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Nevine Abbas Halim: Diaries of An Egyptian Princess
Many of us in Egypt are naturally captivated by the lives of the rich and famous. There is something about these characters that we find inherently exciting and mysterious. We wear thin the pages of celebrity gossip magazines and tirelessly search the Internet for updates on our favourite stars. Royalty from the days of yore are no exception to our obsession; the elegant ways in which we imagine these monarchs used to live is deeply entrancing. In Diaries of An Egyptian Princess, Nevine Abbas Halim sets out to fascinate her readers with tales of triumph and tribulation from her turbulent life before and after the 1952 revolution.
Unfortunately, the author’s writing fails to adequately captivate her audience. The jacket of the book promises to give insight into the princess’s early life as a beloved socialite and her later post-revolution troubles as a social outcast. Anxiously awaiting this cruel twist of fate and the details of Princess Nevine’s struggle, the reader is prepared to grant the heroine a fair deal of sympathy. It surely must have been difficult to go from riches to rags so suddenly and so drastically.
A substantial bit of the narrative, which skips carelessly to and fro through time, is devoted to listing the names of her high-society cohorts and their genetic or social relation to the Royal Family. While the author succeeds in making many of these people sound quite interesting, it is to her detriment. The story might have been more interesting coming from the perspective of one of Princess Nevine’s acquaintances.
The life of the author is not wholly dull. She comes across as a vivacious lady, willing to take chances and have fun with life. Taking advantage of the opportunities presented to her, Princess Nevine attends many events, seeks out education both in Egypt and the US and travels extensively.
However, the author makes it difficult to attract the reader’s sympathy over her frequently-jailed father (Abbas Halim was the founder of the Egyptian Labour Movement), or the fact that policemen no longer salute her when she drives by. Though she devotes a few pages to the Free Officer's Revolution, a much greater portion of the book concerns how difficult her life was just before, during and after this time. It is not easy to understand exactly why that is the case, as the tales of tribulation are frequently interspersed with stories of a grand party or her travels through Europe.
The final pages of the book claim to bring us to the close of the Golden Years, which are then followed by '...Supremely unwelcome difficult days.' The book would have been much more gripping had this event been introduced a third of the way into the story.
Though the book does drag a bit, a slew of incredible photographs of Princess Nevine, her friends and family are sprinkled throughout the pages. This helps to humanise the characters quite a bit, which are occasionally left rather underdeveloped in the text itself. Diaries of An Egyptian Princess would make for a lovely coffee-table book to flip through these images of the past. However, after reading the whole book, one is left feeling as though you had to be there to really appreciate this autobiography.
Joseph Anton was Rushdie’s pseudonym when he went into hiding, so it makes for a good title for a memoir detailing that particular part of his life. So one would assume the book details mostly that: the fatwa, its consequences and the efforts undertaken to void it. Unfortunately, there is a lot of toffee-nosed non-information one has to wade through to get to the interesting stuff.
The book is littered with numerous unnecessary references to several of his ‘beloved’, ‘amazing’ and ‘great’ friends such as Harold Pinter, Susan Sontag and Martin Amis. A good two pages are wasted detailing a dinner party at the home of then British Prime Minister, Tony Blair. It would be more interesting to know how the fatwa was annulled (spoiler alert: it never actually officially was), not how Rushdie’s son Milan spent at least half an hour sitting on Tony Blair’s lap and how jolly a time was had by all.
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.