NOVEMBER 9, 2016
REVOLUTIONS ARE STORIES we tell in perfect arc. The language used to describe them contains all of the inexorable momentum that drives grand narratives. Words like movement, gathering, uprising culminate in an overthrow, a toppling, a fall. It is the stuff of good Aristotelian drama. This inherent drama is at the heart of what Egyptian novelist Youssef Rakha has cynically described as the “Arab Spring Industry,” referring to the glut of cultural production that followed in the wake of the 2011 revolution. Documentary works like Mona Prince’s Revolution Is My Name and Ahdaf Soueif’s Cairo: My City, Our Revolution captured the heady moments of transformation — the coming of age of an entire generation of Egyptian writers and activists.
But if revolution lends itself naturally to literature, what follows is uncharted waters. More than half a decade has passed since the initial wave of unrest rushed through the Arab world, and far from the tidy resolution hinted at in the early optimistic literature, Egyptian society finds itself mired in the falling action. Five hesitant years have seen the overthrow of the country’s first elected president, the usurpation of power by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and an Egyptian state that seems to grow more intolerant of dissent each day. Unbridled revolutionary enthusiasm has given way to a literary terrain marked by disillusionment and uncertainty, not to mention the imprisonment of novelist Ahmed Naji for his experimental 2014 novel, The Use of Life.
This past summer, two Egyptian novels published in English gave non-Arabic-speaking readers a sense of this landscape. The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz and Chronicle of a Last Summer by Yasmine El Rashidi explore the Egyptian “after” with all of the dizzying frustrations, contradictions, and possibilities that the post-revolutionary world affords.
Originally published in Arabic in 2012 and rendered adeptly into English by Elisabeth Jaquette, The Queue is equal parts dystopia, satire, and allegory. It is also an early example of a truly post–“Arab Spring” work, looking beyond the excitement of revolution to what follows. The story is set in a nameless country run by “the Gate,” an obscure central authority that comes into being after a popular uprising called “The First Storm.” In order to accomplish even the most menial of tasks, citizens must get forms and documents signed by the Gate, which, despite never being open, continuously issues new laws and decrees requiring yet more paperwork and signatures. Much of the novel’s primary action takes place in the bloated line that forms outside of the Gate, growing so comically long that it develops its own geography. An Upper Line microbus is described as “just one of several lines created recently, because one day, without any discussion, everyone had begun to drive on the sidewalks, abandoning the roads to the people in the queue.”
English-language commentators have likened the novel to George Orwell’s 1984, but such a comparison diminishes both its uniqueness and its humor. Rather, the Gate represents a distinctly Egyptian version of its Orwellian counterpart, much more real and all the more absurd for it. At the heart of this autocracy, where moves are monitored, power is everywhere and nowhere, and the state reigns supreme is a bureaucracy that is disorganized and useless at accomplishing anything but the act of repression. To describe this world, Abdel Aziz conjures language so heavy-handed and obvious that the prose spills seamlessly from dystopia into satire. A governing body called the “Fatwa and Rationalizations Committee” issues religious decrees stating the “sin” of boycotting government-run mobile companies can be absolved by “fasting or by making seven consecutive phone calls each one not separated by more than a month.” The state-run newspaper is called The Truth. Egyptians require a certificate of True Citizenship to get x-rays taken.
The nature of truth, its official invocations, its power and its danger, lies at the heart of this work. Abdel Aziz, a psychiatrist of trauma and torture, brilliantly uses medical discourse to highlight the strength and limitations of trying to manipulate the truth. The novel is structured around the case file of its protagonist, Yehya, a young activist who was shot during a quelled popular uprising called “The Disgraceful Events.” Slowly dying from the bullet lodged near his bladder, he is unable to get permission for its removal because the Gate denies that the rebellion had been violently suppressed. In one of many announcements, the Gate proclaims that “as a rule, bullets and projectiles may be the property of security units, and thus cannot be removed from the body without special authorization.” The mass demonstrations between 2011 and 2013 saw hundreds of thousands gathering in Tahrir Square to demand change, using their bodies to occupy physical space. Increasingly, reports of torture and forced disappearances by the security apparatus betray an attempt to exert control over citizens by acting on their bodies. Aziz’s novel is keenly aware of how, in times of turmoil, the connection between the body and the body politic becomes fraught with possibility and peril.
In a haunting premonition of the current state, Abdel Aziz’s post-revolutionary world is also one marked by erasure: according to a recent report by Amnesty International, the past year has seen an average of three disappearances in Egypt each day. A scene in which a character is being tortured describes this darkest of moments not in terms of blood, or physical violence, but in terms of loss. The subject gradually begins to forget faces, her friends, her own, and she wonders, “Was it possible that her own memory was being stolen from her? That she would lose forever the images that had lived in her mind for so long?” When looking at Yehya’s patient files, a conflicted doctor named Tarek, notes that the dates are either illegible or absent, while the hour is always marked to startling precision. We see the 24-hour clock, used to catalog and control, linger, while historical time, marking moments of significance, has all but disappeared.
Bleak as it may seem, this work dwells in both anguish and hope. If the line at the Gate is a microcosm for contemporary Egypt, we find it cutting across class and gender, featuring rural and urban, rich and poor, men and women. Yes, the people who wait in the queue are complying with the rules of the Gate, but as they wait, alliances form, informal economies develop. One character, Um Mabrouk, a poor mother who has lost one of her children begins to run a makeshift cafe in the line. Using her wide shoulders to take up space “she would assume her position in front of the gas burner and provide drinks for the people around her. Her circle of customers quickly expanded. The coffee shop was closed and Hammoud had vanished, so she began to serve many people, veterans of the queue and newcomers alike.” Even amid compliance and disappearance, new strategies are adopted to survive.
