BEIRUT: It’s 2023 and Egypt is not what it once was. In a compound guarded by ex-U.S. marines, a 16-year-old boy wakes up, has sex with the African maid, eats breakfast, throws up on his mother’s carpet, drinks whiskey, scrawls violent slogans on the wall of the living room, and listens to “orgasm music” – the successor to the “refined” death metal.
Outside the walls, the Others roam Cairo’s streets, so desperate for food that the corpse of a stray dog provokes a bloody brawl between rival gangs.
Welcome to “Utopia” (2011). In Egyptian author Ahmed Khaled Towfik’s pre-Arab Spring sci-fi world, Egypt’s middle class has dissolved, leaving the ultra-rich to exploit the meager resources of the poor.
“Utopia” is the name of a compound on Egypt’s northern coast, where the country’s wealthy live in enormous manors, shop in malls, drink, smoke, do whichever drugs they can lay hands on, have sex and get abortions, drive fast cars as dangerously as possible and wait to die.
Towfik’s protagonist, who goes by the fake name Alaa, may be a teenager but he’s as jaded and nihilistic as a man of 80. “In one hour,” he writes of his unorthodox morning routine, “I’ve done everything, and there’s nothing left in life that interests me or that I want.”
The only thing that excites Utopia’s teenagers is violence and death. Although it’s forbidden, their lust for brutality has led to a new teenage sport: hunting. The bravest sneak out of the compound to the hellish city beyond, where they aim to capture and kill one of the Others, bringing back an arm as a souvenir. Should they find themselves in danger, one telephone call will bring a helicopter load of marines in minutes, killing indiscriminately to protect them.
Towfik ties his dystopic vision to pre-revolution Egypt. In the first decade of the 21st century, we learn, the U.S. invention of a new super fuel rendered petroleum irrelevant. Israel opened its own alternative to the Suez Canal. The rich became richer and tourism was no longer enough to feed the poor. Eventually, the government ceased to function. The rich fled to their compounds while the poor were left to starve.
“Utopia” is narrated by one character from each side of this divide, the arrogant, ruthless Alaa, whose sections are headed “Predator,” and the “Prey,” a man called Gaber who lives in the ruins of Cairo. Left without water or electricity, violent gangs roam the defunct subway tunnels and people survive however they can: Women prostitute themselves, men steal, cheat or kill to live another day.
When Alaa and his sometime girlfriend Germinal decide to go hunting, they run into unexpected trouble. They’re attacked, their mobiles stolen, by an angry mob longing to tear them apart. It is Gaber who saves them, sheltering them with his sickly sister.
Rape – one of the central themes of the novel – becomes symbolic of their class battle. Gaber is redeemed by his capacity for empathy, but Alaa remains utterly incapable of sympathy or remorse.
This crucial difference aside, rich and poor do have some things in common. United by their fascination with violence, rape, drugs and religion, they share the intolerable frustration of living a life utterly without meaning. A life without dreams, Gaber explains, is “one looooo[what are you waiting for?]oooooo[nothing]ooong, grim present.”
The first of Towfik’s books to be translated into English, “Utopia” proved a hit when published in Arabic in 2009 and, as the action’s futuristic date draws closer, it retains its disturbing power.
The themes of the book – class divides, oppression, violence and the intolerable bleakness of an utterly meaningless life – suggest one thing: revolution. The possibility seems elusive for Towfik’s drug-addled, cut-throat poor but five years after publication, in the wake of Egypt’s political upheaval, the concept resonates all the more powerfully.
Ground down by the daily struggle to survive, the Others seem too weak and divided to revolt, but that doesn’t stop the rich from seeing them as a threat.
“They’ve lost the capacity for anger but, like sheep, they sometimes get agitated for no reason,” one ex-marine tells Alaa, who refuses to take the idea seriously.
Once he sees the reality outside the compound, Alaa’s perspective shifts. “Why don’t you revolt?” he asks. Gaber explains that “the revolutions of the 20th century that satisfied the aims of the masses are now old history. ... Revolutions today are more like riots, then helicopters hover in the air, launch some grenades and fire several shots and the crowd disperses.”
Towfik’s dystopia is a hell on earth but his cliffhanger ending suggests the possibility of change, albeit violent. In the wake of the 2011 Egyptian revolution and its chaotic and sporadically violent aftermath, Towfik’s gated compounds, rampant poverty, privatization of services and the gulf between citizen and state are increasingly in evidence.
“Why don’t we kill ourselves?” Alaa wonders. “I don’t know. Suicide seems vulgar and rather common ... The lovelorn youth sets himself alight – the vulgarity of it!”
It’s an observation that seems almost prophetic in light of Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in December 2010, the catalyst for the Tunisian Revolution.
“What difference does one death make?” Alaa’s mother asks her husband. “I don’t think revolutions happen because of things like that.”
“Actually,” he replies, “they only happen because of things like that.”
As 2023 draws closer, readers may wonder whether the regional upheaval since Towfik penned the novel has negated his chilling vision or only increased its likelihood.
Ahmed Khaled Towfik’s “Utopia” (2011) translated by Chip Rossetti, is published by Bloomsbury Qatar Publishing Foundation and is available at local bookstores.