Cairo: Memoir of a City Transformed (Anglais) Broché – 16 janvier 2014
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FRIDAY, 28 JANUARY, 5:00 P.M.
The river is a still, steely gray, a dull pewter. Small scattered fires burn and fizz in the water. We’ve pushed out from the shore below the Ramses Hilton and are heading into midstream. My two nieces, Salma and Mariam, are on either side of me in the small motorboat. As we get farther from the shore, our coughing and choking subside. We can draw breath, even though the breath burns. And we can open our eyes—
To see an opaque dusk, heavy with tear gas. Up ahead, Qasr el-Nil Bridge is a mass of people, all in motion, but all in place. We look back at where we were just minutes ago, on 6 October Bridge, and see a Central Security Forces personnel carrier on fire, backing off, four young men chasing it, leaping at it, beating at its windshield. The vehicle is reversing wildly, careering backward east toward Downtown. Behind us, a ball of fire lands in the river, a bright new pool of flame in the water. The sky is gray—so different from the airy twilight you normally get on the river at this time of day. The Opera House looms dark on our right, and we can barely make out the slender height of the Cairo Tower. We don’t know it yet, but the lights of Cairo will not come on tonight.
A great shout goes up from Qasr el-Nil. I look at Salma and Mariam. “Yes, let’s,” they say. I tell the boatman we’ve changed our minds: we don’t want to cross the river to Giza and go home. We want to be dropped off under Qasr el-Nil Bridge.
And that is why we—myself and two beautiful young women—appeared suddenly in the Qasr el-Nil Underpass among the Central Security vehicles racing to get out of town and all the men leaning over the parapet above us with stones in their hands stopped in midthrow and yelled “Run! Run!” and held off with the stones so they wouldn’t hit us as we skittered through the screeching vehicles to a spot where we could scramble up the bank and join the people at the mouth of the bridge.
That day the government—the regime that had ruled us for thirty years—had cut off our communications. No mobile service, no Internet for all of Egypt. In a way, looking back, 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.
So we ran through the underpass, scrambled up the bank, and found ourselves within, inside, and part of the masses. When we’d seen the crowd from a distance, it had seemed like one bulk, solid. Close up like this, it was people, individual persons with spaces between them—spaces into which you could fit. We stood on the traffic island in the middle of the road. Behind us was Qasr el-Nil Bridge, in front of us was Tahrir, and we were doing what we Egyptians do best, and what the regime ruling us had tried so hard to destroy: we had come together, as individuals, millions of us, in a great cooperative effort. And this time our project was to save and to reclaim our country. We stood on the island in the middle of the road, and that was the moment I became part of the revolution.
Revue de presse
“A compelling memoir of those 18 days in 2011 when the Tahrir Square protests were the epicenter of the Arab world. . . . Soueif's fervor is infectious. She has much at stake. . . . She possesses a revolutionary's zeal but also an artist's regret at not finishing a new novel that would have put the uprising's clamor, anger and aspirations into context. . . . She captures the enthusiasm, whispers, marches, fears, personal bonds and determination of Egyptians summoning their courage to change their fate.”
—Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times
“Booker Prize finalist Ahdaf Soueif, daughter of a family of prominent Egyptian intellectuals, paints a fiercely poetic portrait of this changing metropolis in her new memoir. Born and raised in the heart of the city and witness to its many permutations, she describes with haunting precision the decay, the mounting garbage, the cynical neglect of historical architecture that came to characterize the Cairene landscape in the Anwar Sadat and Mubarak years. . . . From the historic sit-in in Tahrir Square to the spontaneous neighborhood watches organized when the police deserted their posts, Soueif paints a picture of a people who realized, suddenly and collectively, the scope of their own potential. . . . Her firsthand account of those 18 days of revolution is possibly the most profound, enthralling record of the Egyptian uprising ever written for a western audience.” —G. Willow Wilson, San Francisco Chronicle
“ To understand the currents and undercurrents of Egyptian society and politics, it helps to have a local guide. Few are more qualified than Ahdaf Soueif. . . . Soueif, who has been an author, a political commentator, and an activist amid Egypt’s change and turmoil, is able to take readers back behind the headlines to see the individual Egyptians whose decisions help to shape the country. . . . [Cairo] takes the reader to the front lines of the conflict in the streets with vignettes worthy of a novel. . . . Powerful. . . . Soueif’s ability to render grand events in human terms and put Egypt’s current conflict into historical and global context makes Cairo a book that demands attention.” —James Norton, The Christian Science Monitor
“There are many records of the Egyptian revolution, but Cairo takes us on a more intimate journey, one that goes far beyond the eighteen days of Tahrir Square. [Soueif] speaks of her own story but also speaks for thousands, perhaps even millions, of other Cairenes.” —Yasmine El Rashidi, The Guardian
“In years to come Cairo will be a reminder to liberals of their most glorious hour. It should serve as a heartening reminder of what they are capable of achieving when united and courageous.” —The Economist
“The Cairo native recounts with joy and anguish the revolution that toppled the Mubarak regime—the hope raised by a new generation demanding freedom (she had protested against the Sadat government in 1972)—and led to free elections.” —Billy Heller, New York Post
“Soueif recorded those first dangerous, heady days of revolution in her diary. In her new memoir Cairo, Soueif expands that diary into a heartfelt account not just of a city in the moment of indelible political change, but of the home she continues to love and celebrate.” —Jennie Yabroff, Biographile
“[Cairo] offers an invaluable window into the mind-set of a large proportion of the engaged Egyptian population . . . It is a testimony to the dramatic cultural shift that has taken place in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world in public attitudes toward power . . . The lasting value of Cairo stems from the author’s ability to precisely and accessibly articulate the irreversible cultural changes that have suddenly transformed the public’s relationship to authority in Egypt and other Arab states. Arab citizens at last feel empowered, collectively and individually, to assert their fundamental rights as citizens. “ —Hussein Ibish, Bookforum
“A rare work. . . . Enjoin[s] Soueif's political dreams and her personal ones, creating a vibrant combination of memory and reportage. . . . A report from the front lines of the revolution, a bittersweet love letter to Egypt and a memoir of Soueif’s life, written in the precise, lyrical prose that illuminates her novels. . . . Soueif’s portrait of Cairo is nuanced, detailed and heartbreaking. . . . Soueif, unlike a visiting war reporter, makes the horror of the revolution personal. Not only does she evoke joyous times in similar passageways, she knows many of the young men who are fighting—her own two sons take part in the revolution, as do her nieces, nephews and the friends of children. . . . Powerful, informative and suffused with the beauty of a city (and nation) in transition. Soueif invites readers into Egyptian homes and histories, daring us to understand that behind the scenes of bloodshed are individuals who yearn for freedom—living rooms filled with mothers and fathers, grandparents and squabbling children.” —Kirkus Reviews (from an interview with the author)
“Soueif, author of the best-selling The Map of Love, provides a timely updated edition of her 2012 memoir, Cairo, My City, Our Revolution. Though the bulk of her eyewitness recollections understandably focus on the 18-day revolution that rocked Cairo in 2011, she also interweaves affectionate and peaceful memories of Cairo, Egypt, and her family into the fiery narrative. As an active participant and a keenly observant chronicler of the impassioned rebellion, her firsthand account offers insight into the heady days of the original revolution and its tumultuous aftermath. As Egyptian citizens continue to live the revolution, she provides a uniquely personal perspective on both the events of 2011 and the ensuing years. Contemporaneous food for thought in light of the current turmoil in the Middle East.” —Margaret Flanagan, Booklist
“A deeply personal, engaged tribute by the far-flung Egyptian novelist and journalist as she returned to witness the revolution in her hometown.
