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Ashraf Khalil: Liberation Square
The 2011 Egyptian revolution has undoubtedly sparked more art, expression, creativity and literature than Egypt has seen in the past thirty odd years. While some have been inspiring, some have also choked the revolution to the point of boredom. It is with absolute relief and delight to say that the Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation by Ashraf Khalil is not of the latter.
An Egyptian-American journalist and writer based in Egypt for the past fifteen years, Khalil has been a correspondent for the likes of Los Angeles Times, The Times and The Economist. For his first book, Khalil has framed the revolution into an entertaining and educational read.
Khalil divides the book into twenty parts, including the prologue and epilogue. Starting at the beginning of all that has lead to our current situation; Khalil sheds light on the sequence of events and essentially how and why everything came to be. The rise of Mubarak after Sadat’s assassination is where the story begins, and Khalil moves chronologically through Egypt's history, leading up to today.
Moving through the chapters, the reader is given a very clear and precise account of everything that aided the revolution and added to its necessity, such as the Kefaya movement’s development and Khaled Said’s monstrous death. It’s informative, easy to read and, above all, engaging. Khalil voices a very genuine and truthful angle to events; his sources and references are directly from the people involved and paints a sincere picture. His accounts are often quite moving, where you find yourself smiling at the memory of an event or touched by the humanness that prevailed over much of the revolution.
This is what’s most enjoyable about this book. It highlights the beauty in the uprising, the human hope and the undeniable warmth of the Egyptian people. While he retells events that are simply unjust and frustrating, the story being told is bigger than that. It's a thoughtful representation and description of the movement and is told from a view point most revolutionaries would relate to.
Details that we either are unaware of, or have simply disregarded and forgotten, are given in relation to Mubarak and his rise to power. The fact that he was somewhat of a joke to the Egyptian people prior to his presidency, where he was regarded as complacent and uncharismatic, is an aspect most of the younger generation isn’t plainly aware of.
For anyone interested in getting to know the Egyptian revolution and how it actually played out down to the smallest details and side stories (which are not only relevant but highly interesting), Liberation Square is a highly recommendable read.
The structure of the book is difficult to map out. While the story is chronological in the bigger sense, events tend to jump back and forth, where each child slave’s full story is only revealed the further you read. We do not know exactly how either of them came to be until to the end.
Other distractions from the story line are religious references. Using Biblical references, verses from the Quran and the history of Moses and Adam, Thompson uses mythical tales to reflect on the characters at hand and the trials they face. He even has a character and element that bears an uncanny representation of Noah and his arc.
Apart from his use of history and religious fables, Thompson also tells a very aggressive, and often times, dark story. Dodola is married off as a child and upon turning to prostitution is subjected to rape and mistreatment. Zam is a slave who sacrifices his manhood out of a loss of a better life. They are both abused time and time again and having their misfortunes sketched out for the eye to witness adds a shocking element to the novel.
This brings us to what makes the novel so wonderful at the same time; the illustrations. The detailing of the sketches and the exemplary hand-work at play is extremely commendable. Action scenes have your eyes rushing through the pages as frantically as one seen on a TV screen. The beauty in the details is endless; the graphics are looming and grand but also sensual and precise. There is a lot of calligraphy incorporated, which makes for an interesting experience for those who can read Arabic.
Another interesting aspect is his combination of the new and the old. Though the story takes place in today’s world, a lot of the prevalent ideologies are from nomadic times; primitive and beastly.
There is indeed something quite poetic about the story he tells – and the manner in which it is told – regardless of the gruesome, harsh aspects; on the contrary, it is these parts that make the novel that much more meaningful.
A simple online search would give you a chronological account of the Egyptian revolution; accurate dates, death tolls and perhaps even the names of the martyrs. But it will not tell you how it made the Egyptian people feel. Statistics can't describe what the families of the martyrs went through and it cannot accurately express the weight placed on the hearts of millions of Egyptians during this time.
Soueif doesn't ignore the violence perpetrated by the regime against protestors; she also mentions those who have lost their lives. She has kept in mind that by the time readers received her book a lot would have changed, so she frequently refers to the fact that we – her readers – would know more about the current situation than she did while writing it.
As she walks down every street, she supplements her story with memories and anecdotes from her childhood and adolescence, adding an emotional and personal dimension to her book and making it easy for readers to imagine why she is still attached to Cairo despite her long years in London.
The book is a refreshing spin on a now-over-a-year-old revolution. It brings hope. Soueif's sharp senses have led her to assume that by the time the book hits bookshelves, hope would still be the number one motivation and that's how she writes; invoking hope and persistence in the hearts of her readers.