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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Lodging House

Khairy Shalaby

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To purchase The Lodging House

Title: The Lodging House
Author: Khairy Shalaby
Genre: Novel
Written: 1999 (Eng. 2006)
Length: 426 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: The Lodging House - US
The Lodging House - UK
The Lodging House - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B : appealingly crowded novel, a bit lacking in forward momentum

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Arab News . 3/5/2007 Lisa Kaaki

  From the Reviews:
  • " The novel’s anonymous hero introduces us to an extraordinary crowd of men and women living on the fringes of society. Their lives are created from an astonishing mishmash of real, fantastic, bizarre and weird elements; their timeless joys, tragedies and problems are narrated in a maze of tales, reminiscent of the ancient Arab tradition of storytelling." - Lisa Kaaki, Arab News

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Lodging House centres around a compound in the city of Damanhour called Wikalat Atiya where the anonymous narrator winds up living. The opening sentence -- "I never thought I could be brought down so low that I would accept living in Wikalat Atiya" -- suggests it's a place of last resort, but, in fact, it has its appeal, and the narrator even finds himself drawn to it, returning and staying there even when he probably has other options. It's a community there, and it makes for a home; it also makes for a locale filled with entertaining life-stories and unusual characters -- enough to fill a novel .....
       The narrator was well on his way to a career as a teacher, but then he took out a lot of his pent-up anger on an unfair maths teacher and that was the end of that. With little money and no prospects he's soon introduced to the Wikalat Atiya, where you pay: "two piasters to sleep in a room, or pay a piaster and sleep in the courtyard". Its reputation ("as a dump and refuge for the downtrodden") slightly exceeds its reality, but the narrator soon sees it as a kind of home, and though there are periods he spends elsewhere he finds himself returning and settling down here.
       The narrator has a decent education, especially for the times (it is still the Nasser-era, and his literacy comes in handy among the many people who can't even write). He has some literary aspirations too, having already published a booklet called The Smooth Cheek, but he doesn't pursue this too actively. In fact, he's fairly haphazard about most of his pursuits, pretty much falling into whatever possibilities there are. He doesn't look too hard for a job, but when something comes up he generally goes along with it.
       He has wealthier relatives, but tries to keep his reduced circumstances from them (and the most others). Among those well-disposed to him are members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the novel takes place during the period of the massive crackdown on them. For the most part this political aspect is part of the background of the novel, but some of the complaints -- the foolishness of the government cracking down so hard and broadly -- they "arrested all members of the Muslim Brotherhood and every bearded guy, young and old, at dawn" -- and the obvious consequences ("The person they arrest will be bruised and that will leave bruises in those around him") do get fairly loudly proclaimed here.
       Overall, however, The Lodging House is a novel of the day-to-day life of Egypt's urban poor. They have practically nothing, but somehow get by, and most come with at least a bit of a colourful history. Bureaucracy is fudged, officialdom gone along with just as far as necessary. From the woman with the monkeys to the wikala-gatekeeper they're a curious large family. Shalaby weaves the different tales together fairly nicely, through the eyes of the narrator who is very slowly learning what is going on around him. (Things often aren't what they seem, beginning with the very nice scene of one of the residents pretending to sell candy on the street but in fact tossing alcohol-soaked corn to the chickens there, and then collecting the ones who passed out drunk.)
       The narrator has a few adventures, recounting his relationships with women -- a big-lipped relative, a neighbour --, his hashish habit, his political and literary interests. At the wikala there's a rumour that he's a secret policeman, there to spy on them, while at one point he grows a beard in a scheme to make money by convincing mosque visitors of a sob-story. Along with the many other characters' stories, it makes for a fairly lively, varied book, richly populated -- but there's very little sense of progress. The narrator goes through a few phases, depending on who he is hanging out with, but there doesn't seem like there's much of a learning or maturing process going on here. There's little sense of future, only present. That's part of the story, of course, of how timeless many of these lives are, going about their business without looking too far ahead, but it doesn't feel entirely convincing -- and among the more powerful parts are when there is actual change in the air, such as when the narrator's relative, Badriya, is (surprisingly) set to get married.
       The background politics, and especially the changing circumstances of the Muslim Brotherhood, do suggest that things must and will change, but this remains a fairly small part of the book as a whole. The narrator, in particular, seems to have a difficult time in planning or even looking ahead (as was already suggested by his losing control at school, just short of being able to begin his teaching career), which leaves the book with a sort of aimless feel to it. At such great length (over four hundred pages) that's also a lot to sustain.
       A colourful and often entertaining look at Egyptian life, The Lodging House has considerable appeal -- but it doesn't quite satisfy as a novel-whole.

       Note: There's a welcome Glossary to explain some of the terms, too, but it's not quite comprehensive and what entries there are don't always convey the meaning in the best way. Consider: 'ful midammis or ful', which is described as being: "dried broad beans cooked in a stoppered container over slow heat". Arguably accurate, this is far from the ideal way to describe both the food and its significance (as an Egyptian staple).

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The Lodging House: Reviews: Khairy Shalaby: Other books by Khairy Shalaby under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Egyptian author Khairy Shalaby (خيري شلبي) was born in 1938.

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© 2007-2010 the complete review

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