“When the conflicts broke out in Egypt at the end of January 2011, Cairo-born Soueif (Mezzaterra: Fragments from the Common Ground, 2005, etc.), having made her home largely in London since her marriage to the London critic and author Ian Hamilton (d. 2001), quickly returned to join the protests in Tahrir Square, as did her sons and many of her relatives. Tahrir is the Cairenes’ ‘Holy Grail,’ Soueif writes, the locus for demonstrations against the government since 1972, when the author took part in protests against Anwar Sadat’s oppressive regime. It has taken the next generation, her children’s, to prevail, and Soueif declares gallantly: ‘We follow them and pledge what’s left of our lives to their effort.’ Early on, the author offers an in-the-moment account of the crucial first days of street action, often messy, confused and involving violent clashes with the police, though undertaken by friends, family and strangers alike with heartwarming camaraderie. Then she moves to October 2011 to show how the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces hijacked the revolution without keeping President Hosni Mubarak’s decapitated regime from ‘growing a new head.’ Soueif then moves back in time to the period of February 1-12. While being jostled in crowds, blinded by tear gas, harassed by the paramilitary thug militias, the dreaded baltagis, the author passionately evokes the spirit of the beloved city where she was born, through neighborhoods and buildings long-suffering and dear to her—e.g., pleading with police to cease torturing prisoners in the iconic Egyptian Museum.
“Soueif offers both an extraordinary eyewitness document and a sense of the historical import of the revolution.” —Kirkus Reviews
“What novelist and translator Soueif (The Map of Love; Mezzaterra) saw during the Egyptian revolution of 2011 was no less than the upheaval of an entire order of Egyptian society. Hailing from a generation that tried and failed to bring down the Mubarak dictatorship years before, Soueif rushed back to her native city from a literacy festival in India on January 25, 2011, after she heard news of unrest erupting in Tahrir Square. She affectionately refers to the now world-famous square as the Midan (from its Arabic name: Midan el-Tahrir) throughout her diary of the decisive first 18 days, which is followed by accounts tracking later events during the year, such as the elections. Her grown children and nephews and nieces raced home, some from abroad, joining activist siblings, friends, aunts, and other relatives. They participated in spontaneous street demonstrations and provided aid to protestors, as well as setting up film and Internet stations. Soueif writes of her tremendous pride in the younger generation, who faced down government thugs, snipers perched on buildings, tanks, and security police. Many received beatings, or were imprisoned (her own nephew, Alaa, was jailed) or, in the case of 843 protesters, killed. The author captures beautifully her anguish at Cairo's degradation during the years of dictatorship and Mubarak's calculated sowing of division among the people. Yet with the recent violent eruptions in the country, Soueif’s work as an eloquent witness is a work in progress.” —Publishers Weekly
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While I had some knowledge of the events described here, most of my information came from the generally weak coverage of the US media, which focused on a few big events without much nuance. Since Mubarak was a US "ally" for many years, and our media presented his downfall as a positive event, I was left to wonder why we considered him a good guy in the first place.
Soueif's narrative describes an uprising from the ground floor, and it's a sweeping, often confusing series of events. The government-backed militias willfully shoot and beat people, and Soueif makes pains to draw a distinction between the "good" military (at first) and the "bad" militias. By standing aside, the military enabled the uprising to gain a foothold and drive Mubarak out.
In a 'meet-the-new-boss' style, the post-Mubarak transitional military government is hardly any less brutal, using arrests and beatings of protesters to maintain control. So the protesters aren't fighting just Mubarak, but the entire system, and the system isn't going anywhere.
I had little idea how much Mubarak was despised - although Soueif is focused on her point of view. Just like the Shah of Iran before him, we here in the US often think that because foreign leaders are "on our side" that means the people are too, and that's clearly not the case here. Like most despots, it seemed Mubarak and his cronies did their best to steal and loot the country, and only occasionally throw a few pittances down to the citizens.
I grew a little weary of Soueif's style of often using "we" as a narration - she's doing it to show the scope of the revolution, and how she was part of this vast collective, but it just seemed precious to me (even though I use it too, so maybe I'm internalizing).
This isn't a history of "Cairo," but it is the promised "memoir of a city transformed." Like other reviews have pointed out, this is not definitive. It ends on a necessarily ambiguous note, since the Muslim Brotherhood won the election (that many voters didn't participate in) and we know that the military coup has already taken them out of power.
