I did not fully appreciate novelist Ahdaf Soueif’s new memoir “Cairo: My City, Our Revolution” until I read portions of the text out loud. Some of Soueif’s longer sentences are scarcely readable in one breath, and only when you try to squeeze them into a single gust of air and run out halfway through do you see the ambition of her undertaking. Soueif wants to capture the breathless passion of the events that brought down Hosni Mubarak just over a year ago. At the same time, she wants to pack in an ode to her city, filled with memories of personal and political history and their intersections. If that were not enough, Soueif admits that she only had a few months to write and edit the entire book, where some of her novels benefited from years of revision.
“Cairo: My City, Our Revolution” is part of what will one day be called the first wave of revolution memorial literature, rushed out by publishers to take advantage of the Arab Spring’s hold on the Western imagination. Soueif, whose celebrated fiction has dealt with time and memory, admits to readers that they will encounter the book with knowledge of what has happened since.
Her ambivalence over how quickly her writing might date itself manifests as a crafted flutter between tenses. “I could not write what was fast becoming the past without writing the present,” she explains, “This book is not a record of an event that’s over; it’s an attempt to welcome you into, to make you part of, an event that we’re still living.”
Then she hops right into a present that is now long past, as if we’re joining a film of the revolution in mid-action and can only get our bearings by attention to details: “The river is a still, steely grey, a dull pewter,” she writes. “Small scattered fires burn and fizz in the water.”
Soueif’s prose then swims between nostalgia for the city’s past glory, indignation at its decay under Mubarak, and a tempered hope that the events of the revolution represent a rebirth. Already a well-known novelist, Soueif gained recognition for her translation skills with Mourid Barghouti’s “I Saw Ramallah”, an ode to exile from his city. Soueif, in a way, also writes about Cairo as an exile, feeling a spiritual, if not physical, separation from her childhood home in the city’s corrosion over the last 30 years. Barghouti’s style appears to influence Soueif’s blend of memoir and politics, a long necessary genre for Palestinian writers that now, with the politicization of everyday life in Egypt after Mubarak, is making its way more strongly into Egyptian writing.
Like Barghouti, Soueif’s prose in English dips into the rhythms of Arabic, as long, meandering sentences are followed by terse declarations, like the little flourish, or qafla, at the end of a musical improvisation. “Everywhere there was a continuous thud of guns from time to time a loud, intermittent rattling sound. We stood,” she narrates. “Eight months ago some young protestors from the 6 April Group had been arrested in Alexandria for singing the national anthem; it was ‘instigatory’ the prosecution said. We sang it.”
Soueif is at her strongest when she looks more deeply into her own past, where the personal and the political meet, like a couple after a long separation. Describing the city’s decay under the corrupt development schemes of Mubarak’s leadership, she writes: “Traffic signals were burned out and bent and we’d wake up another morning to find the city had sprouted plastic palm trees festooned with winking red and green light bulbs. They’d really scored there: not only made money but made Cairo into a clown.” Like a waiter juggling plates in a crowded restaurant, Soueif holds aloft multiple emotions and makes the reader wonder whether she will pull it off, and most of the time, she does.
Soueif has an eye for discreet, fleeting instants. Sometimes reality itself looks a bit cliché, as if we are reading about a fictional political revolt, and yet Soueif allows us to see that for most Egyptians of her politically aware generation, the fact that the revolution happened at all is almost fictional, like a dream from which they are still waking up. Soueif wrote this book quickly and did not polish the language as much as in her fiction. The result is that we see her in process, and get a window into the messy, romantic, and sometimes melodramatic tone with which she spontaneously reacts to the world around her.
Where many recent journalistic accounts of the 18 days offer facts and images, Soueif offers emotions. She waxes poetic on moments that a journalist would simply describe technically. On the regime’s disruption of telephones and internet, she reflects, “I think this concentrated our minds, our will, our energy: each person was in one place, totally and fully committed to that place, unable to be aware of any other, knowing they had to do everything they could for it and trusting that other people in other places were doing the same.”
Like Alaa Al-Aswany, another novelist who attempts to galvanize the readers through political writing, Soueif’s language rolls forth with a distinct cadence that bears the mark of Egyptian Arabic in the way it tosses in comic details at the end of ideas. At one point, in the neighborhood of Embaba, Soueif happens to remember Daoud Abdel Sayed’s classic 1991 film “El-Kit-Kat.” As if in conversation, Soueif remembers the one detail that strikes her years later, where a character rides through the streets on a bicycle in a long continuous shot, and “some time during the course of it you realize the cyclist is blind.”
But where Al-Aswany usually uses this rhythm to convey outrage, Soueif communicates a spectacular, dramatic grief. “The day the Cairo tower lost its discreet white uplighting and was caught in a net of flashing colored dots I cried,” she writes, and then her prose begins to tumble out like tears, referring to Cairo as a woman she loved and tried to save but who “acted like she didn’t care.”
Soueif lays it out like a sobbing lover on the stage: “She unraveled with bravado. Every thread of that once tightly ordered pattern breaking loose: blue and green and red and black and every shade and texture, all sprung away from the tapestry, in disarray, tangled, knotted, vivid, sizzling, present.”
Soueif falters when trying to offer political analysis of events that she herself admits are moving too quickly to be captured. The moments where she tries to parse out the budding divisions between activists and their ideas about the future already feel incomplete and unnecessary. Soueif is at her strongest when she invites the reader to experience Cairo as a landscape where every location can be pregnant with meaning and memory. “I want to tell a story,” she writes, “that will ease the leap you need to make between where this book stops and where Egypt is as you read.”
The danger, she feels, of not easing that leap between the ferocious intensity of the 18 days and the banality of the present is that the spirit of the revolution will evaporate like puddles from a quick thunderstorm. Visiting Tahrir Square months later, her anxiety is tangible: “It’s as though these hundreds of thousands in Tahrir are—kind of—tourists,” she says of Egyptians who return months later. “I don’t feel an energy coming from them, a wish to make something happen. Their purpose is to be here and here they are. I feel their bodies pushing against me but not their will.”
But Soueif, perhaps unwittingly, often falls into exactly the trap she wants to avoid. Her impulse to remember and memorialize is often overwhelmed by the need to narrate the rapid, yet often prosaic present.
Her nephew, activist Alaa Abdel Fattah, gets the send-off in one of several afterwards by the younger generation, to whom Soueif symbolically leaves the last few pages. “Turn away from the experts and listen to the poets,” Abdel Fattah writes, “We’re in a revolution.”
Cairo: My City, Our Revolution is currently available in local bookstores. The Arabic translation of the book will be released in April by Dar al-Shorouk.
A novelist’s memories of revolution in Cairo.