Egypt on the Edge: A Review of The Glass Collector

Nearly a year ago, the people of Egypt toppled the long-standing dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak and last week conducted their first democratic elections in many years. The revolution—the largest and most successful of the Arab Spring—began with a sit-in at Tahrir Square in Cairo and spread throughout the country, as Egyptians of all backgrounds took a stand against despotism, censorship, corruption, inequality, and religious and ethnic oppression. Whether all of the dictatorship’s opponents will find redress remains to be seen, but the people have taken the first step toward controlling their own destiny, and they have served as an inspiration for those struggling against tyranny, corruption, and/or growing inequality elsewhere in the world. The expression “walk like an Egyptian,” taking pride in the ability to stand up for self, community, and country, became part of the lexicon this year.

The timing is therefore ideal for the publication in the United States of acclaimed British author Anna Perera’s most recent novel, The Glass Collector. The Chicago-area publisher Albert Whitman inked a deal to bring Perera’s work to this side of the pond, beginning with the important and controversial Guantanamo Boy, which Whitman published in September 2011. Guantanamo Boy tells the story of a British Pakistani teenager mistakenly swept up in the U.S.-directed war on terror while visiting family in Pakistan. (See my review of the U.K. edition here: http://blog.timesunion.com/wagingpeace/wrongly-imprisoned/2114/). The Glass Collector reflects Perera’s continued interest in the Middle East and South Asia (her father is Sri Lankan) and serves as a gripping introduction to Egypt on the verge of revolution.

Aaron is a glass collector in contemporary Egypt, one of thousands of Coptic Christians who collect Cairo’s garbage, carry it in horse-drawn carts to their squalid village on the city’s outskirts, and sort and recycle it. The food waste accompanying the recyclable garbage is fed to the large number of pigs in the village. An aspiring artist, Aaron is obsessed with the beautifully colored glass at Omar’s perfume shop, and he begins to take not only the damaged bottles that Omar sets aside for him but also the expensive filled bottles of perfume that he hopes to sell to help his impoverished family. When his temperamental and nosy neighbor, Shareen, catches him and reports him to the priest, his stepfamily casts him out, and he is forced to join his friend Jacob in the dangerous job of collecting and recycling medical waste. Redemption comes in the form of Rachel, who takes care of the village’s ponies and who Aaron endeavors to visit in the hospital after his abusive stepbrother runs her over with a motorcycle while showing off, and the sculptor Michael, who acts as a mentor for the angry, confused youngster.

This novel seamlessly weaves in facts about the Zabbaleen, the Coptic Christians who are shunned but necessary in Egyptian society for their work as recyclers of garbage. Perera does a good job of showing how the Zabbaleen took on this role (in the rural areas they were the breeders of pigs, a job that the Muslim majority could not do), the impact of the swine flu hysteria, and the tension between traditional and modern garbage collection. While immersing readers in the place and culture, she moves the story forward through the conflicts and intrigues among the characters. Shareen, in particular, is an unfailing source of drama, from the tantrum she throws when her single father arranges for her to be wed to a much older merchant believed to have a lot of money, to the series of disasters that accompany the wedding festivities, and finally, to her escape to Cairo, where she is seen getting into the elegant car of a much older man who really does have money. Above all, Perera immerses readers in a society struggling with extremes of poverty and wealth, the tinderbox that caught fire in the 2011 Arab Spring.

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