The Oud Player of Cairo: A Novel
- By Jasmin Attia
- Schaffner Press
- 360 pp.
- Reviewed by Martha Anne Toll
- August 22, 2023
A frustrating page-turner about a fascinating time and place.
The Oud Player of Cairo conveys a taste of mid-20th-century Egypt in the literal sense. Descriptions of the flavors and smells of food are mouthwatering, and the book’s atmospherics successfully draw us into Cairo’s dusty, mystery-filled streets. Author Jasmin Attia won the Nicholas Schaffner Award for Music in Literature for this debut novel.
The story opens in 1932 with a gripping scene describing the birth of Kamal and Selma’s second child. Selma suffers a difficult labor on the top floor of a five-story building “in the middle of Cairo on Gazirat Badran Street, in a time before the narrow road filled with fruit and vegetable vendors…before the cabarets on the Nile became fancy red-carpeted sala theaters…even before the Suez Canal connected the Red Sea to the Mediterranean, and before the British sent their tall white-skinned soldiers to occupy Egypt’s lands and her seas.”
Kamal, a professional musician, is certain his wife will birth a boy. He kisses Selma on the forehead mid-contraction, grabs his oud case, heads out through the throngs in the souk, and settles into his favorite table in his favorite coffeehouse, strumming the strings of his oud and composing songs for his newborn son to sing. (An oud is an instrument in the lute family without frets.) At two in the morning, a porter comes to announce the birth.
Kamal bursts into the bedroom, so preoccupied with naming his son that he initially fails to register that his second child is a girl. He names her Laila and vows to raise her as the son he craves.
Laila, more rambunctious and adventuresome than her older sister, Naima, delights in this role. As it happens, she is born with a golden singing voice. She learns oud at her father’s knee and performs with him as a child, against societal norms for a “proper” girl. Kamal insists that she be educated, even though she is less interested in school than her sister.
Spoilers prevent too detailed a description of the losses and heartache that characterize Laila’s life. Suffice it to say, she grows in depth and maturity from her experiences. She tests the limits, as when she cuts off all her hair or insists she perform oud publicly. She speaks her mind, even when it puts her at risk.
The Oud Player of Cairo is a compelling story that reads more like a fairytale than a literary novel. The action whizzes by, often without being described in a given scene. At times, I felt let down with a number of “almosts” that didn’t deliver on the suspense that seemed to be building. Papa is almost bribed/blackmailed to become the winner of a music contest. Laila is almost a bad student in school. She is almost betrothed before she is actually betrothed. She almost gets lost, but not really, in a dramatic search for her father’s missing oud.
I was also uneasy about underdeveloped themes that felt like missed opportunities. For one, the story called for a deeper dive into the politics around class and colonialism that drive the novel. Laila’s fraught marriage has everything to do with colonialism; she comes from a poor family and her husband from an ultra-wealthy one enriched by British occupation. Kamal is permanently injured by a British soldier yet makes only generic comments about protests, which we infer are against the occupiers. His remarks are more shadowy background than the key narrative descriptions they could be.
Religion floats in and out, too. Selma is a devout Christian whose beliefs are made clear, but we learn virtually nothing about what religion means to Kamal. Cairo at the time was a mélange of Abrahamic faiths. I loved hearing the call of the muezzins and reading the Arabic expressions common to Cairenes of all stripes. The novel concludes in the mid-1950s when Egyptian Jews, among other “foreigners,” were expelled from the country. This expulsion, crucial to the ending of the book, felt less threaded through the narrative than tacked on.
I mention these frustrations because Attia is capable of stunning writing, as the opening scene attests. The relationships among the women in Laila’s family — Selma and her two daughters — are well developed and convincing. They evolve and devolve and evolve again, as in so many families. By the end, we have come to know Selma, Naima, and Laila.
For her part, Laila is the beating heart of the novel. She is a feminist before that word exists. Her independence and fearlessness are inspiring for her family and for the reader. We root for her liberation from her wealthy, profligate, cheating husband, from the strictures of her class, and from the social mores of her time.
Finally, I wondered who the oud player of the title was. Is it Kamal, whose music is a throughline in the story, or Laila, who, having learned the instrument from her father, takes it to another level? Perhaps the oud player is a metaphor for history itself, which controls lives in ways unpredictable and unimaginable to the humans who live them.
Martha Anne Toll is a book critic and novelist. Her debut, Three Muses, was shortlisted for the Gotham Book Prize and won the Petrichor Prize for Finely Crafted Fiction. Her second novel, Duet for One, is due out in 2025.