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Osama Allam Reveals the Hidden Side of Cities in ‘A Wide Road for a Lonely Person’

The Egyptian-Canadian novelist Osama Allam’s latest book, “A Wide Road for a Lonely Person”, presents tales experienced while living in 12 different cities around the world, Cairo, New York, Chicago, Montreal and Paris among them.

The book, in Arabic, was published earlier this year by Dar El Shorouk with the title “Tariq Motasei Li Shakhs Wahid: Hekayat Min 12 Madina Agiba”.

In it, Osama Allam gives his impressions of places and people as he wanders on foot, metro and buses through different cities’ streets, cafes, and markets. Of New York, he says: “I don’t know why I have constant fear in New York. I feel like I’ve come there too late.” He sees it as a city too big for the mind to contain.  Watching a puppet show in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art evokes only feelings of loneliness.

New York inspires five stories, which are mostly about loneliness despite the city’s famous hustle and bustle.

“I don’t know why I have constant fear in New York. I feel like I’ve come there too late.”

Osama Allam, in one of the tales from “A Wide Road for a Lonely Person”  

In the world of old New York junk markets, Allam discusses his relationship with old things that have not lost their lustre, but rather glow in their age. “I am fascinated by everything that is old,” he writes. “I find it difficult to throw out theatre or museum tickets, or even subway tickets from the countries I’ve visited. … I love and hate New York’s trains at the same time.”

Discovering Hidden Magic

The book’s stories are reflections on places, but cannot be regarded as travel literature. Their combination of reality and fantasy makes Allam’s trips “enjoyably imaginative”, the Egyptian author Mohamed Mansi Qandil says in  the book’s introduction.

Allam “always seeks to discover the hidden sides of cities,” Qandil writes. “The outcome is this amazing book whose stories radiate magic. His soul cannot stand monotony but he contemplates cities lengthily, not seeing them as stacked buildings and cobbled streets but as living legends.”

Osama Allam is an Egyptian physician and novelist who lives in Canada and holds dual citizenship. He has a Ph.D. in immunology from the University of Montreal and works as a veterinarian, which is perhaps why references to the animal world abound in the book Examples include the story “Song for a Lone Being”, in which he moves between elephants. For him they are “huge angels,” and he relates their individual deaths at the hands of ivory-trade criminals.

In another story he returns to Cairo, seeing it with the eyes of the expatriate “as if I am saving for her all the tales that I have hidden from the cities of my long exile.”

Allam “always seeks to discover the hidden sides of cities. The outcome is this amazing book whose stories radiate magic.”

Mohamed Mansi Qandil, in his introduction to the book  

Despite his many years in Canada, the images he retains of his homeland’s capital are unforgettable. He navigates Cairo’s streets in a mood between nostalgia and astonishment, registering its changes and the essence of its tale: “A very old taxi driver … old enough to tell me that the water carrier (the man who distributed water to houses) was scented with rose water, and that the ugly Ataba Garage was once the site of the Khedivial Opera House with a casino named after a lady in front of it, and that Ghouria, in downtown Cairo, was the place to buy luxury shoes. I wish I could hug him, maybe I could smell my father’s scent on his body.”

Montreal and Toulouse

Allam remembers his early days in Montreal in the story “The Wonder Dolls Factory”, relating how he went to the city’s oldest library, located in the famous Latin Quarter, on a daily basis for months. “It was not possible to know it was a library apart from one small sign,” he writes.

In another story, “For the Sake of Nice Company”, he describes a strange encounter in that library with an old lady and a white mouse that runs between the books. He strikes up a friendship with the mouse, whom he calls “Fawzi”, and secretly brings him a piece of cheese, which the mouse receives lovingly.

Osama Allam has previously published five novels and a story collection, “Morning Coffee at a Parisian Café”, which won the Ghassan Kanafani Award at Montreal’s Andalusian Salon in 2014.

The French city of Toulouse is the setting for his night tours in “the Happiest Man in the World”. He sees a sign there saying, “We have been giving joy since 1903.” Behind it is a small shop with a fountain of flowing chocolate that wafts the smell of cocoa over passers-by. He remembers how that smell made him as joyful as a child as he stands watching the chocolate fountain and the neatly arranged shelves with thousands of small chocolate pieces behind it.  As he remembers, an itinerant musician nearby begins to play the accordion, in what seemed a miracle of timing.

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Osama Allam has previously published several literary works, including “The White Tattoo” (2017) and “The Arab Quarter” (2019). His short story collection “Morning Coffee at a Parisian Café” won the Ghassan Kanafani award at Montreal’s Andalusian Salon in 2014.

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