On its surface, Yasmine El Rashidi’s debut novel Chronicle of a Last Summer is a radically different work from The Queue. It takes us to an altogether different environment: a sweltering summer in an upper-class Cairo living room. Written in English, it is the first-person account of a woman coming of age in a politically fraught Egypt. Dates, so glaringly absent in The Queue, drive and organize Chronicle, whose action spans three summers: 1984, 1998, and 2014. That the work was written in English does not detract from its singularly Arab obsession with dates. Numbers we are schooled in from childhood, each one possessing a suggestive power akin to “9/11” for Americans. Years (1919, 1952, 1967) punctuate conversations between the protagonist and her activist cousin, her father, and her uncle. They blare on the television. They endure on bridges and thoroughfares, their weight and meaning betraying precisely why in The Queue the fictive Gate works so hard to erase them.
As in The Queue, political experience in El Rashidi’s work is colored by erasure. The unnamed protagonist grows up in a house marked by her absent father whom no one will discuss. She is obsessed with disappearance, playing a game where she notes what remains each day on her way to school. “In class,” she says, “I write a story called The Disappearing People. I write about going to the prison. I write about the people they take away. It happens only at night. My teacher gives me zero out of ten and says I shouldn’t be writing such things at my age.”
Like Abdel Aziz, El Rashidi’s narrator points to the limitations of language for narrating contemporary political experience: “There isn’t a language for what we are living. We need our own vocabulary, not just new forms in literature and art.” She uses language fluidly to define familiar words in ways that give them new, politically charged meanings. When the protagonist’s cousin tells her it is the country that makes them listless, she asks what listless means, “It means to wake up every day and not know what to do. It means to feel there is nothing to look forward to in life.” A later conversation with her uncle about a national monument that had been torn down in a construction project has her repeating the Arabic word for destruction: “Tadmeer. Tadmeer. It meant devastation.”
Here, as in The Queue, we don’t find the tempestuous prose of the revolutionary moment. It lacks vigor, is listless at times. Rather, the novel reflects the maddening stability of a country in which, until the events of 2011, 75 percent of the population had only ever known two heads of state. In 1984 and still in 1998, billboards with President Mubarak’s picture crowd the landscape, as much a fixture of the setting as the unchanging furniture in the protagonist’s living room, all part of an insidious continuity. “Everyone we knew preserved lives as they were, over generations. Sofas stayed covered in plastic, glass cabinets with proliferating displays were not to be touched, every gift, every token, every ticket, stuffed somewhere, or in a drawer.”
If revolution is a grand climax, Chronicle reminds us it is forged by hot summer days, simmering anger, and monotony. Contrary to a critique leveled in the past at Egyptian women writers — that they are too engaged in the private sphere, neglecting the sociopolitical — El Rashidi insists that politics is as much a product of interiors as exteriors. The novel ranges around the city, stopping by a record store where the merits of the Muslim Brotherhood are debated alongside a rare vinyl of Umm Kulthum, a prison visitation room where a family shares birthday cake, and finally, a living room where a TV plays propaganda no one really believes. This last medium, in particular, is an element too often discounted in the discussions of the Arab uprisings which ceaselessly orbit around Facebook and Twitter. “Social Media and the Arab Spring” might be the subject of a 1,001 dissertations, not to mention its own Wikipedia page, but in the midst of this internet hype, both novels provide a necessary reminder that television remains a central influence on Arab political thought. This is a motif that appears just as prominently in the pre-revolutionary literary works of major Egyptian authors like Sonallah Ibrahim: the living room, not the message board, is the site of political and social formation. A popular epithet coined around the revolution to decry those who failed to go out into the streets even as they raptly watched the events unfold was hizb al-kanaba: “couch party.”
In the throes of revolution, it was not just interior spaces that remained hidden from view, but also the people who inhabited them. The archetypal revolutionary figure lodged in the minds of many readers is no doubt a young man, standing in Tahrir, fist raised in defiance. But Chronicle shows us other faces of dissent: children, mothers, ailing uncles. Anthropologist Jessica Winegar, herself in Cairo in 2011, emphasizes the significance of this “hidden majority.” After all, when the flames of uprising have died down or been ruthlessly suppressed, it is they and not the “iconic revolutionary” who will continue to stoke the embers of revolution, defined by Winegar as “the myriad, everyday ways that social transformation is experienced, enabled, and perhaps impeded.”
In the end of Chronicle, we are left in the Egypt of 2014, which bears a striking resemblance to the Egypt of 1984. Where Mubarak’s picture once dotted the landscape, now “a building-size flyer of the new president, Sisi, hangs off the sides of one, two, I count five buildings on the street.” But this is not the Egypt of before. The protagonist’s mother, once a passive figure who never quite recovered from the absence of her father, finds herself rejuvenated by a campaign to save electricity, and the closing pages see them moving out of their house, the place that has marked the sameness of the preceding pages. It is an awakening, of sorts — an awareness that things are no longer what they were.
Perhaps it is this sense of awareness that best encapsulates these two novels as well as the many others being written in this moment. In the years that have followed the Arab uprisings, disillusionment might be the word of the day, but there is tremendous strength in the prefix. Both of these books reflect societies stripped of illusions, mindful of the significance wrought by the past half decade, even as their outer worlds march on in synchronized continuity. In a powerful essay on disenchantment in today’s Egypt, sociologist Asef Bayat reminds us that beneath the “brutal inertia of the everyday” and a new regime that looks dismayingly like the old, stand a people who have undergone radical transformation, who “have experienced, however briefly, rare moments of feeling free, engaged in unfettered spaces of self-realization, local self-rule, and collective effervescence.” This is the significance of the after, one reflected in these novels: new subjectivities have been formed. There might not be a resolution, but the story continues to be told in original and provocative ways.