Monday,16 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1132, 24 - 30 January 2013
Monday,16 July, 2018
Issue 1132, 24 - 30 January 2013

Ahram Weekly

Revolution on the shelf

Overwhelmed with a flood of interesting books on the 25 January Revolution, Rania Khallaf wonders whether they all deserve to be read

Al-Ahram Weekly

There are too many books on the 25 January Revolution to digest. It is as if the Revolution has given both young and established writers a magic incentive. Egyptian writers, who are used to being on the fringes of political events, have shown wonderful engagement whether by sharing their own creative notes or documenting events as eyewitnesses. Political analysts too demonstrate more insight and boldness than they have ever shown. The Egyptian revolution stands alone compared to other revolutions in Arab Spring countries -- full of dramatic events and cheerful, sad, unexpected moments. The variety and richness of events were positively reflected in the book titles; whether in literature, autobiography, politics or sarcasm, books on 25 January are the bestsellers in most downtown bookshops. As a result, independent as well as government publishers have been busier than ever in the last two years, evidently lucratively. The General Organisation for Cultural Palaces, a division of the Ministry of Culture, even started a series, “Revolution’s Creative Writings”, in 2012. One of its most recent books is Dawamat El Samt wal torab (Whirlpools of Silence and Dust), a collection of short stories by Mustafa El Balky, a novelist from Assyout, Upper Egypt, on the suffering and pain of individuals caught at various moments of the revolution.
In the Alef bookshop at the Mall of Arabia, satirical books on the revolution take up the lion’s share of space. I was warmly welcomed by sales specialist Yasmeen Khaled, who gave me ample time to browse through books I managed to pick off the orderly shelves. “Satirical books on 25 Jan Revolution are the best sellers, then politics, while literary books come third,” she explained. “However, it also depends on the age category of the readers; young people’s first preference is satirical books; some will come looking for political studies, however, especially those written by Fahmy Howeidy, Ibrahim Eissa, Tharwat El-Kharabawy, and Youssef Nada.” Khaled added that the revolution was a turning point in many readers’ lives, and the big event has urged young people to read more. While some readers opt for books on Egypt’s ancient and contemporary history, others, if not the majority, decide to read about political events from an eyewitnness perspective.
Yawmyat thaer sakher (A sarcastic Revolutionary’s Journal) by Yasser Qatamesh is one example of the satirical book category -- a funny account of Egypt as a chicken farm and Mubarak as the rooster who rules over his hens until they decide to take to Tahrir Square. Thawra dot com ( by Mohammed Sami, published by Laila Publishing House, is another good example. In it the author inquires, “Is this the Egypt that we, Egyptians, dreamt of?” The book reviews the Revolution, its roots, events and results, in what might be called a superficial record to be added to the Revolution’s literary archive. Sami describes the revolution as “the first real public revolution in Egypt, a revolution that was provoked in space!” The 170-page book is divided into four chapters, the last of which is entitled “Brainstorming” and written in colloquial Arabic. It discusses the counterrevolution, the state of chaos, sit-ins, the campaign to win compassion for Mubarak and the poisoning of the relationship between the revolutionaries and the armed forces. In the third chapter, entitled “Connections”, the author reviews the most important political figures that were highlighted by the media during the revolution, adding a sarcastic review of Mubarak’s speeches. The book is written in a light, sarcastic tone, and liberally infused with colloquial words. Simply entitled 128, Mohammed Hesham’s book deals with the difficult years before and after the revolution from a very special perspective. The satirical book revolves around an Egyptian citizen who owns an old Fiat 128, with which he roams the streets of the city and faces hilarious situations, especially with policemen.
