Mohamed Kheir has written in Slipping a brilliant series of stories that drop their characters out of time and space for brief periods and interweave their narratives to challenge the limits of story-telling. The effect is like a folding of reality itself as the terms of their lives change directions in a stray encounter here, an impulsive decision there or a meeting with a stranger or with someone they know who is dead.
I’m not sure if Slipping should be considered a set of interrelated stories or a novel, but it hardly matters. I moved through this strange version of more or less present-day Egypt at first unprepared for the reality-stretching surprises. But soon enough I came to expect the sudden turns as one story breaks into another, only to return subtly transformed by the intervening experience. And these are like lived experiences, not just fiction you read at a mental distance. Kheir pulls you into the compelling stories of his characters in the narratives so luminously translated by Robin Moger.
We meet Ahmed whose dead father appears in dreams to his mother and starts dictating every move in their lives. Neighbors flock to the house to consult him for advice. A man named Ali steps out for an errand on his wedding day only to black out in the street and come to three days laters. There is the journalist Seif, working for a publication that exists to laud the current administration, whose dreams become as real as his waking life. He meets a returned emigre named Bahr. It is this strange man who becomes Seif’s guide to places and moments where reality begins to bend.
The two go to a “safe spot” amid crossing train tracks where they can stand as railway cars rumble past them within a few centimeters. Bahr leads Seif to an alley between two buildings where an icy wind shivers them on a scorching hot Cairo day, then to a place on the Nile where they can walk on water. They go to a hidden ruin where people gather to stare at a wall and for a few minutes see loved ones who have died.
Seif falls in love with Alya who not only sings music but also the sounds of the world – the rustling of paper, waves lapping on the shore or waves crashing against each other, sounds of the morning, of rain falling, of flames, the sounds of all life. After following Bahr and meeting Alya, Seif feels like a stranger to the person he’d been a few days before.
We meet the physician Ashraf who works for a pittance among the poor until recruited to a well-equipped and staffed hospital devoted to serving a single wealthy patient. He is warned that if he ever treats anyone else, his career and life will be ruined.
That warning is just one of the recurring and violent reminders that the lives of these characters play out against a background of a repressive government. They are brutalized in crushed demonstrations, torture and arbitrary arrest. The Egypt in which they live seems bent as much by the brute force of the powerful as by the breaks in reality they encounter.
As the stories interweave, the thread of time frays. It becomes hard to tell which event came first, which is dream, where the boundaries are that separate one part of life or one experience from another. They overlap in a way that forces the characters, especially Seif who is the only first person narrator in the series, to reimagine their lives and find new dimensions of reality.
Bahr, who has lived in Europe for a time, knew a different world where people were free to lead their lives and where, for him, a cold and rainy climate forced them to live more decisively than in the stultifying heat of Egypt. Yet he committed some crime, went on the run and so returned to his native country which he can now contrast with a different kind of life. His cutting commentaries on the worlds he’s known begin to undermine what Seif has taken for granted and push him to search for a new direction. But there is no simple answer or twist of plot to push these characters to a neat conclusion. Rather Kheir slowly builds and at once tears down the world they live in, forcing them to question life and at times to join in the frequent protests that recur and often change their lives forever.
Slipping is a remarkable blend of speculative fiction with a political background that pushes characters to test the multiple realities that somehow they must fit together to live their lives. There is nothing finished about the course of their experience. Sometimes, time itself disappears, a life is cut short, a dream reveals truths that daily life has concealed, a character resolves to take a new direction without knowing what that is.
Mysteries abound, yet soon the reader, like the characters in these stories, comes to accept the alternating beauty and brutality that define life in Kheir’s Egypt. Slipping is a magnificent and entrancing book, beautifully written and translated, full of wonder, love and gut-punching violence. It is that rare book that changes the perception and imagining of life.