We’ll win or lose it here

Robert F. Worth

  • The City Always Wins by Omar Robert Hamilton
    Faber, 312 pp, £14.99, August 2017, ISBN 978 0 571 33517 6
  • Chronicle of a Last Summer: A Novel of Egypt by Yasmine El Rashidi
    Tim Duggan, 181 pp, £11.70, June 2017, ISBN 978 0 7704 3729 9

One of many remarkable aspects of Egypt’s 2011 revolt was its intense self-consciousness. It wasn’t just that the sit-ins were being broadcast 24 hours a day on satellite TV, with huge screens mounted in Tahrir Square so that the crowd could watch itself writhing in pixels, like the mosh pit in a nightclub. There were swarms of journalists from dozens of countries interviewing people day and night (myself included), while at least half the participants seemed to film everything they did on their phones. I remember one group of protesters who’d proclaimed themselves guardians of the revolution’s history: they were trying to obtain recordings and documents of every daily clash and bulletin, every song and chant, for an imagined ‘museum of the revolution’. One of them told me that future generations would never forgive them if any detail of these sacred events were not faithfully preserved. As for the poets and writers and filmmakers – some of them present in the crowd – you could almost feel their eagerness to take on this vast drama. Many older Egyptians declared that they had been waiting for this revolution all their lives.

Yet if Tahrir was ‘Egypt’s greatest poem’, as one glassy-eyed protester claimed to me at the time, it isn’t easy terrain for fiction writers. The Egyptian novelist Alaa al Aswany became famous for telling the crowds in the square that that ‘a revolution is like falling in love.’ He didn’t add that people fall out of love. Describing the floods of emotion that one feels at the barricades – in prose, at any rate – can be a bit like narrating an unusually vivid dream. The listener is left with a confused impression of people running, shouting, crying, raising flags or lowering them, gunshots and soldiers and defections. The incandescent feelings lapse too soon into disillusion and bitterness, a perceived betrayal of the cause. This is the familiar revolutionary arc, from Bastille to Thermidor. But to convey its twists and turns without descending into a slurry of score-settling (often involving multiple short-lived factions) requires great skill.

Some novelists drawn to revolution have solved this problem by reducing it to a stage set, as Dumas père did for the French Revolution in his door-stop series Memoirs of a Physician, or as Dickens did in A Tale of Two Cities. Others extend the timescale in search of the revolution’s larger meaning, as Flaubert did in A Sentimental Education, where the Revolution of 1848 was a central part of a decade-long ‘moral history of the men of my generation’. Novelists who take a more literal approach risk putting themselves in competition with historians, who are usually accorded more patience. Victor Hugo would be forgotten today if all he had written was Ninety-Three, his fictional version of the Terror and the Vendée rebellion (though the book made a deep impression on the young Stalin, for reasons that now seem too easy to imagine).

Egypt’s 2011 revolt has already produced two novels that are diametrically opposed in their approach. Omar Robert Hamilton’s The City Always Wins is a kinetic, docudrama-style retelling of the protest movement as seen by its young vanguard. It is interspersed with real tweets and newspaper quotes, and flaunts its true-to-life cachet: it is dedicated to Alaa Abdel Fattah, one of the actual uprising’s most charismatic figures and the author’s cousin. No such verité aspirations can be found in Yasmine El Rashidi’s Chronicle of a Last Summer, an elliptical, deceptively placid narrative that scarcely mentions the events of 2011. It is very much a novel about the revolt, but only as seen through its origins and ripples in Egyptian life and culture; it avoids the smoke and chaos of ‘the square’ as strenuously as Hamilton’s novel pursues them.

Hamilton’s goal is to re-create the social world of the Egyptian protest leaders, but in cinematic form – the novel apparently began life as a screenplay. We witness the bravery and passion of these young rebels, but also their narcissism and naivety. ‘We are crisis!’ one of the characters shouts in a Cairo bar full of Tahrir veterans. ‘We thrive on crisis! Our fucking job is to create crisis! Without the crisis there’s only the fucking regime or the system or whatever the fuck you wanna call it. Without the crisis everything just stays the fucking same!’ It is not quite clear how Hamilton wants us to hear this rant. His fictional proxy, a character called Khalil, seems to recognise some of the protest movement’s vanities – particularly after the 2013 military coup and the arrest of many of its leaders. But I couldn’t help feeling that he too is caught up in the movement’s aura of radical chic.

The novel revolves around a group of young activists and bohemians who promote their leaderless cause with a multi-media operation called the Chaos Collective, a ‘cerebral cortex at the centre of the information war’. They upload accounts of police atrocities, tweet frantically, count bodies in morgues. Most of all, they protest. Hamilton has a gift for evoking panic and flight, and much of the book consists of long run-on sentences in which the protagonists escape the police, struggle through angry crowds, or battle unconsciousness after being injured. These were extraordinary times to live through, and Hamilton skilfully conveys the emotional atmosphere at the core of the revolt, but he runs into the same problem as one of his own characters, who wants to make a documentary about the revolution’s first big street battle: all protests tend to look alike. The novel struggles to maintain a sense of urgency as its heroes again and again pack up face-masks and medical gear and rush into the crowd for yet another struggle with the police, or the Brotherhood, or the army.