Autobiographical notes in fact recur. Ahmed Zaghloul Al-Shiti’s Maet khatwa men althawra, (One Hundred Steps of Revolution) published by Miret, is a good example. Al-Shiti, a short story writer, documented his memoirs of the 18 days of the revolution in very short chapters or vignettes. With typical diary titles, such as “Thursday 11 February, 5 pm, The Flat”, “Nothing is quite in Tahrir Square” and “Urgent News 5:20 pm”, the author gives his 150-page book a chronicle format. In “Urgent News”, Al-Shiti deals with the urgent news revealed by Al-Jazira satellite channel, on the meeting of Supreme Council of the Armed Forces: “I viewed this as a military coup. At that time, I was in Tahrir Square, and it was in a state of complete agitation. And then, for a single minute, silence strangely prevailed. I needed someone to talk to. I telephoned Mansoura, and I told her I am afraid that this might be the military coup that Omar Soliman predicted. She agreed and we started communicating our thoughts on Facebook.” In a chapter entitled “Nothing is quiet in Tahrir Square”, the author documents the events of the eighth day of the revolution: “In the morning, I headed to the Square with my friend Ahmed Al-Labbad; crossing Qasr Al-Nil Street, we were stopped by a group of young people, who asked us to show our identity cards. The Central Security Forces had tried to separate the protesters… Some small demonstrations joined together before reaching the square… and the security forces are blocking their way with barricades.”
The book is full of minute details that might not interest everyone, but it is the author’s own account and it is a worthy addition to the literature of revolution. Al-Thawra Alaan: Yawmyat min Miadan Al Tahrir (Revolution Now: A Journal from Tahrir Square) by Al-Ahram journalist and novelist Saad Al Qersh is one of the most popular books in this genre. The book, published by the Cultural Palace Organisation and recently republished by Al Kotobkhan Publishing House, is a detailed account of the first 18 days of the revolution. It reveals the author’s personal view of many issues as an eyewitness of the revolution, including the psychology of the protesters and their peerless determination to stay in the square in spite of all the violence being meted out to them. The 20-chapter volume exposes the position of Muslim Brotherhood, who only showed up after the stepping down of ex-Mubarak, raising the slogan, “It was God alone that brought the regime down!” The book also reveals the hypocritical attitude of some famous intellectuals and writers who, once staunch supporters of the Mubarak, now hastened to support the revolution.  
The anthropologist Samuli Schielke’s You’ll be late for the revolution! is a unique contribution to the literature of 25 January. Subtitled “An Anthropologist’s Diary of the Egyptian Revolution and what followed”, the book is a translation into Arabic of the author’s blog in English. Born in Helsinki in 1972, Schielke earned his MA in philosophy and Islamic studies from Bonn University, Germany in 2000, and his PhD from the International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World (ISIM) in Leiden, Netherlands in 2005. Translated by Amr Khairi, the book was published in 2012 by Al-Nafisa Publishing House. It is a wonderful account of a foreigner’s intimate experience of events including violence, notably snipers who aimed for the eyes. Dedicated by the author to “the memory of Ziyad Bakir, Sally Zahran and Khaled Said, those whom I never met, and will never forget.” In what follows, the author omits the names of those who helped and protected him. From the thriller-like episodes of army deployments on the streets of Cairo during the 18 days to the transitional period and the Muslim Brotherhood’s role, Schielke leaves nothing out: 150 pages are peppered with the visions of people the author met in different places across Egypt, the slogans the protesters raised, and their hatred for Mubarak.
Manal Lutfy, a political analyst, dedicated her chronicle of the revolution to the martyrs. Simply entitled Yawmeat Mo’tasema fi Maidan Al-Tahrir (Journals of a [female] protester in Tahrir Square), the book is made up of 40 short chapters like snapshots in which the author discusses many issues, remembering her sit-in days. She poses many serious questions in a casual way, giving superficial titles to many chapters: “Stupidity of the regime”, “Angry Friday”, “Mubarak’s Speeches”, “Change Café”, “Revolution’s Tea”, “American Press in the Square”, and “The Tears of Wael Ghoneim”. In the last chapter of the 160-page book, named after one of the revolution’s songs, “Flowers that blossomed in Egypt’s Gardens,” she lists the names of the first 800 martyrs. Although this is an account of a female protester who was bold and stubborn enough to risking her life, going where few other females did, it reads as rather irrelevant today, adding little to what is already known.  
