Between road-blocking demonstrations, election chaos, and shortage of basic needs, one question hovers in the minds of all Egyptians: where are we heading? In addition to the countless talk shows, one possible scenario is provided in the novel Bab El Kheroug: Risalet Ali Al Mofa’ama Bebahga Gheir Motawaka (Exit Gate: Ali’s Letter Overflowing with Unexpected Happiness).
Written by Ezzedine Choukri Fishere, a former diplomat and professor of political science at the American University in Cairo, the novel examines the political situation of Egypt until 2020 through the eyes of Ali, the president’s translator, as he witnesses the revolution and its aftermath. The novel is written as a letter from the protagonist to his son, explaining how he ultimately came to betray his country’s nuclear plans to strike Israel and US presence in the area using secretly acquired arsenal.
The novel is being published as daily instalments in Tahrir newspaper. Having been influenced as a child by the instalment novels of Naguib Mahfouz and Ihsan Abdel Quddous in Ahram newspaper, Fishere chose to publish Bab El Kheroug serially because he “simply could not wait!” He says, “I have been preoccupied by its plot and main characters for a few months, and I had this urge not only to write it but to get it out to the public. I felt if I didn't do it now, it will be overtaken by events – because it is a novel interwoven with current events.” Once the decision was made, Fishere approached the editor of Tahrir, who took up the idea immediately. The first instalment was published, along with an illustration, on April 1st 2012.
But putting an incomplete literary work out in the public and committing to produce a segment daily is a daring undertaking, to say the least. As if the nightmare of writer’s block wasn’t enough, Fishere took it upon himself to write under very tight time constraints, all while depriving himself of the right to retell any part of the story differently. Yet, Fishere is not one to shy from a good challenge, as his previous works will prove. His 2010 Embrace by Brooklyn Bridge which was shortlisted for the 2012 Arab Booker Prize, was also quite experimental in its form; a novel in short stories each of which is capable of standing on its own, yet falling integrally within a unified work. Fishere describes writing his new novel under such conditions as “a form of madness”, one that has awakened his senses and pushed him to go beyond the conventional.
Another unconventional technique often adopted by Fishere is his non-linear, non-chronological narration. As with his previous novels, Fishere begins the story at the climactic point, removing all suspense, and allowing the reader instead to focus on the beauty of the details as they unravel. Simply bored with the chronological narration, what he calls “fake-suspense”, Fishere deliberately breaks the timeline. He also keeps boredom at bay by intertwining the political with the personal. Bab El Kheroug is not just about the bloody upheavals of a divided Egypt, but also about the life and loves; regrets and lessons learned; joys and struggles of the kind and introverted Ali.
The characters in Bab El Kheroug are directly involved in the government or politically active in some way. Empowered, active and hopeful, albeit stuck in a vicious cycle, these characters are the product of Egypt’s revolution; they did not exist before January 25th, 2011. This being one of the first, if not the first fictional work post-revolution, leaves behind the broken, devastated and hopeless fictional characters that for decades have pervaded Arabic literature. Yet it is still too early to talk about a clearly defined post-revolution literary movement. Fishere calls it a budding literature, “The old world is receding, but the new one is not there yet. Bab El Kheroug is a beginning, a door I am trying to open for myself.” Every day Fishere opens this door a little more for himself and for his readers who anxiously await a new instalment.
And while it may seem too soon to write about the revolution as the bloodied streets, outrageous disappointments and familiar scenes of a packed Tahrir square are still too fresh in our memory, the readers of Tahrir website have proved otherwise. Except for the slow and somewhat redundant first episode, website comments indicate a growing readership, sometimes drawing similarities between the novel’s predictions and reality a few days later, or picking out their favourite quotes.
This kind of interactive literature has even helped some find the author within, as readers offer suggestions to the author and even changes to improve the story. But Fishere is heart-warmed, mostly at communicating with his readers and at the commitment toward following the episodes. Aware that Bab El Kheroug is very likely to be read differently in the future, he smiles, “Maybe all I want is to be able, in ten years, to tell the world: I told you so!”