A diary of Cairos revolution published in happier times now poses difficult questions
With the militarys seizure of power in Egypt by a coup,and the subsequent massacre in Cairo of Muslim Brotherhood supporters protesting and demanding restoration of the elected president,it is still difficult to get a grip on how exactly the sentiment that propelled the ouster of Hosni Mubarak has rearranged itself. Picking up a year-old book by one of my favourite writers,Ahdaf Soueif,on that 18-day revolution in January-February 2011 puts in peculiarly sharp relief some of the big questions that Egyptian intellectuals like her are struggling with in the aftermath of this summers crackdown. The primary ones being,can a popular call for political reform in any way be a mandate to the military for the overthrow of an elected government and uncommonly brutal measures? Is the revolution over,or will it find re-utterance yet? If it does,wont it likely be in a fractured voice? And if it doesnt recover its unity,who all may be called to account?
It was a happier,more optimistic time when this book (Cairo: My City,Our Revolution) was written and published,and you could say it supposed a rosier,more coherent outcome than that which obtains today. Soueifs previous novels doorstoppers such as In the Eye of the Sun and The Map of Love bristled with the politics of Egypt and the wider Middle East,even as she drew compelling portraits of characters trying to gain a sense of selfhood. The politics of Egypt,its landscape and history,its quest for modernity,came alive through the lived experience of her fictional characters. In the preface to the new book,she says she had signed a contract to write a book on Cairo years ago,but found it impossible to deliver on it: When I tried [to write it read like an elegy; and I would not write an elegy for my city. Then the revolution happened,and the book almost wrote itself.
Soueif was in Jaipur for the literary festival when news of gatherings in Cairo came her way. She was soon back in her city,calling her sister to ask,wheres the revolution?,and thereupon inhabiting that moment in time and Tahrir Square itself. She prefers to call it midan,because like piazza,it does not tie you down to a shape but describes an open urban space in a central position in a city. Controlling Tahrir,she contends while taking in the broad sweep of repression harking back to Anwar Sadats time,has been akin to controlling Egypt.
This book is a diary of those days,with some entries breaking a day down into many parts and for that it is a brave book. Who was to know how the aftermath of Mubaraks exit would go? Who was to know how long the afterglow of the unity and exhilaration of those days would continue to kindle hopes of a changed political and social reality? And she speaks across time to her reader in an unknowable future to make her objective clear: I wont try to guess whats on your news bulletin today but whatever shape Egypt is in as youre reading now,this is the story of some of the moments that got us there.
But it is also a story of how a particular individual (Soueif) got to that moment. To inhabit those extraordinary moments in her city was to see the city afresh. And as she finds her way to the protests,to impromptu meetings by her acquaintances in their effort to insert themselves into the collective exercise to alter their political destiny,to conversations with a cross-section of Egyptians previously unlikely to assemble together and shout in one voice,she passes by sites crucial to her biography. The house she lived in when she was three,the restaurant where she spies her younger self sitting in the company of the man she then loved,the theatre where her mother introduced her to experimental productions of Beckett,Brecht,Aeschylus,the hospital where she was born. They align her participation in the 18-day revolution,which came to its logical and then fruitful end with Mubaraks ouster,with the hopes that fueled her personal journey. It must have been similarly so for the many millions of others out on the street during those heady days.
That was then. Soueif ends her book with the words: Our story continues So it does.