Egyptian writer Yasser Abdellatif’s hybrid text, Angel Lust, interweaves historical reconstruction, fiction, and commentary to draw connections between its cast of characters and a crime and its ironic afterlife in popular culture. We are introduced to Salah Abou Helawa, who was executed by hanging in the mid-1980s for his part in a notorious gang rape in Maadi, a wealthy suburb of Cairo. We witness a fictional encounter between six schoolboys and a mysterious young woman that steers us back to the character of Abou Helawa. And we meet the actor Hamdi El Wazir, who played Abou Helawa in the 1989 film The Rapists.

Originally published by The Sultan’s Seal, a literary website based in Cairo, Angel Lust takes its name from the Victorian slang for postmortem priapism, a condition typical in victims of hanging, and offers an atmospheric yet devastating treatment of class, sexuality, and popular culture in Egyptian society over the last forty years. Met in translation, this excerpt of Angel Lust extends an invitation to the English reader to step into a distinct spatial culture, and to listen in to the unique dialect of a time and place.

— Raaza Jamshed for Guernica Global Spotlights

In the presence of the rope, standing on the platform, and in reply to the traditional question, he told the executioners and men of law that his last request was to be washed, so as not to meet his Lord unclean. They’d dragged him from his cell to the place where he would die, and the shit had run out of him uncontrollably, like water. Piss flowing as though a tap had been spun open. By the time they reached the execution chamber, his red trousers were soaked through and stained with diarrhea. The stench filled the heavy air of the room.

The governor, the judge, and the prison doctor met the request with silence. Taking him to bathe meant the time it would take to walk him to the prison bathhouse, then the time it would take to wash, and then there was the return journey, and all that, of course, would constitute a waste of time: of government time, and that of the senior officials who were there to ensure that the judgment was properly executed.

Which silence the executioners understood perfectly, and so, his request unacknowledged, he was shuffled into place over the trap, the rope was tightened about his neck, and a black cloth bag was pulled down over his head.

* * *
Atef wakes at noon, as usual. He is alone in the house. His mother is at work, and his sister’s at university. He finds a newspaper on the dining table and is casting his eye over it and sipping his tea when he sees it: the report at the bottom of the front page.

The public is following the details of the case with intense fascination, and many stories are spun about the two victims and the gang of blackhearted villains, the chief accused in particular.

Reading the report through until he has memorized the names of the prison governor, the judge, and the detectives who brought the case to court, Atef sighs, and a faint smile tugs at the corner of his mouth. He lays the paper down, picks up his tea, and goes to stand by the window.

A great weight has been lifted. The air around him recovers its warmth.

* * *
In a large triangular shard of mirror balanced on a little washbasin, Salah smoothed his heavy mustache and briefly met his own gaze, testing its capacity to impress and intimidate. Just twenty-three years old, but the sheaf of black that described a rough rectangle beneath his flared nostrils lent a menacing addendum to his years. A record of delinquency, muggings, and knife play in the neighborhoods of Tora El Hagara and Kotseeka and Manshiat El Masry; a name known all the way to El Maasara. And now, here, in Ezbet El Askary, hard by the prison walls, in a bathroom with a hole in the floor for a toilet and gray walls that sweat damp at their base and are moss green by the ceiling, he stands combing the thick mustache whose original inspiration was Thabet El Batal, legendary goalkeeper for Al Ahly and Egypt. The penalty shoot-out specialist.

Salah’s father was a prison guard. A drab balcony in Ezbet El Askary came with the job. Salah had knocked a door through his bedroom wall straight onto the street, so he could come and go without having to pass through the apartment and interact with his family, while his friends could visit and stay up all night without offending the dignity of the home. In fact, Salah’s room was known throughout Tora as a place you could go, laden with any or every substance, to have a good time, so long as you guaranteed Salah a cut of whatever you brought with you. Of course, you couldn’t disguise the smells, nor the plastic syringes and empty bottles of Max scattered beneath the window, but though the window in question lay only footsteps away from the entrance to the Tora El Balad police station, it was the property of Sergeant Fathi Abou Helawa, who was Salah’s father and (like it or not) untouchable, and his home and children likewise, so long as red lines were not crossed.

* * *
Hamdi El Wazir got his break playing the role of ticket collector Deif in Atef El Tayeb’s Bus Driver. The first draft of the film’s screenplay had been written by another director, Mohamed Khan, who didn’t usually write at all (not even for himself, let alone anyone else), and it reflected his interests and obsessions as a filmmaker far more so than those of El Tayeb. Khan envisioned it as a kind of road movie, a genre he was interested in and had made before:

A bus driver who owns a taxi to supplement his income, circling Cairo daily, traversing its streets, sometimes taking the highway out of the city to visit his sisters and their children in Damietta and Port Said to beg his brothers-in-law to assist in saving his father’s workshop from sequestration by the tax authorities.

