Egypt currently than any news report.