This book was published in Arabic in 2004 and in English in 2009. It contained 16 short stories and a novella. The novella took up just under half of the book.
I came to this after reading the author's Yacoubian Building (2002), which impressed as a window into the lives and values of contemporary Egyptians in Cairo. For me, Friendly Fire was a lesser work but contained some interesting things also.
As with Yacoubian, the writer focused all around society in Cairo, finding dysfunction nearly everywhere. Human potential was stifled continually by bureaucracy, corruption, envy and the struggle to survive. The need to cater to the whims of all-powerful superiors in the workplace led to humiliation. The lack of control over their lives turned children and adults into beasts. People sacrificed themselves to better the lives of family members, or prostituted themselves to foreigners for money. Behaving badly, some masked their behavior with florid phrases of religious piety.
Devotion to family members -- especially mothers and children -- offered some the strongest motivation to keep struggling. But mostly the problems conspired to keep people apart and drove sensitive souls to the edge. The contrast was strong between past hope -- before 1952 -- and present disappointment. Unlike Yacoubian, there were few positives, no optimism and no way out. In some ways, the writing covered territory similar to that of VS Naipaul on Islam and on the Third World, and seemed to share much of that writer's outlook.
For this reader, the strongest stories were "The Kitchen Boy," "An Administrative Order," "Mme Zitta Mendès, a Last Image," "Dearest Sister Makarim," "An Old Blue Dress and a Close-Fitting Covering for the Head, Brightly Covered" and "Waiting for the Leader." "An Old Blue Dress" contrasted the behavior of a genuinely pious woman who lived an outwardly sordid life -- sacrificing herself for her family -- with a woman who observed religious conventions but was calculating and grasping.
The "Leader" story was especially damning, with old, disillusioned politicos waiting for the ghost of a former leader to appear and lead them out of the dead end, while one dreamed of material reward and summering in Europe with his wife. The dead man had advocated constitution and democracy, but maybe the leaders and masses of the present were unready. Another story offered glimpses of how the newly rich behaved, with a trophy wife from Europe, foreign-language education for the offspring, marble statues of Venus in the courtyard and Roman numerals carved into the door.
Too many of the other stories seemed underdeveloped, with weak or abrupt endings. Missing was writing from women's points of view or a focus on the behavior of religious leaders -- things that had been present in Yacoubian.
The novella began well, with a narrator's forceful denunciation of national traits, but lost momentum quickly as he descended into confused memories of a parent, student life and lost love, with little apparent sense of form -- again unlike Yacoubian. It ended in a mental hospital. Maybe this novella, the opening work, was intended partly as a summary of the themes touched on in many of the stories that followed.
A work covering somewhat similar ground was Taxi (2006), by Khaled Alkhamissi, which recorded the frustrations of taxi drivers struggling to make a living in Cairo. A more modest creation, it at least offered some humor against all the darkness. A contrast to Friendly Fire was View of a Distant Minaret and Other Stories (1983) by Alifa Rifaat, an older writer, who showed Egyptian women coping with their lives, finding quiet strength in themselves and their faith.