At this point, El Tayeb and screenwriter Bashir El Deek begin to make their influence felt. They raise (or rather, reduce) the story to the level of symbolism: the seizure of the workshop is a stand-in for the loss of the nation, and the film as a whole becomes a satirical assault on Sadat’s program of economic liberalization and the decline of good old patriarchal values. It is an approach that starts to gather momentum when Hassan the driver, played by Nour El Sharif, comes to understand his case in patriotic terms, drawing parallels with the fight for independence, and he assembles his old comrades in arms to help rescue the workshop.

In any case, starting here, and on through a number of different television roles, El Wazir managed to establish himself in honorable company, one of a number of high-caliber supporting actors from the 1980s, the likes of Mahmoud Masoud, Mohamed Kamel, and Hassan El Adl.

Deif in Bus Driver was a role that seemed to suit him, and which could easily have defined him: salt-of-the-earth, dark-skinned; a solid man and a good man.

Fate had other plans.

* * *
Tomorrow is the year one Arabic language exam. Atef and Younis are sitting in Atef’s bedroom, each with a copy of their Arabic textbook open before him. There’s an old copy of David Copperfield at one end of the table, and a tape machine is playing Judas Priest, the volume lowered to give an impression of studious concentration. Atef is telling Younis how David bites Murdstone’s hand, and laughing. “Do you think David Copperfield is meant to be Charles Dickens?” Younis asks. The exam is tomorrow, but that isn’t important. The heavy metal washes over what’s left of an anxiety that has lost its focus: school and everything it signifies seems irrelevant now, the people there irredeemably insincere and pretentious; it’s a world that deserves to be cut adrift.

The two friends stand at the window, smoking, staring at the wall of the seminary outside Atef’s bedroom. Immersed in a calm, Christian limpidity, the seminary seems to be somewhere else entirely, outside Cairo. There’s something there; it’s like an optical illusion is telling them there’s a person standing alone by the wall. It’s not far away, but the darkness and the weak yellow wash from the lone streetlight are conjuring a ghost. They peer. A young woman, perhaps? White shirt, white trousers, standing smoking by the wall. Like she’s waiting for something.

David Copperfield fades; Judas Priest fades. And though it’s only hours away now, ushering in two weeks of misery that culminate in the summer holiday’s bright dawn, the Arabic exam fades as well. The holiday starts here. Everything is suspended, and into the void steps a powerful curiosity which draws them out of the bedroom and downstairs to see the truth of it for themselves: this rumor of a young woman smoking by the seminary wall.

* * *
He’d been eating “black dish” — sliced eggplant, boiled without spices or fat of any
kind — and was spooning it down with a generous flap of fresh prison bread when his teeth had closed on grit, cracking a molar lengthwise right down to the root.

The hideous pain ruined the brief moments of joy that he had been able to conjure from the meal. The fragrance of fresh-baked bread, once capable of stirring the condemned body back to life, was now indelibly associated with the rot-inflamed nerve that hammered directly into his brain. The smell of hot bread was the smell of pain: the chastening agony of his tooth. He asked the guard on their wing, a Corporal Meselhy, to help him transfer to the prison hospital so that he could be seen by the dentist. Either get the tooth taken out or get a prescription: anything to muffle the thudding in his skull. The pain — despite the red jumpsuit he wore as a walking dead man, despite the “men’s swing” which waited for him at the end of his line — was making him weep like a woman.

Meselhy had served alongside his father at El Aqrab prison, and he did as much as he could. But there was no getting around his condemned status. The corporal promised to try, then passed him a few dried cloves to numb his gums.

“Chew on those. They’ll keep you quiet till we get the hospital sorted.”

* * *
Feigning bravado, Atef and Younis approach her. Younis speaks first. Does she need any help? No, she doesn’t. Her defiant insouciance is sexy. She’s their age or slightly older, a voracious smoker. Atef wants to know what she’s doing here. He’s a local, is the implication: he has a responsibility to defend the place against random incursions. Nothing, she says, but she is prepared to do anything. And very hungry.

Very sexy. Inside the heads of both boys now, the irresistible, instinctive half-hope: Am I going to see it at last? Touch it? Be inside it? Smell it? She is very real. She looks like she can’t go home, or like she doesn’t have a home. She certainly doesn’t belong around here: standing by herself, smoking in the darkness; untroubled, open to anything.

Atef says, “We could jump the wall and hang out on the seminary football pitch. A bit of privacy? The monks are asleep, and anyway they know us. They’re fine.”

“I’m not jumping any wall,” she says sharply. “Get me something to eat first, and then anyone who wants to get off can get off.”

This is the first time they’ve ever heard a woman talk this way. So blunt! They ask her what she wants to eat.

“Liver, sausage, mince…beans and tomatoes…anything.”

Mince catches Younis’s attention. The rest make sense — liver, sausage, beans — but something about minced meat doesn’t seem to belong. Can you order mince? Does anyone even serve cooked mince? Then he remembers the cart that sells liver sandwiches at the Thakanat train station. The man who runs it sells two kinds of sausage alongside the liver: a heavily spiced Alexandrian sausage and then a type that he cuts out of its casing once cooked and which looks exactly like minced meat.

