Bloomsbury, £14.99, 202pp. £13.49 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Cairo: My City, Our Revolution, By Ahdaf Soueif
Friday 27 January 2012
In January last year, when Tahrir Square erupted, a wild and foolish urge wanted me to race straight there, before sanity reminded me that "undesired Western influence" was written all over my pink khawaga face. So I followed it on the web, wondering, "Bliss was it, in that dawn to be alive?" And now the estimable Ahdaf Soueif has written an account of those first months of the Egyptian Revolution, and confirmed that yes, to be young was very heaven. This is above all the story of the shabab - the youth, the growing ones (Soueif gives a lovely gloss on the origins of the Arabic word) - who brought about the "18-day orgasm", as an Egyptian friend calls it, which kick-started the Revolution. We all remember the images: the laughter, the wedding, Muslims and Christians praying together, everyone cleaning up, and then later the cinema and the endlessly inventive protective headgear.
The title, My City, Our Revolution, reflects the book's dual personality. One moment we are in the Revolution, haring chronologically through a cloud of tear gas, handing out biscuits and waterbottles, furious at the cruelty of the baltagis - the criminals, released prisoners and so on hired as thugs by the regime - but remembering to keep it selmeyya – peaceful. Not one baltagi was killed by the demonstrators they so regularly attacked. The next we are in Soueif's heart and past: standing on a palm roof looking out over an orchard to the pyramids beyond, remembering her parents, her childhood, her own love affair with her city.
Bursts of lyricism, poetry and love illuminate the factual account and political commentary, and it works beautifully. Family is the link, in particular her indomitable sister Laila, whose campaigner son, Alaa abd el Fattah, was released from prison just after Christmas.
History as it happens is a slippery beast and Soueif greets it head on, reminding the reader from time to time that we will know more about what has happened than she does at the time of writing. The immediacy is palpable: Soueif finished writing in November 2011; now it is January. The rotten elections have been held, and the process continues. Demonstrators arrested by the army live under threat of military trial, though they are civilians. Saudi money floods into Egypt. Egyptian gas is still sold cheap to Israel when Egyptians can't afford to buy it. The previously un-Egyptian concept of the Martyr gains currency, with all its unforgiving, sentimental, distracting-from-the-matter-in-hand baggage.
And here's a story: a surgeon, having lost an eye to a sniper, then lost the other the same way. He is hailed as a hero. "I call him an idiot," says my friend. "Everyone knows they aim for the eyes. He should have used eye-protection. Didn't he know he was more use as a surgeon?" But then you have Sanaa, one of the team who set up al-Gurnal, the Tahrir newspaper: "I dreamed of the fall of Mubarak and of elections, any elections... I've just worked out I can't vote because I'm not 18 yet."
"The questions that are being settled on the streets of Egypt," Soueif writes, "are of concern to everyone... Can a people's revolution that is... democratic, grassroots, inclusive and peaceable succeed?" And she says: "This book is not a record of an event that's over. It's an attempt to welcome you into... an event we're still living."
Read this book. Pass it on to your own shabab. Perhaps point out the bit where she says "optimism is a duty".
Louisa Young's novel 'My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You' (Harper Press) was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award
Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treattv
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Toddler throws a tantrum at the White House – in front of Barack Obama
- 2 Irish people are travelling home from all over the world so they can vote to legalise gay marriage
- 3 Picture of couple posing with beached dolphin 'that later died' causes outrage
- 4 16-year-old girl beaten and burned alive by lynch mob in Rio Bravo, Guatemala
- 5 Witch doctor arrested after forcing newborn baby to walk in Indian village
'We didn't really think we'd get away with it': The astonishing story of how two young Irish men completed an audacious £7m art heist
Game of Thrones rape scene criticised as 'disgusting' by US senator Claire McCaskill who says she's 'done' with show
Beyonce angers fans by pouring expensive champagne into hot tub in Nicki Minaj 'Feeling Myself' video
Eurovision: The worst lyrics in the contest's history from 'your bum is part of you' to 'stay cool in the swimming pool'
Clarkson, Hammond and May Live: Top Gear trio return in – 5 things we learned
As a white man, I'm surprised more women aren't tweeting the hashtag #KillAllWhiteMen
Scotland may have to leave the EU even if it votes to stay in, David Cameron confirms
Report finds that Britain's wages are the most unequal in Europe
The day that Britain resigned as a global power
Almost a third of school pupils believe 'Muslims are taking over our country', study claims
Gay marriage 'Bert and Ernie' cake bakery found guilty of discrimination in Northern Ireland