Hamilton’s father was the British writer Ian Hamilton. His mother, the novelist Ahdaf Soueif, published her own book about the same events in 2012, Cairo: My City, Our Revolution. His aunt, uncle and cousins are longtime activists who were prominent figures in Tahrir Square and afterwards. Hamilton too took part in the protests and his main character is an Arab American who has come to Egypt to rediscover his heritage. This deliberate removal, and the novel’s frequent invocation of American pop music, serve neatly as a bridge to the Anglophone readers who are its intended audience. The other lead characters are Egyptian, but they are members of Cairo’s Westernised elite. The bulk of the Egyptian population is glimpsed only in the form of interludes told from the perspective of parents whose children have been killed in the protests.

Knowingly or not, Khalil’s foreignness raises the vast question – central to the revolt – of Egypt’s national identity and its relationship to the rest of the Arab world. Khalil is introduced as a cosmopolitan hybrid who, having grown up between New York and Egypt, feels that he can lay claim to both worlds without accepting their constraints. He moves to Cairo after university in the hope of mastering the qanun, a Middle Eastern stringed instrument: ‘he would be the one to reclaim that most majestic of sounds from the Orientalists, he would carve out a place for it in the future, in the modern, bring it bright and new into the digital world.’ He wants to show up both those arrogant Orientalist pretenders and Egypt’s stifling native traditions. Predictably, this overweening project falters, and Khalil moves on to working as a fixer for Western journalists. But after a French news crew annoys him by showing insufficient sympathy with a bereaved Egyptian man, Khalil stomps off in a fit of self-righteous emotion: ‘No more fixing work. For the first time in a hundred years we don’t need to sell our stories to France or England or America. We’ll win or lose it all here.’

Who is the ‘we’ in this sentence? The answer has a bearing on what happened in Egypt over the past six years. Khalil, despite his American upbringing, identifies with a younger Arab generation that feels entitled to bring change without quite knowing how. Hamilton describes them breathlessly: ‘Activists and filmmakers and journalists and psychotherapists and urbanists and historians and lawyers and more arriving every day: diaspora Egyptians returning to help build the new country; international activists looking for a way to unlock the new world.’ These were the would-be protagonists of the Arab Spring, raised in the age of globalisation. They were determined to reimagine their countries, to escape the defeats – 1948, 1967, all the farcical elections – that seemed to obsess and define their elders. This is Khalil’s contrarian vision of Cairo:

Cairo is jazz: all contrapuntal influences jostling for attention, occasionally brilliant solos standing high above the steady rhythm of the street… . Yes, Cairo is jazz. Not lounge jazz, not the commodified lobby jazz that works to blanch history, but the heat of New Orleans and gristle of Chicago: the jazz that is beauty in the destruction of the past, the jazz of an unknown future, the jazz that promises freedom from the bad old times.

This may have been an appealing urban serenade to young vloggers in 2011, but only if they had their eyes tightly closed and headphones on. It is not the history-burdened, misery-stained city one sees in the novels of Sonallah Ibrahim, Alaa al Aswany or Naguib Mahfouz; nor would it be recognisable to ordinary Egyptians. Hamilton and his hero seem only dimly aware of the fatal mismatch between their hipster-rebel worldview and the conservatism of the Egyptian masses, which only deepened after the clashes of 2013. Fearing chaos, vast numbers of people embraced General Sisi as their saviour, and suddenly the long-haired protest crowd started to look like some foreign-spawned plot. Hamilton narrates this sad splintering through the eyes of his characters, who watch in dismay as one of their friends leaps onto the Sisi bandwagon and starts inveighing against traitors. Khalil, with an American passport and a Palestinian-born father, is doubly suspect. The Chaos Collective becomes a target. Khalil’s romance with his fearless and beautiful fellow protester, Mariam, dries up, and one of his best friends is beaten to death by the police. The revolution is over, leaving Khalil to wonder darkly about whether he and his friends should have taken up arms. Hamilton leaves us there, more or less, with his hero visiting old comrades in jail. The City Always Wins is a hand-held view of revolution that never pans back to a wider view of Egypt or its past.

*

A tacit thread in Hamilton’s novel is the movement’s failure to bring more ordinary Egyptians onto their side. The real-world protesters often lamented this failure with the phrase hizb al-kanaba, or ‘the party of the couch’, which conjures up both the undeniable inertia of the Egyptian public and the self-regarding impatience of the protest elite. In a sense, Yasmine El Rashidi’s Chronicle of a Last Summer is an extended interrogation of these two themes, which echo backwards and forwards across the decades: the hunger for radical change and the undertow of continuity. It is a quiet novel – perhaps a little too quiet – narrated in memories of listless summer afternoons and family quarrels. But its casual, almost offhand form conceals an impressive density of observation. El Rashidi has a great deal to say about the cycles of thawra – revolution – and reaction in modern Egyptian life, and the way those cycles are circumscribed by the larger wheels of family and tradition.

