Wednesday,20 September, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1360, (14 - 20 September 2017)
Wednesday,20 September, 2017
Issue 1360, (14 - 20 September 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Ordinary people, extraordinary times

Omar Robert Hamilton, The City Always Wins, London: Faber and Faber, 2017. pp326 -  Reviewed by Ferial J. Ghazoul

#Ordinary people, extraordinary times # Ordinary people, extraordinary times
# #

The revolutionary moment is a fleeting one — a magic realist moment par excellence. It is magical as it turns ordinary people into heroes, into supermen and superwomen, where hopes are unleashed and the dream seems about to materialise. Whether it is the Arab Spring of 2011 in Cairo or the student uprising of May 1968 in Paris or the 1916 rebellion of Irish nationalists in Dublin the magical moment dismantles indifference and fear. People join in upholding a utopian project. Of course, such moments do not last: the dream evaporates and hopes are crushed. But as Ebtehal Younis, professor of French Literature at Cairo University, put it: no one can take away from us the 18 days of 25 January-11 February 2011. It is precisely this memory of a fabulous moment that remains a pilot light that might kindle another popular movement any moment. This very event, ephemeral as it proved to be, negates cynicism and hopelessness. Of these revolutionary days, poems and novels have been written and dozens of critical books and articles have engaged in analysing the anatomy of the spontaneous uprising. AUC Press has published some 20 titles on the Tahrir Revolution. Yet, not much has been written about the dissipation of these precious days — in the words of Galal Amin’s book title: Whatever happened to the Egyptian revolution? How does unfulfillment take shape? How does disintegration unfold? What happened to a dream deferred as the American poet Langston Hughes asked in his poem “Harlem”?

In the new and debut novel of Omar Robert Hamilton, The City Always Wins (2017), the sequel of the Egyptian revolution that dazzled the world is narrated in the form of docu-fiction. The novel eschews an organic narrative plot. Episodes are crammed with jump-cuts from one to the next; and there is hardly a viable story, not even the author’s focus on Khalil and Mariam amount to much of a story. Yet there are so many stories in the novel — the story of Um X, the story of Ashira, the story of Abu Bassem, the story of Abu Ramadan, the story of Um Ayman, the story of Abu Karim, and the story of Hafez the photographer — heart-wrenching stories where the characters vary but the tragedy is one. What Hamilton does successfully is giving voice to mini-narratives while declining the temptation of a grand narrative. This is not imaginative failure, but a desire to deconstruct a definitive view of a complex phenomenon. In the process he creates a wealth of information of Cairo in the form of diaries from 2011 to 2016. The political voices he articulates, for or against, related to watershed events in the period of five years create a cacophony. It is precisely this cacophony that represents the variety of attitudes towards the Army, Morsi, etc. Events are marked in the novel in the form of newspaper headlines (with varied fonts), rumours and gossip alternate with facts and scandals that are real (virginity tests; gadgets to cure AIDS, tear gas bombs thrown into a closed police car). Hamilton reproduces the slogans and the rhythms, the sentimental lyrics and the four-letter-word insults. The layout of the text as well as the use of different fonts and italics partake in creating the heterogeneous components of the text. 

The novel is dedicated to Alaa Abdel-Fattah — the author’s cousin — who remains incarcerated up till now. It opens with an epigraph of Alaa’s in Part I, “Never underestimate the wisdom of the naïve… #Jan25 long live the revolution@Alaa (8:17 PM-28 January 2011).” The novel is divided into three parts: Tomorrow, Today, and Yesterday presenting (but not so neatly) in this tripartite structure the expectations of the early period, the horrors of the day after and finally recollections of the significance of a revolution that swept Egypt and left thousands of martyrs.

The novel opens on 9 October, 2011 with a scene of a carnage, following Maspero’s March. This scene captures the ghastly mood and different views on what to do with the corpses:

 “She stopped counting the dead an hour ago. These corridors are so compressed with bodies and rage and grief that something, surely is going to explode. Everywhere are the cries of a new loss, a shouted question, a panicked face, a weeping phone call. They are dead, they are dead, they are all dead. The hospital’s morgue is full. It was not built for this. There are 12 people locked in this infirmary with her. Eleven are dead” (5).

