Book review: Berma meets Omar Taher

Renowned satirical writer, Omar Taher, published his latest book Berma Yoqabel Rayya we Sekina (Berma Meets Rayya and Sekina) earlier this year. The book’s title references the infamous Alexandrian female serial killers from the early 20th century, yet their relation to the text remains ambiguous. Berma is more of a contemporary critique of social conditions in Egypt.

The protagonist of the book – Berma – is a fictitious character that resides in Taher’s imagination, acting as his imaginary friend or alter ego.

In his previous writings, Taher often explored social and cultural issues in Egypt, yet often through snippets of his daily life. In Berma, he presents his stories, for the first time, through the eyes of another – a smart, sarcastic and slightly crazy character. At times, Berma makes all the sense in the world; at other’s he’s just incomprehensible.

The book provides glimpses of Berma's life, his relationship with society, and his participation – or lack of it – in political life. All of this is accomplished in a light and amusing way.

In 2009, Berma writes a letter to former President Hosni Mubarak during his visit to President Obama in the US, explaining the status of the country at the time. He writes:

Mr. President,

It’s been three days since you’ve been gone…

Yet they’ve passed like years of hard labor…

Things here are stable and everything is fine…

Governor Adly Hussein "proved" that he’s not responsible for the typhoid cases in Qalyubia…

This comforted everyone, including the typhoid patients who lie sick in the governorate's hospitals…

Don’t worry about Gamal [Mubarak], he performed well during the dialogue he held with Egypt’s youth online and deserves an Oscar…

In addition to political satire, exploring linguistics is a recurring theme in all of Taher’s books. He likes to simultaneously shock and unravel to his readers the secrets of Egyptian street language. He goes to great lengths in Berma explaining the meaning of "al-antakha" (laziness accompanied by luxury) and "al-tarmakha" (covering up wrongdoing), citing the former regime’s 2005 and 2007 amendments to article 76 of the constitution, which placed rigid eligibility criteria for presidential candidates. The vocabulary of the “street man”, Taher argues, can only be acquired through significant “marmatah” (immersion) in street life.

Berma, however, also departs from Taher’s previous writings because it talks about cultural perceptions of religion for the first time. Taher touches on religion twice in the book, reflecting the experience of both Muslims and Copts in Egypt. The first time is during Berma’s visit to Saint Catherine's monastery and a second during his pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina. He recounts his visits in a highly sincere way that evokes feelings of holiness and reverence.

Taher also shares childhood anecdotes. As a child, he had to bring his family yogurt every night from Bahgat’s – Sohag’s finest takeout for fresh yogurt and feta cheese. The daily trip, however, always ended in agony, as the merchandise never arrived home safely. After long discussions between his parents and a plea from his mother to encourage Taher to get the yogurt – “otherwise he would develop some complex” – Taher’s father accompanied him to the store one day. On their way back, he advised Taher “never to look down, but rather to look ahead.”

Berma was written before the 25 January revolution, so it offers insights into Egypt’s recent past. But its anthropological yet humorous approach makes it timeless.

Taher’s style makes his readers think and laugh – at times laughing at themselves. With his witty and simple writing style, he makes Berma an enjoyable read, reaching the heart of its readers but also making them reflect on his many anecdotes.

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