Studies on the social aspect of the revolution are scarce. Nissa’ min Al Maidan (Women from the Square) by Iman Baibars, chairwoman of the Women Development Society, is one such. Published by Akhbar Al-Yom, the book focuses on the participation of women from different walks of life in the demonstrations, and includes interviews with female activists as well as average protesters, revealing their views and their role in bringing forth a free country. Kan marra fi thawra (Once upon a time there was a revolution) is another rare thing: a children’s book that presents the revolution as a dramatic tale. Written by the young writer Mohammed Fathi, and published by Iktub, it tells the story of the revolution in simple language. Fathi’s popular book, Masr min al balakona (Egypt from the Balcony) was one of the first satirical books, published shortly before the revolution. Comics are equally hard to come by:18 Yom fi Al Tahrir (18 Days in Tahrir), published in black and white by Rawafed, may be the only one; written by Ramy Habib and illustrated by Ahmed Selim, it is true to comic strip form in that it concentrates on the heroism of the protesters.
In literature, poetry is more frequent than fiction. Jamali fi Al Suwar (My Beauty in Pictures) by Maysoon Saqr, the well-established Cairo-based Emirati poet, is a brilliant reflection on the revolution. Although the 230-page book is not all about revolution, Saqr elegantly reflects the revolutionary spirit that prevailed in the square at the time and the state of confusion and depression that infected all Egyptians during the transitional period. The poems also reflect her own experience in the square and the questions buzzing in her mind after seeing blood on the streets. The collection was published in 2012 by Dar Al-Ain. Dreams of the Transitional Period is in fact the title of a new collection of short stories by Mahmoud Abdel Wahab, another passionate protester, due to appear this month with Afaq. The book is divided into four sections, the first of which features fantasies the author experienced during the transitional period. “One pair of shoes for a demonstration?” is the title of one of those genuine dreams, which demonstrates the state of chaos, enthusiasm and depression felt by demonstrators during the early days of the revolution. Abdel Wahab started writing the book in September 2011, at a time of severe political and intellectual conflict between liberals and Islamists. Sab’at Ayam fil Tahrir (Seven days in Tahrir) is an autobiographical novel by Hesham El Kheshen published in 2011 by Al Dar Al-Missriya Al-Lubnaniya: a hasty drawn sketch of the first seven days.
Al Manifesto (Manifestation) by the young poet Mustafa Ibrahim, published this year by Bloomsbury Qatar, is one of the better poetry collections. Written in colloquial Arabic, the poems are loaded with dramatic scenes; the reader will remember with a heavy heart the Maspero massacre: “Standing beside fire would lighten the smoke… Run away as fast as you can or simply do not run…you should draw clear lines between boldness and throwing yourself in the devil’s arms…Call such things with their original names: lying, betrayal...” Poet Ahmed Doma’s Soutak Tali’ (Raise Your Voice), another vernacular volume, is also very good poetry collections. Published in 2012 by Dawawin in collaboration with Dar Al Kotob, a new cultural web site, the collection includes 32 poems: “Many cordial greetings to those who are standing on the pavement,/And those who are chanting in Tahrir Square,/Refusing to live in such a weak position,/And those who cannot find bread to eat./Many greetings to every Egyptian/Who has remained Egyptian,/Despite the barricades he faces every step of the way,/And to those who still cling to a meaning hidden in letters...” The poems show a strong desire to evoke the revolutionary spirit.
Despite the fact that very few plays are being written in general, even fewer on the revolution, readers may enjoy the recently published Fusoul al sana al misriya, al jasad wal nubu’ah (Egyptian Seasons: Body and Prophecy) by playwright Ahmed Serag. The play, published in Revolution’s Creative Writings series, illustrates the revolution as a one-year event, and is written in four scenes: summer and autumn as the harbingers of the revolution, and then the winter when the revolution actually starts, followed by a “spring of roses”.

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