Friendly Fire, By Alaa Al Aswany trans. Humphrey Davies

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The Independent Culture

Excused from games until his day of shame, an obese and bullied schoolboy finally has to squeeze into singlet and shorts. His classmates' mockery intensifies until "we were now laughing simply to cause him pain". Gripped by a jealous rage, a man who has worshipped his wife beats her up; bruised and tearful, she simply asks "May I go now?"

A poor college graduate goes for an interview at the home of a grand engineer to prove her prowess as a French tutor; asked to show off her skills, she cannot speak a word. As he has done before, a young man picks up an American tourist outside a museum; afterwards, the grateful visitor hastens "to stuff the hundred-dollar bill into your pocket". "So what's the problem? Why, Sayed, are you all of a sudden crying now, like a child?"

Fragment by fragment, character by character, Alaa Al Aswany's desolately touching stories paint modern Egypt as a landscape of humiliation, submission and defeat. Crushed by the weight of hierarchy and inequality - in careers, in public life, in sexual and family ties – his downtrodden toilers and dreamers inwardly rebel, outwardly surrender, and turn their stifled wrath on those even weaker than themselves.

Disabled by gender, by class, by religion, by failing bodies and unruly minds, they face a choice between utter meekness and social extinction. A boy with a prosthetic leg who finds a brief, blissful respite from his destiny when he borrows a bicycle also suffers from "that Coptic look... burdened with guilt and distress". Compared to the rumbustious, tragi-comic exuberance of Al Aswany's worldwide bestseller The Yacoubian Building, or even the darker expat adventures in his Chicago, here a bone-deep sadness prevails.

Episodes of heart-tugging tenderness do abound, but a shadow of regret will always fall across them. In the final story, the grown-up narrator meets his father's former mistress in her fragile old age. The night-club dancer Madame Zitta Mendes once lived amid an "aroma of sin" that pervaded "a secret, velvety world tinged with pleasure and temptation". Now the retired seductress passes the time with other decrepit foreigners in Groppi's café (a Cairo landmark), staving off a return to the "terrifying solitude" of their threadbare rooms.

Some of the afflictions that Al Aswany recounts with all the empathy and poignancy at his command belong to humanity as a whole: bereavement, loneliness, ageing, the pains of longing and frustration in passions and professions alike. But much of the specific sorrow seems bound up with a rigid and hidebound society suffocating – as the author often says – from a dearth of democracy, of mobility, of opportunities to grow and flourish.

Egypt's state publishing house (GEBO) for years refused to handle this collection's terrific opening novella, "The Isam Abd el-Ati Papers", because its doomed, dissident narrator kicks off with a stream of curses against his cringeing countrymen: "A mere servant, that's your Egyptian". Stubbornly rebellious, without a good cause, the son of a thwarted artist whose equally blocked friends all struck him as "major unfinished works", Isam cultivates his fury and isolation with a Dostoyevsky-like eloquence until fate – which, inevitably, takes on a blonde, European form – overwhelms him.

Al Aswany's preface duly points out the official publisher's "confusion between imagination and reality". Deploying the analogy of the train in Cairo's first-ever film show that patrons feared would mow them down, he argues that fiction is not advocacy and a character's rant no sort of author's manifesto. All true enough.

And yet... the forthright and fearless dentist-turned-writer has often used his writing to expose "the tyranny, corruption and hypocrisy in Egyptian society", while never perpetrating a word of agitprop. In the subtlest way, he does rather want his train of thought to run down tyrants in home, ministry and school. Deeply affectionate towards their baffled heroines and heroes, but aghast at the internal and external obstacles that lie in their path, these 17 stories – in Humphrey Davies's vigorous translations – bear out the volume's shrewdly chosen title. Egypt's candid friend will not yet hold his fire.

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