Cairo-born journalist says her book is less of a record of Tahrir Square protests and more of an invitation to events that are still unfolding
From the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak to the election of Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood and his removal by the military last summer, Egypt’s arc from exhilaration, to worry, to anger and despair is a reminder of how difficult it can be for an author to try to keep up with history in the making. Not surprisingly, this difficulty is reflected in best-selling author Ahdaf Soueif’s memoir of the Egyptian revolution.
Her original book, Cairo: My City, Our Revolution, was published in January 2012, before Morsi was elected. Now she has added about one-third more in an updated version, Cairo: Memoir of a City Transformed. Even that update brings her tale only to May 2012, totally missing Morsi’s departure.
Recognising this problem, Soueif says: “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.”
That approach could work. However, Soueif’s intensely partisan viewpoint raises a different set of problems, even for readers who agree with that viewpoint.
There is definitely historical value in Soueif’s real-time, behind-the-scenes diary of the first 18 days of naive hope in Tahrir Square in January and February 2011, when it seemed like democracy could really come to Egypt, but no one knew what the next hour would bring. How long would Hosni Mubarak hang on? What would the military do? Or the United States?
Soueif – an Egyptian-born journalist and author of the 1999 novel The Map of Love, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize – was deeply involved in the uprising, from corralling supplies to appearing frequently on international television as an advocate for political change. Her passionate sentences dramatically and accurately evoke the mood of the time.
In a typical outpouring, she writes: “The words we hear from Tokyo to Wall Street, the chants in Oakland, California – all echo the call from Tahrir and Tunis: the people demand the fall of this – entire – regime.”
The problem is that Soueif has abandoned her journalist’s sharp vision for the blinkers of the political activist. And a narrow viewpoint, by definition, cannot give readers a wider perspective.
What’s missing is any sense of context, doubt, or, for that matter, a trustworthy author. For instance, the collapse of the original revolution indicates that there must have been some flaws in the activists’ assumptions, planning, or some other aspect of their efforts. Yet, except for two sentences musing on boycotts and violence, the author never expresses one iota of doubt about the uprising.
In those 18 days, didn’t she witness any tactical debates? Who were the leaders of the different factions among the protesters, and what were their individual strengths, weaknesses and personal quirks? Did anyone foresee the emergence of the Islamists, or wonder just how far they could push before the military would reassert itself?
Certainly, Soueif is a talented writer. Her sharp eye is manifest in the best and most original parts of Cairo — the street-by-street comparisons of her childhood memories versus the revolutionary streets today.
She recalls walking with her nanny across the Abu El-Ela Bridge to buy fresh chickens and salted fish and later, as a teenager, to go to the movies. That “old iron bridge” is gone now, replaced by a modern overpass.
When it comes to describing the cast of the revolution rather than the cobblestones, however, the pictures in this book are cartoons, not portraits. The author grants no humanity to her opponents, whether military or religious. Ultimately, Soueif’s blind devotion does her own cause no favours.
She is so caught up in her fantasy of a liberal revolution, so out of touch with reality, even as it is happening, that she is surprised when the two Islamist parties overwhelmingly win the parliamentary elections in November 2011, while her secular and leftist parties, combined, get only 19 per cent of the vote. Then what does she do to try to preserve some role for the uprising’s original secular, democratic vision in the new government?
She turns a tent into a play centre in Tahrir, and “we held meetings with veterans of societies that worked with street children to work out what we could offer the children”.
Perhaps if Soueif would leave her fantasyland tent and start talking to more people, she could gather the material for a better understanding of what went wrong with the revolution that meant so much to her.
Fran Hawthorne is an award-winning US-based author and journalist who specialises in covering the intersection of business, finance, and social policy.