Mariam is the one with the dead bodies trying to break the news to the parents. She has some medical training but is intent on making a film with Khalil on the Egyptian revolution while also engaged in contributing to this revolution. The narrative moves from third person telling to first person thoughts: “Blocks of ice are melting between the bodies of the fallen, vapors whispering off the flesh of the silenced. She breathes deeply. This room. This tiny room where every breath breathes in the dead. We will carry you forward. We will carry you in us.” This is followed by an argument about burying the dead. Alaa asserts the need for autopsies “We need the autopsies for justice” while another man shouts “Justice is for the next life. Leave justice to the Lord. We must bury them now” (6). Another example of polarisation is the debate on the use of violence where Nelly believes that peaceful collective messages are stronger; she does not think that throwing rocks at the presidential palace of Morsi is going to make a difference. Mariam, on the other hand, feels that in the final analysis only violence has effect, “Without battling in Mohamed Mahmoud the army would never have set dates for the transfer of power” (164). A third example is an old man who overhears the conversation of young revolutionaries and ends up telling them, “we are all behind you, you kids, so please, don’t stop what you are doing” (257); and yet those “kids” are seen by some as the root of evil, “You kids. You stupid kids. You kids who brought this upon us, you kids who wrecked the economy and drove away tourism, you kids who stained the streets with blood” (266). As for chants, they vary from “Bless these hands/Bless my country’s army” to “Down, down with military rule!” (313).  

There are other clashes and other massacres — Port Said, October Bridge, Rabaa Al-Adaweya — all seen through the prism of a variety of ideological shades, while delineated chronologically as if reading of them in a news channel where briefs summarise political events. We are presented with snapshots of Tamarrod and its aftermath, and eventual release of Hosni Mubarak from jail. Hamilton’s sense of humour is unmistakable when he remarks that Egypt now has two living ex-presidents, “At last! Egypt has not one living ex-president but two!” (200).

I find the third part of the novel the most gripping. The first two parts of the novel capture the emotional and political upheaval, the mundane conversations, the songs and slogans, blending all in a heterogeneous discourse. The third part which is essentially the interior monologue of Khalil raises questions and provides room for reflection. Khalil, we gather, is a Palestinian-Egyptian born in America with a US passport. He leaves Egypt for the US after having partaken in the revolution through a collective called Chaos. The geographical distance and the lapse of time make it possible for him to see the Egyptian revolution from afar. The novel does not end with a lesson, but with questions. Shouldn’t the revolutionaries have taken Maspero and thus liberated media? Shouldn’t they have chosen one candidate (either Hamdeen Sabahi or Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, who between them received seven million votes) rather than split the votes of the pro-revolution ideals in two? Shouldn’t the revolutionaries have stayed in Tahrir and not moved out when Mubarak resigned?

The novel stops rather than ends with a closure. In the very last pages, Khalil came back to Egypt as there is nothing to do in America as he put it. The scene is of a courtroom with a group of women prisoners. The case of the accused is summed up as disturbing traffic, disturbing peace, and unauthorised protest. The witnesses are policemen. As the judge leaves there are moments where the friends of prisoners can approach them before they are bundled into police cars to take them back to the prison. Still Khalil’s contact with Rosa, one of the women prisoners, is enough to exchange messages about the coming strikes. It is as if, the revolution has not ended even if the novel has. But just before this courtroom scene occurs a wake takes place in Omar Makram Mosque which has been part of the Tahrir revolution. There hundreds come to pay respect and farewell to a human rights lawyer and activist, Ahmed Seif. He died of a heart-attack while his son Alaa Abdel-Fattah and his daughter Sanaa were in jail for their activism. They came to the wake in white clothes. As the author writes philosophically summing up the times, “The good keep dying and the evil live forever” (312). Whether Alaa is on the surface of the text or submerged, whether he is a metaphor of the revolution or its metonym, he remains central in this novel as if he were the primary mover of its creativity.

Where do we go from here, asks Khalil. Reflecting back on the stages of the revolution he wonders in his stream-of-consciousness mode: “You have a peaceful revolution to topple a dictator but to have a peaceful transition you need elections and the only people with resources and networks to win the elections are ex-dictators and dictators-in-waiting. We are trapped in an Escher painting,” (303).

In these questions, Khalil implicates the reader. How do we get out of a trap, in this case a historical one?  

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