When throngs of Egyptians gathered in Tahrir Square to demand the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime, Ahdaf Soueif—author, journalist, lifelong progressive—was among them. Now, in this deeply personal work, Soueif summons her storytelling talents to trace her city’s—and nation’s—ongoing transformation.
She writes of the youth who led the revolts, and of the jubilation in the streets at Mubarak’s departure. We then watch as Egyptians fight for democracy, as the interim military government throws up obstacles at every step, and as an Islamist is voted into power. Against this stormy backdrop, Soueif casts memories of her own Cairo—the open-air cinema; her family’s land, in sight of the pyramids—and affirms the beauty of this ancient city. Soueif's postscript considers Egypt’s more recent turns in its difficult but deeply inspiring path toward its great human aims.
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 Anchor, 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; a story collection, I Think of You; and an essay collection, Mezzaterra: Notes from the Common Ground. She lives in Cairo, where she was born.
“Profound, enthralling. . . . Fiercely poetic. . . . Soueif paints a picture of a people who realized, suddenly and collectively, the scope of their own potential.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“There are many records of the Egyptian revolution, but Cairo takes us on a more intimate journey. . . . [Soueif] speaks of her own story but also speaks for thousands, perhaps even millions, of other Cairenes.” —The Guardian (London)
“Compelling. . . . [Soueif] possesses a revolutionary’s zeal but also an artist’s regret.” —Los Angeles Times
“Recounts with joy and anguish the revolution that toppled the Mubarak regime—the hope raised by a new generation demanding freedom.” —New York Post
“[Cairo] takes the reader to the front lines of the conflict in the streets with vignettes worthy of a novel. . . . Soueif’s ability to render grand events in human terms and put Egypt’s current conflict into historical and global context makes Cairo a book that demands attention.” —The Christian Science Monitor
“Soueif is a political analyst and commentator of the best kind.” —London Review of Books
“Offers an invaluable window into the mind-set of a large proportion of the engaged Egyptian population. . . . A testimony to the dramatic cultural shift that has taken place in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world in public attitudes toward power.” —Bookforum
“Bursts of lyricism, poetry and love illuminate the factual account and political commentary, and it works beautifully.” —The Independent (London)
“Heartfelt, courageous, and hopeful. . . . An intimate portrait of an extraordinary city at an extraordinary moment in its history.” —Evening Standard (London)
“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. . . . With the recent violent eruptions in the country, Soueif’s work as an eloquent witness is a work in progress.” —Publishers Weekly
“Soueif offers both an extraordinary eyewitness document and a sense of the historical import of the revolution. . . . A deeply personal, engaged tribute by the far-flung Egyptian novelist and journalist as she returned to witness the revolution in her hometown.” —Kirkus Reviews
“As an active participant and a keenly observant chronicler of the impassioned rebellion, [Soueif’s] firsthand account offers insight into the heady days of the original revolution and its tumultuous aftermath. . . . Interweaves affectionate and peaceful memories of Cairo, Egypt, and her family into the fiery narrative. As Egyptian citizens continue to live the revolution, she provides a uniquely personal perspective on both the events of 2011 and the ensuing years.” —Booklist