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Ahdaf Soueif: Cairo: My City, Our Revolution
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.
News stories and journalistic reports couldn’t capture the sincere love that flooded Egypt's streets throughout the revolution either, and this is exactly what Soueif's Cairo: My City, Our Revolution provides: firsthand documentation of feelings rather than events.
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.
Reading about the eighteen days of the revolution in the words of someone who witnessed them firsthand will give readers a deep understanding of the intricate happenings and the feelings that infiltrated every Egyptian home at the time. Using words like 'shabab' – Arabic for youth – Soueif creates a story that is relevant and relatable.
Cairo: My City, Our Revolution is not just a story about an uprising against a corrupt regime but a story about a writer and her city - Soueif elaborately describes her intimate relationship with Cairo.
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.
If you were born and raised in Cairo, every description will strike a chord. If you weren't, it's easy to understand why many people have come to fall in love with its chaotic streets.
Echols grew up as typical ‘white trash’ – a term he uses to describe himself throughout the book – in a trailer park in a small town in Arkansas. Poor as a church mouse and with a minor criminal record for vandalism and shoplifting, he always wore a black trench coat and sported an alternative hairdo. There were rumours going around town he was into satanic rituals. When three boys were found dead in the woods, he was an easy scapegoat for the Arkansas police force.
His friend Jason Baldwin and another kid who lived in their neighbourhood, Jessie Miskelley, ended up as collateral damage for hanging out with Echols at the wrong place and time and were sent to prison for life.
After a prizewinning documentary about the boys’ case – now dubbed as the West Memphis Three, or WM3 – attracted a lot of attention. An alternative defence team was put together that would eventually free the three men, but only after having spent over half of their lives in prison.
“I will not give in to anger”, he writes. “If I do, then they have won.”
Raised a Christian, Echols goes on a spiritual quest to give meaning and structure to his life behind bars. He describes his days as “a dark and distorted version of monastic life”, spending hours meditating and reciting bible verses.
Having experienced it from the inside, Echols is very critical of both the American judiciary and its prison system. He describes the conditions in US prisons as a mix of “sadness, horror and sheer absurdity.” Echols concluded that “jail is preschool” and that “prison is for those earning a Ph.D. in brutality”.
Many of his fellow inmates go mad. He remembers a fellow prisoner that Scotch taped crickets to his body, calling them his ‘babies’. Another death row convict was so far beyond sanity that he couldn’t be made to understand that finishing his dessert after his execution was not an option.
The West Memphis Three were eventually acquitted on Alford pleas, which allow them to assert their innocence while acknowledging that prosecutors have enough evidence to convict them. In his book, Echols understandably seizes every opportunity to proclaim his innocence. Every time this prison sentence comes up it is followed by his assertion: “For a crime I did not commit,” as if to nullify the court decision. Now, as true as that might be, it does get tiring to read.
One good thing to come out of this whole experience, Echols recognises, is that he became an autodidact in jail. He was a high school drop-out when he came to prison, but managed to cultivate his intelligence and vastly expand his knowledge by reading thousands of books on a wide variety of subjects during his time there.
This certainly shows in this book; fluently written, it is witty, well thought out and filled with interesting facts and sensible arguments. Echols’ writing talent is evident and hopefully he will employ this skill in future books.
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.