Strange Horizons reviews Ahmed Khaled Towfik‘s Utopia:
Utopia, the first novel by the prolific and popular Towfik to be translated into English, was published in Cairo in 2008. It was an instant bestseller, and has been reprinted four times. Set in 2023, it depicts a bleak Egypt divided into the pampered inhabitants of Utopia, and the Others. The people of Utopia have everything; the Others, next to nothing. Utopia is located on Egypt’s northern coast, while the land of the Others comprises a ghastly Cairo devoid of water or electricity, where drug-addled and hungry youths hunt the few remaining stray dogs through defunct subway tunnels. The book has two narrators: a teenager from Utopia, who takes the name Alaa at one point, though it’s clear this is not his real name; and Gaber, a young man of the Others. Alaa’s sections carry the title “Predator.” Gaber is the “Prey.”
Alaa has everything, and he’s bored. He describes his daily routine in a laconic style that communicates the monotony of his life: “I wake up. I take a leak. Smoke a cigarette. Drink coffee. Shave. Fix the wound on my forehead to make it look terrible. Have sex with the African maid. Have breakfast” (p. 16). Alaa goes on to puke on his mother’s bedroom carpet, get high, and listen to “orgasm music,” and he’s out of things to do. The wound on his forehead—a decoration designed by an Israeli doctor—hints toward a central theme of the book: violence as entertainment. Alaa wants to go hunting. The hunt is the one thrill left to the youth of Utopia: stalking one of the Others, and cutting off an arm as a souvenir.
Alaa sneaks out of Utopia on a bus full of Others heading home after a day of work in rich houses. With him is Germinal, a girl from his clique and occasional sex partner—a weak character whose motivations remain unclear throughout the book. The two of them lure a young woman off to kill her and cut off her arm, but are discovered by a gang of Others before they can manage it. Gaber saves them, and takes them home to live with him and his sister Safiya until they can find a way back to Utopia.
Reading Utopia in 2011, it’s impossible not to think of what’s being called the “Arab Spring,” and particularly the uprising that led to the fall of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. The world of Utopia is an only slightly exaggerated twenty-first century Egypt, recognizable in the gap between rich and poor, the crumbling of government services, the privatization of space and resources, the anger at the links between the Egyptian, American, and Israeli governments, and the yearning for revolution. The strongest aspect of the book is its depiction of the frustration of young men, both rich and poor, who have run out of options. Alaa is bored and powerful, but Gaber, bored and weak, suffers the same debilitating sense of the meaninglessness of life. A life without dreams, Gaber thinks to himself, is “one looooo(what are you waiting for?)oooooo(nothing)ooong, grim present” (p. 52). That the very rich and very poor experience a similar “grim present” suggests that Utopia addresses those who are both poor and rich: the educated and unemployed young people who played such an important role in Tahrir Square. “A society without a middle class,” reflects Gaber, “is a society primed for explosion” (p. 108). – continue reading.