They introduce themselves, and she introduces herself to them. Her name is Etab, she says, and neither of them has the slightest doubt that this isn’t her name at all, that it’s lifted straight from the Afro-Saudi singer currently the rage in Cairo. They agree to take her to the sandwich cart by the Thakanat station. The little money they have on them will cover it, and it’s only five minutes away on foot.

They walk along the seminary wall until Avenue Fifteen meets Avenue Eighty-Seven, then turn left toward the station. About a minute later they pass their school gate. Abdel Zaher, the school guard, is sitting next to the gate, smoking molasses tobacco from a water pipe. They greet him tentatively, and he answers with a frown, curiosity pricked by the presence of the strange girl by their side. They don’t care. A minute later they run into Hisham Abdallah, a classmate, walking down the street toward them. He is carrying books, which means that he is on his way home from a private lesson: final revision before tomorrow’s exam. They stop to say hi, and introduce him to Etab. He immediately understands what’s going on and decides to come with them. He is coming for a sandwich, he says. He is hoping like they are hoping.

Next to the train station is something like a little market: shops and stalls selling various goods and services. There’s a big grocer and a smaller grocer, a shop selling household goods, a poultry stall, fruit and veg, and a café for the taxi drivers. The glass-fronted liver cart is set up where the pavement forms a right angle with the station wall. Here, in a space between cart and wall, the owner keeps two tables where his customers can eat. At one of these tables, the four friends see Hamada El Maghribi and Ali Hamad sitting before a veritable pyramid of sandwiches and a smaller pile of green chilies. They take the second table, and greetings and occasional small talk pass back and forth between both groups.

By the time Etab has wolfed her sandwiches, Hamada and Ali have joined the table, and joined the party. They leave the sandwich seller, looking for “somewhere quiet.” The three who set out from the seminary are six as they walk away from the cart. A cat in heat acquiring a new tom at every corner.

Etab makes it clear that she will be doing nothing out in the open, so the monks’ football pitch is out, as is the (easily accessible) playground of Victoria High School, the waste ground that runs in a strip along the railway line, the unlit park on Qinal Street, and the desert in nearby Degla.

Hamada says he knows a guy from Tora who works in a patisserie nearby. Khaled El Khawaga. He could sort out a place for sure. He’s “street.” They walk to the patisserie. Hamada goes in and emerges with El Khawaga. Khaled El Khawaga is tall and thin, and in the hellish glow of the storefront’s green neon, they can see that his face is covered with nicks and scars. El Khawaga says he’ll take them to a friend who has a place in Ezbet El Askary. Nice and safe.

It’s easy. They cross the empty drainage channel that divides Maadi from Tora, then on past the Tora police station and the Tora train station, then into the heart of Ezbet El Askary, between the uniform gray cubes of the apartment blocks. At one of these blocks, El Khawaga raps on a door, and a short, scowling young man appears with a thick bolt of mustache. Salah Abou Helawa. As the six of them stand there — the five boys and Etab in the boys’ clothes, which hide her figure — El Khawaga bends and whispers something in Helawa’s ear. Minutes pass, then Abou Helawa steps forward, El Khawaga behind him.

“Here, Etab. You’re sleeping with me tonight.”

He turns to the boys.

“And a good night to you all. Let’s hope we don’t have to meet again.”

Excerpted from Angel Lust, written by Yasser Abdellatif and translated by Robin Moger. Originally published in 2021 by The Sultan’s Seal, which describes itself as “a money-averse, visually compelling space, non-hierarchical but carefully curated, that is dedicated to interesting writing and translation in Arabic and English. It aspires to being global and diverse in a true sense.”

Yasser Abdellatif

Yasser Abdellatif is a writer and poet from Cairo, Egypt. He has lived and worked in Edmonton, Canada, since 2010. He has published four fiction books and two poetry collections, as well as translated many literary works from French and English into Arabic. He writes mainly in Arabic, although his works have been translated into English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish. He has participated in literary events and festivals in France, Spain, Colombia, Germany, Malta, the Netherlands, and the United Arab Emirates. Abdellatif was a resident of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa in 2009. His debut novel, The Law of Inheritance, won the Sawiris Prize in the young writers’ category in 2005. His collection of short stories, Jonah in the Belly of the Whale, won the same prize in the category of prominent writers in 2011.

Robin Moger

Robin Moger is a translator of Arabic into English. His translations of prose and poetry have appeared in The White Review, Tentacular, Asymptote, Washington Square Review, Words Without Borders, and others. He has translated several novels and prose works, including Haytham El Wardany’s The Book of Sleep (Seagull Books, 2020), Mohamed Kheir’s Slipping (Two Lines Press, 2021), and Yasser Abdellatif’s The Law of Inheritance (Seagull Books, 2019).