Her unnamed narrator is a young, artistically inclined Cairene woman whose understanding of politics owes a lot to her older cousin Dido, a born activist who could almost have walked over from the pages of Hamilton’s book. In the first section of Chronicle of a Last Summer, set in 1978, the narrator is six years old, and Dido is a firebrand with a ‘communist-coloured necklace’ who declares that ‘the revolution would come someday.’ Dido worships Gamal Abdel Nasser, not so much for his policies as for his dynamism, his willingness to push Egyptians out of their torpor. ‘Ours wasn’t a culture used to change,’ El Rashidi writes. ‘Permanency was valued. We lived in the same places we were born in. We married and moved around the corner. A job was held for decades. The less change, the less movement, the better.’ El Rashidi’s narrator evokes this passivity beautifully through the figure of her mother, a tired woman from a once prominent family who seems imprisoned by the elegant, dilapidated house where she was born and still lives. After her husband is forced to flee the country, she seems unable to adjust: ‘she sat at her dressing table each morning, ends of her hair in hand, combing, endlessly, as if treading in her own oblivion.’

The narrator recognises the sadness of her mother’s plight, and sympathises with Dido’s romantic hunger for change. But she is a sceptic by nature. ‘I knew that in his heart what he really wanted was for comrades, dissidents, to unite; to raise a flag, occupy the streets, talk about love, peace, revolution.’ By this time it is 1998, and the narrator is studying film at university. She seems immune to the revolutionary elixir, and unable to understand how it translates into everyday life. She asks her cousin innocently: ‘What came after this utopia he envisioned? What would he do next?’ We get no answer. Dido accuses her of stifling an anger she claims not to feel; the cousins drift apart, and she wonders whether he is right. But the narrator senses that anger is not the only thing being stifled in her family. She catches hints in whispered conversations about taboos and traditions – about homosexuality, women’s roles, the heavy hand of paternal authority – that may be more consequential than the telegenic dramas of politics. These moments are tantalising, and for all the novel’s artful concision, I found myself wanting El Rashidi to build them into a larger, more fully realised story.

Tahrir Square is absent here: El Rashidi elides the entire period of the Arab Spring, transporting us instead to its bitter aftermath in 2014. But her narrator’s terse, melancholy observations bear witness to what happened in the square and afterwards. At times, she writes, she is so dismayed by Egypt’s collapse into chaos and autocracy that she wishes the 2011 revolt had never happened. One of this book’s most illuminating passages takes place near its end, when the narrator describes a 2012 trip to a hospital to help a friend who’s been stabbed by a madman. The place is a mess, with no proper medical supplies, and the unavoidable impression is of a more general indifference to human life. ‘This has nothing to do with riots or revolution, but the very fundamentals of an overtaxed and corrupt bureaucracy and the cycles of circumstance and life,’ she writes in her journal. ‘This is the type of bureaucracy so far gone that there is no one left to argue with, no one to turn to with grievances. It has been this way for years.’

The protesters, she seems to be saying, were demanding freedom and justice from a country that was incapable of delivering it. Yet El Rashidi is not out to indict any revolution in particular. Her title is deliberately ambiguous, hinting at other last summers, other upheavals. At one point, her narrator spends an afternoon chatting with a young record salesman. ‘He tells me the revolution has connected us to a past that preceded us,’ she writes:

I nod, tell him I’ve gone back into our history books to understand. I’ve read everything. I can’t believe all this I didn’t know. You might not believe me, he says, but I have too. He’s learning that history is repeating itself. We talk about Nasser. The first revolution. 1919. The Wafd revolting against the British.

Chronicle of a Last Summer ends on what seems like a dour, realist note. Three years after the euphoria of Tahrir Square, the heroic Dido is in prison on trumped-up political charges, like many of the actual 2011 protest leaders. The narrator’s father has returned to Egypt, but his years of exile remain a mystery; he brings no resolution. He tells her he knew a revolution would change nothing, and spends his days idling at his old club. The two go to prison to visit Dido, who listens silently to the father’s earnest talk about bravery. This is the sadly familiar world – paternal sermons, jail, the immovability of the regime – that the protesters struggled to remake, now delivered back to them even uglier than before.

But El Rashidi offers an unexpected note of solace. The narrator’s mother, who seemed a quintessential victim, has drawn her own lessons from Tahrir Square, and ‘she has become involved with a community association, writes letters and petitions, joins marches, spends what free time she has walking around the city taking pictures of things that need to change: the garbage, broken pavements, stray dogs and cats.’ She even uses Facebook, the protesters’ weapon, to seek homes for stray dogs and urge people to save electricity. The house where she has lived all her life, that great symbol of continuity for so many Egyptians, has taken on a new aspect for this seventy-year-old woman. ‘She spoke about a memory etched permanently inside her, about feeling reborn. One day she mentioned the weight of a physical burden anchoring her down,’ the narrator writes. That burden is something she never expected to lift, but as the novel ends, the women are packing up and moving house. It is a testament to El Rashidi’s achievement that she makes us feel the power of this moment. It is an act of will that might seem meaningless in another place, but in Egypt constitutes the kind of modest change that may someday, after spreading through many houses over many years, redeem some of the blood and tears shed for that gaudy old word, ‘revolution’.