This narrative shows the hopeful idealism and effort of 'regular' Egyptians to throw out one venal group of politicians, but also shows how difficult it is to actually replace a power structure. We see it in the US all the time - we vote based on a couple hot-button issues, but don't pay any attention to the 99 percent of decisions politicians actually make that benefit their cronies first, and us last. But since we're fat and lazy, it's very unlikely that we'll follow the Egyptians lead in actually doing anything about it. If Mubarak was smart, he would have made an effort to make sure everybody had cable TV and lots of junk shows. But I digress.
Soueif's narrative will fill in a lot of blanks left by media coverage of these events and make a reader appreciate the "little people" behind the scenes. It was a brutal, chaotic time....it's still unclear what Egypt will be left with.
Divided into four parts, novelist and essayist Ahdaf Soueif moves back and forth between the mesmerizing and compelling events of January/February 2011 that culminated in the ousting of longtime Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, and her later assessment of the political situation six months to 18 months down the road. The result -- no spoilers needed, as anyone can read the headlines -- is one of disillusionment. What makes this a worthwhile and often fascinating chronicle, however, is Soueif's personal connection to events: her family members are intimately engaged in the struggle to create some kind of secular democracy in the wake of Mubarak's kleptocracy. The jury is out on whether that attempt will prove futile -- clearly, Soueif has her own view of the situation.
For me, the standout segments are the first and third, devoted to the events themselves, the 18 days that led to "victory". It's a great reminder of how protests can evolve almost effortlessly into revolts and ultimately revolutions, even when the protagonists themselves have more limited objectives. But Mubarak's departure was just the first step, and Soueif's second and fourth segments, devoted to the months and years that followed, are a more sobering indictment of the divisiveness that has rocked Egypt since then. Winning a revolution, it seems, is not the same as creating a new society.
This wasn't quite a five-star book for me (although it came close) for two reasons. Firstly, while Soueif does a marvelous and eloquent job of the reportage, and of recounting her family's lifelong ties to Cairo throughout its history, at times her analytical approach seemed too idealistic and even naive. After decades of totalitarian rule, without a tradition of the kind of democracy she believed in, with the sole organized opposition being the Muslim Brotherhood, why does she sound so startled by the outcomes and alternatives? What makes the reportage so vivid and dramatic -- her familiarity with the subject and the engagement of friends and family in one wing of the struggle -- also becomes a handicap, to at least some extent. It's as if she can't understand why her fellow-Egyptians don't get it.
This could have been better had Soueif found a way to step back and be even slightly more dispassionate and analytical. What does it mean to succeed in an immediate objective -- and then to build on it, rather than to cede control to others? What does it mean to "win" a revolution? She's a thoughtful and insightful observer who didn't go quite far enough to make this the brilliant book that it had the potential to be. But that doesn't mean it isn't well worth reading. 4.5 stars.
Some good maps of Cairo are included in the book so that reader will have an idea of the locations of the places that Soueif writes about. Also, Soueif provides what she calls "A brief and necessary history"--a few pages of the history of Egyptian government from 1517 to 2011 which provides the reader with a good background.
I would recommend this book for anyone interested in modern Egyptian history and political science and politics in the Arab world in general and for those who want a deeper understanding of how a people can hold democratic elections and then shortly afterward, embrace a political Revolution.
I first became acquainted with Ahdaf Soueif when she came to nearby Santa Fe, NM some ten years ago, and gave a joint presentation with Amira Hass, an Israeli journalist, best known for her work Drinking the Sea at Gaza: Days and Nights in a Land Under Siege in which she describes her experiences living in Gaza over a three year period. Subsequently, I've read both Hass' work, as well as Soueif's The Map of Love: A Novel. The latter concerns love, of course, as the title suggests, but in the setting of almost a century of Anglo-Egyptian relationships, a natural enough topic given her own marriage to an Englishmen, which produced some children with both Egyptian and English names. A melding, indeed.
