Between hope and fear: a view from behind the barricades
Cairo: My City, Our Revolution
by Ahdaf Soueif
This beautifully written, often hastily detailed, account of Egypt's 18-day revolution has the urgent, almost breathless tone of a modern-day Scheherazade, telling stories as a way of warding off death or disaster.
As Ahdaf Soueif, one of the most prominent Arab authors writing in English today, confides in her introduction to the book: 'I wanted it to be an intervention, rather than just a record.' She reminds us repeatedly as she guides us into her beloved Cairo, into her life and inside the extraordinary events as they unfolded in Tahrir Square, that 'our revolution' is ongoing and affirms 'this book is part of my fight, my attempt to hold our revolution safe in my mind and my heart'.
It is this profound hope that suffuses the pages of Cairo: My City, Our Revolution, along with Soueif's sense of what Egypt can be, given the spirit of unity and co-operation she sees blossoming around her during the tumultuous 18-day revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak and his corrupt cronies. She writes of the burgeoning solidarity between ordinary Cairo residents and the middle class, between liberals and progressives, leftist, Salafis, the Ikwhan (Muslim Brotherhood) and those who longed only for a better life as together they faced all the brutalities Mubarak's thug militias could muster.
And most of all, of the growing bond between older Egyptians and their youths, or their shabab, whose bloodied bodies filled makeshift hospitals in Tahrir Square. One man asks her, 'How did they divide us?' Another, with his hand on his son's shoulder, says, 'I thought so badly of him, sitting all day at his computer. Now look what he and his friends have done. Respect. Respect.'
One can't help feeling respect, and not a little awe, while reading Soueif's finely wrought, poetically charged reportage: for her fellow residents of Cairo, for her activist family who were deeply engaged in the revolution - her nephew, Alaa Abd El Fattah, was imprisoned for almost two months.
Most of all for those young people who braved bullets and brutalities in the name of peace and a better life. For this, she declares, is above all the story of Egypt's shabab, 'the young people', who ignited the revolution and who died in their hundreds and were injured in their thousands, with many later dying of their wounds; thousands still languish in jails. More than 843 shabab lost their lives and the dreams of these shudada, 'the murdered ones', Soueif writes, 'is now our life's work. We will create the Egypt they died for.'
Yet for all her hope, or all her 'happy gloss' as one Egyptian critic put it, Soueif is alert to the 'forces of darkness' that even now are regrouping and 'perhaps growing another head'. She describes Mubarak and his family as the casing that held these forces together and utilised them. 'Now the casing has been smashed, the darkness is out there, unchannelled, panicked and rampant, twisting into every nook and cranny as it seeks to wrap itself around us again.'
Her narrative, shaped largely from diary entries, pitches us back and forward in time, and is layered with accounts of the way corruption and greed have ransacked and degraded the city in which she was born. She writes movingly too, of her sense of shame in doing nothing to stop those who 'not only made money but made Cairo into a clown'. For 20 years, she shied away from writing about her 'wounded city' because 'it hurt too much. And now miraculously it doesn't. Because my city is mine again'.
So cogently does she write of her Masr, as Egyptians call Cairo, its lanes and magnificent monuments, its moods and that of the people who throng them, that she almost transports the reader there, experiencing events as they unfold. Here we are running with the crowd choking on the tear gas Mubarak's men toss at them. (Amazingly, Soueif stops to look at the expiry date on the canisters, and later discovers the effects of outdated tear gas are worse.) On into a tiny mosque turned makeshift hospital: wounded young men are everywhere. 'Look,' she urges us.
Every inch of ground she and her fellow revolutionaries cover evokes potent memories for Soueif, who effortlessly blends her brand of lyrical reportage with fragments of memoir and personal anecdote.
It is difficult to know which is the most compelling aspect of the book: Soueif's account of the revolution itself or her intimate, loving portrait of Cairo. For what lingers in the mind long after reading is a sense not just of the powerful centuries-old allure of the city - known to those who inhabit her as Umm al-Dunya, 'the mother of the world' - but also awe of the bravery and humour of its citizens.
And if at times their hope - and indeed Soueif's hope - seems too fragile a weapon for the forces of darkness that would thwart it, one feels obliged to heed her words: 'I believe optimism is a duty.'