By Chip Rossetti
CAIRO: For the past two years, Egypt’s bestselling novel has been a story about a group of privileged young Cairenes whose comfortable lives are shattered by heroin. Weighing in at a hefty 635 pages, Essam Youssef’s first novel, A ¼ Gram, sheds light on the taboo problem of drug use among Egypt’s upper-middle class. Set in the 1980s and 1990s, the novel follows the lives of a group of friends over the course of ten years, starting with a fatal New Year’s Eve party where they first share a quarter-gram of heroin, through their descent into addiction, lying, stealing and fatal overdoses. In what is perhaps a critique of official hypocrisy, one of the users (“I don’t refer to them as addicts,” Youssef explains) is a police officer. By the end of the novel, only one character — the narrator — has managed to quit heroin for good, by entering a rehab program.
The novel, published by Dar al-Misriya al-Lubnaniya, came out in April 2008, and is now in its 22nd printing, with a 23rd on the way. Without national bestseller lists or sales databases comparable to Bookscan, sales figures for Arabic books are often hard to come by, but the success of A ¼ Gram, which has remained a top seller for two years running, is undeniable.
Ahmad Rashad of Dar al-Misriya al-Lubnaniya, confirms that “over 50,000 copies” have been shipped — an extraordinary number in a region where a typical first print run is around 2,000 copies. The breakdown of sales by country is harder to trace, but Youssef estimates that about 80% of sales have been within Egypt. Based on feedback from readers and anecdotal reports, he points to Kuwait, Lebanon, the UAE and Saudi Arabia as places where the book is also selling particularly well.
Inevitably, its runaway success has been compared to that of another hugely popular Egyptian novel: Alaa al-Aswany’s novel The Yacoubian Building, which in 2004 became a word-of-mouth bestseller in Egypt, and later a feature film. Like Yacoubian, A ¼ Gram seems to have struck a chord with the public because it frankly addresses taboo subjects in Egyptian society. “It’s really about the middle-class and upper-middle-class and how they live in Cairo,” says Youssef, who points out that the characters are based on friends of his. “People abroad think that Egypt is all about camels and the pyramids. They don’t know about the people driving Mercedes and using drugs. Drugs and alcohol are a real issue here. It’s a hot topic, but nobody has talked about it in detail like this.”
The novel’s authentic feel and use of slang may also help explain its popularity: “I wrote the book in the street language of these young men — the words, the places they go to, how they talk about drugs. They’ve got their own lingo.” As a result, the novel has attracted younger readers who don’t often buy books, according to Youssef. He has also found that, despite the mostly male characters, a majority of his readers are women: “Because the novel is about young men, it’s kind of an encyclopedia for women. It’s like an insider’s guide to what guys do, where they go, and how they talk with each other.”
For Youssef, 44, writing comes with a family pedigree: his father is the author of numerous popular children’s books and his mother worked for many years as editor-in-chief of the popular children’s magazine Samir. Fluent in English, Youssef works as the director of an environmental consulting firm, and also runs a Cairo-based film production company, Montana Studios, which he started in 2007. A film version of A ¼ Gram is now in pre-production, with an award-winning Egyptian director, Ibrahim El Batout, on board.
Two months ago, Youssef self-published an English edition of the novel, which so far has been sold exclusively by one Cairo bookstore. “I decided to publish my own novel in English. I thought, let’s translate it for the local market, and then we’ll see who’s interested abroad.” To date, he has been approached by one American publisher about a distribution deal, but he has not concluded any agreements yet: “I told them I needed more time to consider my options, although I am open to ideas from publishers and distributors.” To translate it, Youssef turned to his own sister, a professor of English at Cairo University, who took on the job only after much persuasion from her brother. Because of the difficulties of translating slang, Youssef took a copy of the book with him on a visit to the US last May, where he asked American friends for translating particular turns of phrase into natural-sounding English.
Youssef is delighted that A ¼ Gram has been such a hit: “Lately, it seems as though everyone I talk to has read the novel, or at least seen it.” At the Cairo Book Fair earlier this month, Youssef had a crowded book-signing appearance at his publisher’s booth, but seemed a little taken aback by the book’s continuing popularity: “I saw the crowds who came to the Cairo Book Fair signing,” he says. “I’m always surprised to see people are still buying my novel.”
VISIT: The Web site of Dar al-Masriya al-Lubnaniya
DISCUSS: Are there still topics too taboo for fiction?