So when this book popped up on my "Vine" offerings, I naturally said yes. It concerns the events (and, alas, aftermath) that dominated the news media for a couple of weeks, about three years ago. CNN actually sent some "star" reporters to the scene, for cameo appearances. The scene is the title of this work, and its center, where much of the action was, is Tahrir Square. Soueif, who is now in her `60's, was born in a nearby hospital, and grew up, and still lives within walking distance of Tahrir. I suspected I get the real "scoop" from her, rather than the cameos, and I was not disappointed.
It - that is, the revolution - commenced on January 25, 2011. The gestation period was a long one: some 30 years. But within 18 days, the man that had ruled Egypt for that period, Hosni Mubarak, was gone. The author avoids comparisons with other revolutions, for example, the French, Russian, and South African. Hers is very much a "You were there" account. And she literally was, for in addition to being a writer, she and her family are political activists that have fought the corrupt rule of Mubarak, on and off, for that period. The "weapon" of choice was their unarmed bodies, particularly the young, the "shabab" in Arabic. Hundreds were killed by the "forces of order," but millions were participating, and their efforts remained undiminished until Mubarak was gone. Groups along the political spectrum, from the left and the right, participated. Communications was essential, and Mubarak realized this. He cut Egypt off the internet, and cut off the cell phones. So, for a period, it was back to word of mouth, and talking via land-line telephones. And it worked... sorta.
The "sorta" relates to the problems of the "new order" after the revolution. Starting with, will there really be a "new order"? Or is it just a question of a change of face(s) of the same old ruling class? Soueif covers this issue in the chapter: "18 days were never enough." The "revolution" looked to the Army to preserve their gains... always a very problematic hope. All too often, the actions of the Army served the power structure Mubarak had set in place. Elections were held, and the secular / Leftist candidate, Hamdein Sabahi, came in third, obtaining only 21% of the vote. There was a runoff between the top two candidates, Morsi, whose main support was drawn from the Muslim Brotherhood, and Shafiq, who represented the forces that had supported Mubarak. Hence the subject sentence, whereby Soueif voted for the proverbial "lesser of two evils" and went home sick. The drama however continues, since Morsi was deposed by the Army five months ago, and Adly Mansour was installed (this is NOT cover in the book).
Although I have never been to Egypt, I have traveled in most of the Arab countries, and lived in Saudi Arabia over two decades. Nonetheless, I found the factions rather confusing, and thought Soueif could have done a better job explaining them. For example, at times she uses the term "Ikhwan". Is this the Muslim Brotherhood? I think so, but it was not clear from the book. Then there is a separate faction called the "Salafis," and I thought that might just be another term for the "Ikhwan," but apparently not. Comments are welcome that would clarify the use of these terms.
Overall though, it seems to be a struggle between two very familiar factions, worldwide, now commonly referred to as the 1% and the 99%. Mubarak represented the 1%, which had a deep sense of entitlement, making millions and billions in the process, leaving the 99% all the poorer. And in Egypt's case, the 99% seemed far more intent on change, and was far more tenacious than, say, the "Occupy Wall Street" movement. As for the final results, though, the proverbial jury is still out. 5-stars for Soueif's important contribution.
Ahdaf Soueif constructs his memoir as well as a novel giving us a great amount of detail and a small amount of history. Both give us context for his and Egypt's story for what occurred with the changes that faced the nation before, during and after January 25 2011. Soueif has the advantage of having been there--covering the revolution at the time--and giving us keen insight into the mindset of those caught in the middle of this change.
The only issue I can think of that would have improved the book is, paradoxically, what also makes it so valuable--a lack of distance on the part of the author surrounding the events that occurred. Still, this IS a memior not a book designed to document all the history that unfolded during those days in January 3 years ago.
Ms. Soueif does an exceptional job of detailing what occurred and incorporating her own personal experience in her book. As far as my experience with the book, I would recommend it as it is exceptionally well written and I may, with time, revise my rating up to 5 stars (I'd give it 4 1/2 at this point).