Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1258, (13 - 19 August 2015)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1258, (13 - 19 August 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Book rack

Reviewed by Rasha Sadek

Book rack:Hellbound
Book rack:Hellbound
Al-Ahram Weekly


Tamer Abu Arab, Live from Hell (Bath Mubasher min Gohannam), Cairo: Kayan Publishing House, 2015, pp164

“Farag and Ashraf could have quietly committed suicide; in a dark small room and with a rope dangling from the ceiling, they could have silently ended their misery.” Instead, Farag hanged himself on a large billboard on the Cairo-Ismailia highway and Ashraf’s body ended up swinging loosely from a residential building. Both men took their own lives because they couldn’t meet their families’ financial needs. True story.

Tamer Abu Arab’s Live from Hell sheds light on Egypt’s two revolutions (25 January 2011 and 30 June 2013), not by recounting stories of euphoria or fury from Tahrir Square or any other demonstration where thousands or millions from across the political and social spectrum flocked to state their demands, but rather by focussing on the media and the ruling elites (the Muslim Brotherhood and the military) and how they “turned our daily lives into a live broadcast from hell”.

Abu Arab’s anger is not directed at the state media alone, but blames “the independent media for contributing to the lies and deceit” as well. “After 30 June 2013 the pro-state media stole the limelight. Talk shows won the highest ratings. In time the words expressing support for the regime became repetitive, the phrases about the war on terror boring, and the promises of a better life and a better country fell into the realm of the imagination.

“Farag and Ashraf wanted to go in a different way. Their departure is more of a scream in the face of indifference. If society didn’t feel their pain when they were alive, then it’s unfair that they should remain unfelt for now that they have left. Farag and Ashraf wanted to expose us for who we are. The  nation is in shock for a few days, religious debate on the punishment of the man who commits suicide, pictures of the deaths flood Facebook and Twitter for a while, then all is forgotten as if nothing has happened.”

Throughout the book, Abu Arab exposes talk show hosts who either “change colour with the change of the regime or are instructed to discuss insignificant subjects to distract the people from politics.” For example, Abu Arab mentions programme presenter Reham Al-Said whose episode on the djinn garnered more than three million views in under four days on YouTube.

In Live from Hell, Abu Arab blames the two presidents that came from Brotherhood and military backgrounds for what happened to Farag and Ashraf – and others like them.

“Don’t spend your time and money to expose how bad the Muslim Brotherhood are,” just give them the microphone, Abu Arab advises. The Muslim Brotherhood “talk about the revolution’s goals the way a prostitute would talk about virginity.” The fury of Egyptians with the Muslim Brotherhood after a year in power is “a lesson to political factions in Egypt. You may sell a rotten commodity and get paid for it but the consumer will come back and ask for a refund. If you don’t pay back, the consumer may turn your shop to dust.”

On the other hand, Abu Arab shows his gratitude for the role of the army in protecting the people, for instance by recounting a personal story when he was stranded in the middle of the Sinai desert with his wife and baby boy, and army soldiers came to their rescue. However, addressing the army, he writes, “I don’t know your name and I don’t know if you’re still alive or a martyr, but I’m grateful to you. When my son grows up I will tell him what you did to help us so that when he joins a demonstration against military rule he will be able to tell the difference between rejecting your politics and the perpetual need for you.”

The point Abu Arab insists on delivering in his book is that the way for a better Egypt is neither in the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood nor the army. “Don’t exhaust yourself trying to find a replacement for Al-Sisi,” Abu Arab writes. “Al-Sisi’s replacement is not an individual, but a state. A state not owned but run by institutions. A state ruled by law, a law that doesn’t sleep in the ruler’s bed.”

Tamer Abu Arab is a journalist. His previous works include Days of Lies and Blood: Egypt Post the Step-Down and Pharaohs without Pyramids.

A virtual hereafter

Mohamed Sadek, #Insta_Life (#Insta_hayah), Cairo: Al-Rowaq Publishing House, 2015, pp318

Hussein Aref is a 35-year-old marketing employee who has quit his job in a quest to find 10 reasons to live. Aref creates a Facebook page #Insta_hayah, which eventually attracts over a million followers. “If I don’t find 10 reasons to live within three months,” he writes, “I’ll kill myself.”

#Insta_Life opens with Aref sitting by the Mediterranean Sea amid heavy rains, lightning and thunder three hours before the advent of 2015. At the stroke of midnight, Aref had decided, he would kill himself, having failed to find the 10th reason to live. Lama, 27-year-old divorcee who had joined Aref’s Facebook page but failed to find even one reason, sits next to him on the beach.

Sadek’s book is an attempt to encourage the appreciation of life primarily through putting his protagonists in near-death experiences to drive them to be grateful for what they already have. Death, and not the fear of it, eventually becomes the primary reason to live, as Aref puts it towards the end of the novel. One of the reasons to live “is death itself. We were born to die. The pleasure of life is that everything comes to an end… What would you do if everything in your life became never-ending? Whatever you do is driven by the pleasure of it eventually ending. There has to be an end, otherwise life would be too boring.”  

