BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Walk with the Egyptians ...

This is a perfect example of the delightful serendipity of the dollar store … a nice hardcover book, in a very recent edition (the updated American edition, which just came out in 2014) on an interesting topic … for a buck, what's not to like? Of course, I'm sure that this channel is way less popular with the authors and their publishers, as if they're getting anything, it's likely to be pennies (would Walmart pay on “cut out” copies going to the dollar stores? dunno).

Anyway, this is how Ahdaf Soueif's Cairo: Memoir of a City Transformed got into my hands. The author is best known as a novelist, as well as being a translator, and a political/cultural commentator. Although Egyptian, she's very involved with Palestinian issues, and has founded festivals for Palestinian writers. She grew up between Egypt and the U.K., married a British author, and still maintains homes in both countries.

The book initially came out in early 2012, with a different subtitle, and largely traced events over an 18-day period which was the “revolution” portion of the Egyptian “Arab Spring” in January and February 2011, when Hosni Mubarak was forced out of office. The American edition includes another two sections (and about another half as many pages as the original), one from 2012, and one from 2013, updating events.

I really wish that I had more of my little bookmarks in this, but I only have one, and at this point I have no idea what I thought was notable there when reading it (she's mainly bitching about having a cold). Because the book is a narrative of events pretty much as they happened, there's a lot of flow and very few “set pieces” that would be good for grabbing to illustrate this review. It does make the reading quite engaging, as things are unfolding hour to hour, and there's no “telegraphing” what the next thing's going to be (an issue I have with fiction). However, this also means that stuff's running by with little context (or context that one would have from distant parts of the book) … I'm going to see if I can flip through and maybe find some “choice bits” to drop in here, but be forewarned.

I did have a couple of gripes with this that I'm also going to throw in here as caveats. Ms. Soueif is a big supporter of the “Palestinian cause”, which generally translates to being anti-Israel, and by extension anti-U.S. … and this can be felt in the wording of numerous portions of the book. I'm willing to admit that my views on these subjects are likely to have their own anti-Islamic spin to them, and so a lot of the chafing I was doing with those aspects could well be originating from this side of the page … but it's something that would have been useful to know going in to reading this. The other (and, perhaps, related) thing that drove me nuts here is the use of numbers in the middle of words to represent various Arabic pronunciations rather than “standard” transliterations. This system she credits to “Arab bloggers” as a simplification of notations for a “glottal stop” or “soft vibration in the back of the throat”, but it feels like a way to poke at American readers (they could have easily “fixed” this for the U.S. Edition) causing repeated WTF??? moments and scurrying off to the note page with the details to figure what the word was (such as “wa7ed” where the 7 stands in for a “heavy h”).

As noted, this is something of a diary of things happening around the revolution, or revolutions. The book is divided into three sections, Revolution I – in 2011, Revolution II – in 2012, and Revolution III – in 2013. The first is set up in three chapters, “Eighteen Days” which is from January 24 through February 11, 2011; “An Interruption” which is “eight months later, October 2011”, and “The Eighteen Day Resumed” which covers February 1 – February 12, 2011. The telling is, obviously, broken up into these various time periods, and is also broken up with different phases and shifts in the political realities.

When the activities begin, the author is in India, and is dropping everything to get back to Egypt. She notes at one point that she's the third generation of “activists” and she “wanted more to act the revolution than to write it”. As I mentioned, the writing is very “in the moment”, but here's a bit from the “Friday, 28 January, 10:00 P.M.” section that at least frames the action, without it requiring explaining names and locations:
      In neighborhoods across the country, through the night of this Friday that will become known as the Friday of Wrath, the regime kills hundreds of Egypt's young. Police and Security men drive cars and trucks into groups of protesters. Snipers shoot young men and women from the rooftops of the Ramses Hilton, the American University, the Egyptian Museum, and the Dakhleyya. Troops fire on them with shotguns and rifles and automatics, and the thug militias, the baltagis, burn them with Molotov cocktails and batter them with stones, ceramics, and marble.
The narrative slips in and out of the “now”, and drifts off into stories of her family, descriptions of neighborhoods and landmarks as they usually had been, and analysis of various political (and religious) factions.

The first chapter actually stops on February 1st, not on the 11th, with the “Interruption” chapter taking a look at a lot of the maneuvering following the deposing of Mubarak. Frankly, the phrase “this isn't going to end well” sort of hovers over the book. The author and most of her allies appear to be fairly non-religious, and “socialist” in orientation (the “Liberals”), and seem to have some sort of belief that if “the people” rose up to get rid of Mubarak, there'd be a miraculous renaissance with everybody singing some Arabic translation of Kumbaya in the streets and a fully-formed responsive and responsible government would be effortlessly in place. Instead, they had the SCAF (the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) “betraying” them and instituting military rule until a new constitution could be put in place (and there was extensive disagreement if they had to have that first, or have new elections first), with every little detail being fought over by multiple factions. And, of course, the hard-line Islamists had been working to be ready for the chaos, and have a “ground game” of organized political parties, which it seems the Liberals never thought to bother with. So, as things move forward, without the old regime keeping the various factions under control, the ballot box becomes the club that the Islamists use to take over most of the elected positions

A quarter of the book later, the narrative picks up back in the “18 days” of the revolution. Much of this is waiting for Mubarak to actually step down. He does eventually, and the military steps in. Elections are held, and the Islamist parties (the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis) win over 70% of the seats … Soueif notes:
The Liberal parties had been too busy campaigning for elections to be postponed until after the Constitution was written to organize or acquire a presence on the street. The Left – while very high profile in the campaigns and initiatives and struggles that fed the revolution – was disorganized and had absolutely no funding but scrambled at the last minute to field young candidates under the slogan “The Revolution Continues”.
She then, after noting the percentages of the vote, adds the one positive she can identify:
The heartening surprise was that not a single candidate believed to have a connection with the Mubarak regime was returned.
The military, once having been thought by the revolution as being “on their side”, turned things ugly … lots of bloodshed … and the old security forces were back in play again. Run the clock forward to May, 2012 and there's finally Presidential elections … the initial voting ends up in a run-off between Muhammad Morsi “the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamists in general” and Ahmad Shafiq “the candidate of the Mubarak regime remnants and the military”, who had each gotten about a quarter of the votes, with only about 1% separating them.
For the non-Islamist revolutionaries confronted once more with the ballot box, the choices were terrible. You could either vote for Muhammad Morsi, or you could spoil your ballot. And if you spoiled your ballot – or boycotted – and Ahmad Shafiq won, how would you live with yourself? After everything we'd done, after our friends had been killed and maimed, after so many lives had been ruined – and also after the freedoms and the gains and the new spirit we had achieved – we would have allowed the regime to come back.
Morsi won by a few percentage points, but by July of 2013 “he'd been deposed by the armed forces by popular demand”. Once again the military stepped in, this time with a great deal of support of the people, and the former head of Military Intelligence (!), General Sisi, took the reins of power, and is still incumbent today.

Because of the narrative nature of Cairo, I'm no doubt not doing it justice, having opted to simply skip all the “personal stories” (of friends, relatives, associates, etc. – many of whom were jailed, crippled, or killed), or much of the blow-by-blow details of what/where in the telling. It is a fascinating tale, however, and gripping in its immediacy.

This seems to still be in print in both hardcover and paperback, with the on-line big boys offering the hardcover for a whopping 69% off of cover price at this writing. The new/used guys have copies too, but at price points (with shipping) that aren't much better than that deal.

If you have an interest in politics, the middle east, or mass movements, you'll no doubt find this quite appealing.

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Tags: book review

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