From the best-selling author of The Map of Love, here is a bracing firsthand account of the Egyptian revolution—told with the narrative instincts of a novelist, the gritty insights of an activist, and the long perspective of a native Cairene.
Since January 25, 2011, when thousands of Egyptians gathered in Tahrir Square to demand the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime, Ahdaf Soueif—author, journalist, and lifelong progressive—has been among the revolutionaries who have shaken Egypt to its core. In this deeply personal work, Soueif summons her storytelling talents to trace the trajectory of her nation’s ongoing transformation. She writes of the passion, confrontation, and sacrifice that she witnessed in the historic first eighteen days of uprising—the bravery of the youth who led the revolts and the jubilation in the streets at Mubarak’s departure. Later, the cityscape was ablaze with political graffiti and street screenings, and with the journalistic and organizational efforts of activists—including Soueif and her family.
In the weeks and months after those crucial eighteen days, we watch as Egyptians fight to preserve and advance their revolution—even as the interim military government, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, throws up obstacles at each step. She shows us the council delaying abdication of power, undermining efforts toward democracy, claiming ownership of the revolution while ignoring its martyrs. We see elections held and an Islamist voted into power. At each scene, Soueif gives us her view from the ground—brave, intelligent, startlingly immediate. Against this stormy backdrop, she interweaves memories of her own Cairo—the balcony of her aunt’s flat, where, as a child, she would watch the open-air cinema; her first job, as an actor on a children’s sitcom; her mother’s family land outside the city, filled with fruit trees and palm groves, in sight of the pyramids. In so doing, she affirms the beauty and resilience of this ancient and remarkable city. The book ends with a postscript that considers Egypt’s more recent turns: the shifts in government, the ongoing confrontations between citizen and state, and a nation’s difficult but deeply inspiring path toward its great, human aims—bread, freedom, and social justice. In these pages, Soueif creates an illuminating snapshot of an event watched by the world—the outcome of which continues to be felt across the globe.
FRIDAY, 28 JANUARY, 5:00 P.M.
The river is a still, steely gray, a dull pewter. Small scattered fires burn and fizz in the water. We’ve pushed out from the shore below the Ramses Hilton and are heading into midstream. My two nieces, Salma and Mariam, are on either side of me in the small motorboat. As we get farther from the shore, our coughing and choking subside. We can draw breath, even though the breath burns. And we can open our eyes—
To see an opaque dusk, heavy with tear gas. Up ahead, Qasr el-Nil Bridge is a mass of people, all in motion, but all in place. We look back at where we were just minutes ago, on 6 October Bridge, and see a Central Security Forces personnel carrier on fire, backing off, four young men chasing it, leaping at it, beating at its windshield. The vehicle is reversing wildly, careering backward east toward Downtown. Behind us, a ball of fire lands in the river, a bright new pool of flame in the water. The sky is gray—so different from the airy twilight you normally get on the river at this time of day. The Opera House looms dark on our right, and we can barely make out the slender height of the Cairo Tower. We don’t know it yet, but the lights of Cairo will not come on tonight.
A great shout goes up from Qasr el-Nil. I look at Salma and Mariam. “Yes, let’s,” they say. I tell the boatman we’ve changed our minds: we don’t want to cross the river to Giza and go home. We want to be dropped off under Qasr el-Nil Bridge.
And that is why we—myself and two beautiful young women—appeared suddenly in the Qasr el-Nil Underpass among the Central Security vehicles racing to get out of town and all the men leaning over the parapet above us with stones in their hands stopped in midthrow and yelled “Run! Run!” and held off with the stones so they wouldn’t hit us as we skittered through the screeching vehicles to a spot where we could scramble up the bank and join the people at the mouth of the bridge.
That day the government—the regime that had ruled us for thirty years—had cut off our communications. No mobile service, no Internet for all of Egypt. In a way, looking back, I think this concentrated our minds, our will, our energy: each person was in one place, totally and fully committed to that place, unable to be aware of any other, knowing they had to do everything they could for it and trusting that other people in other places were doing the same.
So we ran through the underpass, scrambled up the bank, and found ourselves within, inside, and part of the masses. When we’d seen the crowd from a distance, it had seemed like one bulk, solid. Close up like this, it was people, individual persons with spaces between them—spaces into which you could fit. We stood on the traffic island in the middle of the road. Behind us was Qasr el-Nil Bridge, in front of us was Tahrir, and we were doing what we Egyptians do best, and what the regime ruling us had tried so hard to destroy: we had come together, as individuals, millions of us, in a great cooperative effort. And this time our project was to save and to reclaim our country. We stood on the island in the middle of the road, and that was the moment I became part of the revolution.
Excerpted from Cairo by Ahdaf Soueif. Copyright © 2014 by Ahdaf Soueif. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Ahdaf Soueif is the author of two novels, In the Eye of The Sun and The Map of Love, which was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1999; three story collections, Aisha, Sandpiper, and I Think of You; and an essay collection, Mezzaterra: Notes from the Common Ground. Her latest book, Cairo, describes the revolution in 2011 which affected the city where she was born and lives.
“There are many records of the Egyptian revolution, but Cairo takes us on a more intimate journey, one that goes far beyond the eighteen days of Tahrir Square. [Soueif] speaks of her own story but also speaks for thousands, perhaps even millions, of other Cairenes.” —The Guardian
“In years to come Cairo will be a reminder to liberals of their most glorious hour. It should serve as a heartening reminder of what they are capable of achieving when united and courageous.”—The Economist
“Soueif writes of her tremendous pride in the younger generation, who faced down government thugs, snipers perched on buildings, tanks, and security police. Many received beatings, or were imprisoned (her own nephew, Alaa, was jailed) or, in the case of 843 protesters, killed. The author captures beautifully her anguish at Cairo’s degradation during the years of dictatorship and Mubarak’s calculated sowing of division among the people . . . She is an eloquent witness.”—Publishers Weekly