The beach is the main stage in #Insta_Life though most of the story is told in flashbacks that introduce the reader to the lives of Aref and Lama and how their paths cross so that they are joined in the last three hours of their lives. At the beginning of the novel it seems the story revolves around Aref, but towards the middle Lama’s friends Assem and Hassan both realise how much they are in love with her – once they find out she is going to take her own life – and so she takes centre stage. Lama is the real protagonist throughout the novel, and through her the author exposes the hardships of an Arab divorcee who was beaten and humiliated by her ex-husband, Amir, who also posted a sex video of her on Facebook after their divorce.

Sadek’s theme in #Insta_Life may not be new, but the edge in this book is the factor of time. Sadek manages to engage the reader in a race against time to save Aref and Lama from their premeditated fate because Sadek makes it very easy for the reader to sympathise with and feel for them. The reader is constantly aware of the time left before the stroke of midnight. Flashbacks also serve to make for an exciting read because Sadek very frequently and quickly alternates between real time (on the beach) and the history of the protagonists.

“Either I reach the end of the road, or I reach my end; it’s all the same.” This phrase is repeated again and again throughout the novel, after each of the nine reasons Aref states to continue living. A mantra, it is also the opening sentence.

The book however remains open-ended. A minute before the stroke of midnight, Hassan, Lama’s friend, rushes into the sea to kill himself by drowning to teach her and Aref about the value of life. The two, accompanied by Assem, run after Hassan, but it is not clear whether they do so to save him or to join him. The finishing lines are a post on #Against_Insta_hayah (the reader concludes that the post was written by one of the main four protagonists but doesn’t know which one) that is actually a direct message from Sadek: “Do you want to make sure that we are alive? This means you want to forget your troubles with comfortable endings. In reality, there are no comfortable endings. Reality wants you to go on. I have realised that life is what we choose to live, and not what we are forced to live.”

Mohamed Sadek is a novelist. #Insta_Life is his fourth work. In 2014 his novel Hipta became a bestseller in Egypt and is currently being made into a movie.

The end of time

Ahmed Samir, Judgement Day Headlines (Manshettat Yom Al-Qeyama), Cairo: Dar Al-Shorouk, 2015, pp188

Only a close follower of the political events that have engulfed Egypt since the 25 January 2011 Revolution can easily understand this book. Based on personal accounts from Tahrir Square and other places where clashes erupted between people (from different political backgrounds) and security forces, Samir provides a cyclical series of short stories.

Samir’s writing is made up of short, quick sentences, alternating between colloquial (recounting conversations) and formal Arabic (the author’s analysis or commentary). On many occasions, he makes references to YouTube videos and Facebook and Twitter accounts to authenticate his accounts.

In the six chapters of the book, Samir doesn’t tell which events he is talking about, leaving the reader to identify them through dialogue and setting. “A guy leans next to a tree beside me. Tear gas fills the air, and countless wounded are being taken elsewhere. The guy says, ‘I’ve been smoking hash for 20 years and I’ve never been this high.’” Samir was referring to 28 January 2011, the day dubbed “Friday of Anger” when security forces clashed with protesters and showered them with tear gas on Qasr Al-Nil Bridge.

Through such terse dialogues Samir manages to express how the people he encountered in Tahrir Square felt, for example, on the night of the Battle of the Camel (1 February 2011) when rock pelting was exchanged with security. “He coughs in pain, breathing heavily. We retreat to the back rows. He says, ‘I’m ready to die, but I can’t live as a blind man if one of these rocks hits my eyes.’”

The book’s chapters are divided into articles with headlines published in newspapers. In “After the defeat”, which is an article originally published in Al-Shorouk newspaper on 21 July 2014, Samir writes, “There are no lessons learned from our defeat [in the 2011 Revolution], it’s repetitive and boring. Is the lesson learned that the Islamists shouldn’t be at the helm of the revolutionary scene? That’s been learned since Algeria’s Intifada in 1988…  Is it that religious organisations will fail when in power? That’s old news. Similar experiences had ended in civil wars… Is it that military rule is bad? That’s also old news, for what else have we learned from 5 June 1967 [the war in which Egypt was defeated], or our daily failures throughout the past 60 years?”

Cynically, Samir pokes fun at the Muslim Brotherhood during their one year in power. In “To Mohamed Badie [the supreme guide], we will put you in jail – this is not a threat, this is a promise,” first published in Al-Masry Al-Yom on 9 December 2012, Samir reminds the reader of Badie’s famous saying, “What is the fault of the plants?” when Egyptians converged on the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood to protest its rule and the resulting clashes hurt the plants decorating the building, killing two protesters whom Badie never mentions. Samir insists that the Brotherhood follows the saying, “If you can’t impress them by being smart, confuse them by your stupidity.”

Ahmed Samir is a journalist who won both the Press Syndicate Award for Best Political Article and the Mustafa Al-Husseini Award for Best Article in 2014.

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