Review: Cairo by Ahdaf Soueif
Title: Cairo: My City, Our Revolution
Author: Soueif, Ahdaf
Length: 194 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir, History, Politics
Publisher / Year: Bloomsbury / 2012
Source: Purchased at the American University in Cairo bookstore (Tahrir campus)
Why I Read It: It had been on my wish list since I first heard of it.
Date Read: 28/03/12
What was it like to be in the middle of the action in Tahrir Square (or the more appropriate title, Midan el-Tahrir) during the Egyptian revolution? In this fascinating book, part-memoir, part-documentary Soueif takes us there with her and tells us about the reasons behind the protests as well as sharing the political manoeuvring and shady practices the government was engaged in, right up to the end, to keep their power. Any event in history will have multiple perspectives, and here Soueif shares hers, and as a member of the mass protests, Soueif gives us a view that we miss when we view events through the distorted lens of North American media reports.
Incredibly well-written and engaging, the book begins on January 25th with the first mass protests. Soueif shares much of her past and history, as well as the history of her country, but the format generally follows through the 18 days of the revolution. The narrative of the 18 days is interrupted in the middle with a section from October 2011, ‘eight months later’, talking about the disappointments and struggles from February 11th until that point. Always highlighting the fact that we as readers know more than she does while writing, she talks about the dreams they have for the future and the ways in which these dreams are being interrupted. While she is still wondering about the upcoming elections, we know how much they have been pushed back. It is, in a way, depressing knowing how much has not come to pass since those 18 days.
The book is peppered with incredible events and people, and questions that really make you think. One interesting decision Soueif made in writing this book is using a system of transliteration in writing Arabic sounds in English. What this means is that common sounds in Arabic for which no English equivalent exists, a number is used. Thus we get words like Tal3at, Qur2anic, Al-sha3b, and more. I think this is a decision that is likely to generate much debate (see Arablit’s post on it here) but I felt it made it easier, especially as a non-Arabic speaker, in getting pronunciation correct.
For me it was surreal reading this book while being in Cairo, just minutes away from Tahrir. Every time we walked through or around the area I would be imagining it like we’d seen it on TV, like it had been described by Soueif, and also just taking in how it was at present. The graffiti all around was especially fascinating and I took pictures upon pictures. Carina and I ended up inside a blocked off area one evening by accident and, while trying to find our way through and out, were also trying to figure out what they were guarding. This should give you a good indication of how the revolution is going now… the military had blocked off the parliament buildings.
And so I’ll imagine that you’re reading this page here, in Cairo; the capital of an Egypt that’s come back to her people, that’s regained control of her destiny [...] (page 187)
I recommend that anyone interested in the ‘Arab spring’ and the Egyptian revolution, or revolutions in general, read this book. You will learn much about the ways governments control dialogue; the ways in which our media in North America spins stories; and about the dreams of ordinary people and the power behind ordinary people and their dreams of a better future. I hope too that you can all have the opportunity some day of visiting the Egypt which Soueif imagines, I hope that I have that opportunity as well.