The Lady of Zamalek: A Novel
- By Ashraf El-Ashmawi; translated by Peter Daniel
- 398 pp.
- Reviewed by Alice Stephens
- May 11, 2021
The history of corruption in modern Egypt is encapsulated in this thrilling saga of one family’s rise and fall.
In the early decades of the 20th century, an intelligent and ambitious young man from a rural farming province in Egypt strikes out for the big city in order to make his fortune. Enterprising and quick to learn, Abbas Mahalawi insinuates himself into a plan to rob Jewish department store magnate Solomon Cicurel’s villa in the posh Cairo neighborhood of Zamalek.
The heist goes awry, Cicurel is murdered, and Abbas makes off with some jewelry, cash, and documents, including a mysterious drawing. Retreating to his village, he turns his accomplices in through an anonymous phone call.
Thus begins The Lady of Zamalek, Ashraf El-Ashmawi’s fast-paced, sweeping saga of one family’s navigation of the modern Egyptian state to a precarious success that is always threatened by the lies it is based upon.
The story is told from the first-person point of view of Abbas, his sister, Zeinab, and daughter Nadia, and Nadia’s first love, Tarek, and first husband, Murad. Each chapter is introduced with a helpful quote from the character to mark the change in narrator. Further complicating the delivery of the plot is a swerving timeline. The reader must keep alert to follow the twists and turns, but the reward more than satisfies.
As Abbas waits out the police investigation and execution of those found guilty of Cicurel’s death, he plans his return to Cairo to claim the rest of Cicurel’s fortune, which he believes can be located with the help of the drawing, and convinces Zeinab to go with him:
“Zeinab’s marital prospects weren’t great. Some might have even put them at zero, even though she had a nice ‘rinsed-out brown’ complexion, as they say in our village, and was short and on the plump side, with ample thighs and full breasts. Yet there wasn’t a trace of beauty in her face, with its wide pug nose. But God did not leave that head without strengths. He blessed it with a sharp, intuitive mind that constantly amazed everyone, not least of all me.”
Abbas wangles a job for Zeinab as a companion to Paula, Cicurel’s widow. Together, they burrow themselves into her life, searching for the treasure that is buried somewhere within the villa. When Abbas finds a safe filled with diamonds and gold ingots, his discovery is interrupted by someone who wants to share in the spoils.
That man meets with an unfortunate fate that Zeinab not only witnesses but manages to photograph, using the evidence to blackmail her brother. Meanwhile, Abbas arranges for a Jewish diamond merchant to sell Cicurel’s loot in Amsterdam. The merchant leaves his newborn daughter as collateral for the jewels and then dies in a plane crash.
As Abbas grows wealthier and more powerful, Zeinab, despite etiquette lessons, cannot lose her village ways and is looked down upon by her rich and fashionable Zamalek neighbors. But revenge is hers because, as Egypt endures great upheaval, going from a British-backed monarchy to a socialist state to a military dictatorship, the elite begin to look more like her and less like the Eurocentric old guard, many of whom were Jews with strong connections to Italy whose riches are plundered by the newcomers.
The story of Abbas, Zeinab, and Nadia is also the story of modern Egypt, enduring the mismanagement of a heedless, playboy king, then the zealotry of a government intent on the redistribution and nationalization of wealth, and finally the paranoia and dysfunction of military rule. It is a grim depiction of a nation whose every citizen is for himself, hustling, hoarding, and stealing from his neighbor.
Instead of working for the national good, the best and the brightest concentrate on building up their own fiefdoms, attacking, raiding, and making marriage alliances with their rivals. Those who reject such a path, like Tarek, Nadia’s first love, are forced to ally with the only powerful opposition force, the Muslim Brotherhood, even if they do not agree with the group’s fundamentalist values.
One does not have to know Egyptian history to be swept up into the thrilling, action-packed drama of the novel, for the characters are motivated by universal human emotions. Peter Daniel’s translation dexterously conveys the historical scope of the story, while imparting the distinct flavor of Egyptian society and culture and skillfully differentiating the inner voice of each character. The story’s lens gets ever wider as the decades pass, slowly revealing the almost incestuous relationships of corruption that tightly bind together people who hate each other and cleave the bonds of love.
The Lady of Zamalek hits all the sweet spots that a Western reader of historical fiction craves: a grand family drama set in a society at once strange and familiar, rife with surprise revelations that keep the reader fully engaged. It is also a brutally frank portrait of 20th-century Egypt, a country rich in resources, people, and, above all, stories. It deserves to be a bestseller, just as Egyptians deserve a government that serves them.
Alice Stephens is the author of the novel, Famous Adopted People, editor of Bloom, a book reviewer, and a columnist for the Independent. When she was a teenager, her family lived in Cairo. She still remembers the address she would give the taxi drivers to take her home: Khamsin alif Abou El Feda, Zamalek.