Certain novels complicate the very notion of literary enjoyment. This, by the author of the international bestseller The Yacoubian Building, is such a one. Despite its gripping narrative, compelling structure and vivid characters, every time I picked it up it was with a sinking heart. In telling the story of the Egyptian revolution of 2011 through the viewpoint of a variety of Cairenes both for and against, Alaa Al Aswany holds out the slender straw of hope against the slashing shears of repression.
General Ahmad Alwany has just supervised the torture of a man and the abuse of his wife at his HQ. But it’s not as though he’s devoid of human sentiment; he adores his daughter, Danya, a medical student. Unfortunately for the general, Danya is impressed and influenced by a fellow student, Khaled, an implacable foe to the Mubarak regime. The narrative switches between various strands: Danya and Khaled’s story; emails between Asmaa and Mazen, two shy lovers; the unstoppable rise to power of Nourhan, a TV presenter and mouthpiece of the regime; and the moral transformation of the wealthy, self-indulgent, hashish-smoking Ashraf Wissa.
Wissa cuts an ignominious figure at the start by penning a lusty manifesto on how to seduce female servants. Coming from a persecuted religious minority, the Christian Copts, Wissa has learnt to lie low in a Muslim theocracy. His snooty wife Magda having long since ceased to attract him, he is obsessed with the maid, Ikram, who shows every sign of reciprocating his affection. Wissa owns a building overlooking Tahrir Square, and once the young people begin to demonstrate there, he finds himself inexorably drawn into the protest.
If Wissa is a thoroughly attractive figure, Nourhan is a fascinating female villain, a paradoxically pious seductress who targets powerful men. It wouldn’t be correct to call her a religious hypocrite: to her mind, the will of Allah and her own self-interest always coincide. Support for the regime is conflated with piety, and members of the ruling class repeat their contemptuous view of ordinary Egyptians as simple folk who only respond to strong leadership. Mubarak is toppled; but the youthful rioters quickly learn that the apparatus of state and army remains intact.
A twin offensive is launched: the pumping out of anti-reform propaganda on state TV, and the brutal suppression of dissent. In horrific scenes, army vehicles trundle over the helpless demonstrators. A young woman cradles a friend whose brains have been extruded. A disbelieving father attempts to wake his dead son, who lies with a surprisingly small hole in the centre of his forehead. Captured female protestors suffer demeaning ‘virginity tests’. Particularly gruelling passages involve witness testimony, as victims repeatedly attempt to seek justice through a biased judiciary.
The novel ends with one small, sweet act of redress. But given the material, Al Aswany declines to offer us the full satisfaction of a happy ending. Retribution remains a purely literary concept.
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