PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 July, 2006, 12:00am

Once Upon a Time in Cairo

by Sayed Gouda

Blacksmith Books, $95

Most people will recognise the characters who populate Once Upon a Time in Cairo. On the one hand, there are the generous, honest and self-reliant; on the other, the self-interested, unprincipled and manipulative. The reader's loyalty is stirred and polarised as readily as by a classic cowboy movie. Will good triumph? Or will injustice prevail?

What's fresh is the setting in which the story takes place, and here the title provides the answer. Once Upon a Time in Cairo mingles the familiar with the alien and in doing so performs an important task. The lives and concerns of the protagonists, with their often unfamiliar names, have much in common with our own.

A building in a gang-dominated Cairo neighbourhood is shared by upwardly mobile working-class families. The tranquil, ordered and traditional life of owner El-Arabi's family is shattered by two events: El-King, the boss of the area, covets their ground-floor shop; and one tenant seizes control of another's flat, falsely claiming that his wife has inheritance rights.

Believing the courts to be corrupt, the wronged owner rules out redress through legal channels, instead executing an armed raid with family and friends to regain possession. But El-Arabi's book-loving son-in-law, the independent Kamal, is killed and the stage is set for his widow, Amina, to pursue vengeance, pressing her three sons as they grow up to do the same.

Amina, though, is no match for her neighbour Delilah. Obsessed with the desire to keep her ill-gotten gains, the voluptuous widow Delilah turns her charms to attracting first the local boss, then Amina's eldest son, Safwat, using each protector in turn for her own purposes.

Meanwhile, another of Amina's sons, Omar, is drawn to religion, then arrested after shouting slogans at a funeral. Three days of torture transform him from a boy 'with a religious streak' into a radical.

When Safwat plans to marry Delilah, Omar takes matters into his own hands, and there follows a tragic turn of events.

With his first novel, Sayed Gouda has laid the ground for a continuing saga of families. Has Delilah succeeded in corrupting her own daughter, Kitty, to use men rather than love a man? 'We want them to love us, but deep in our hearts, we must keep ourselves from loving them. That would only put us at their mercy.' Will justice come to Amina?

Gouda's is a detailed vision of the lives, thoughts and actions of residents of a corrupt and competitive Cairo neighbourhood. There is social and historical commentary here, too, on Islamic societies, on the role of religion, and on the use of violence to defend it.

A Hong Kong resident for more than a decade, Gouda has absorbed some Cantonese and English usages. Otherwise, his assured, self-effacing style, offering many lively images, is a pleasure to read.