CHICAGO: Originally published in Arabic in 2002, The Law of Inheritance won one of Egypt’s inaugural Sawiris Cultural Awards in 2005, and has now been translated into English by Robin Moger.
The four-part novel unfolds lyrically, as a nameless narrator navigates student riots, political change and everyday life in Egypt in the 1990s. But the narrator’s life is only a piece of the story. Yasser Abdellatif uses his narrator’s ancestry in Nubia to take the reader back in time and tell his story of Egypt — its history, its governance and its people.
Abdellatif’s novel is a complex experience for the reader. It’s a journey that has no specific chronology but is made up of memories old and new. We quickly learn that the narrator moves through life with indifference. His “protest” — smoking near school grounds — has become tiresome rather than a form of dissent. He no longer fears being caught. His father, an Al-Azhar instructor, is away in Saudi Arabia and our young protagonist does not have to answer to anyone other than his mother and brother.
Abdellatif’s first chapter has no transitions. It consists of snippets of memories that materialize out of thin air. As the book moves on, so does the style — shifting to full sentences and complete thoughts. The narrative weaves in and out of the past, capturing the life of the narrator, his friends and their lives in Egypt, and his connection to his ancestors — when his grandfather first traveled to Cairo in the 1930s to continue his education, we learn, he was met with a city going through “violent upheavals.”
Abdellatif leads the reader through the streets of Cairo from the Metro Tunnel’s multiple exits: Bostan Street, Tahrir Street, Qasr El Nil and Champollion, and Talaat Harb, to the narrator’s grandfather’s house in Abdeen. Abdellatif’s narrator is acutely conscious of himself and his surroundings and how quickly context can change with a word or an action. He can recall the transformations of the past, reflecting on how street names change, along with the function of certain buildings.
The author brings the history and mystery of Egypt’s streets and their inhabitants to life. His stories are rich and vibrant, diverse and multilayered. Egypt and its people have transformed many times over the years as has the landscape, and Abdellatif captures the great joy and tragedy that comes with such changes.