Egyptian novelist, journalist and activist Ahdaf Soueif likes to say that her latest and ninth book Cairo: My City, Our Revolution, "reads as though a dam kind of broke". Indeed, this slim but powerful volume has such energy pulsing through its pages it has seen Soueif hailed as a modern-day Scheherazade.
To her fellow Cairenes, she is also lauded as "keeper of the emotional truth" of the moment that was Egypt's 18-day revolution. A revolution that ousted Egypt's then president Hosni Mubarak, but which, Soueif is at pains to emphasise, is an ongoing one.
Until that moment, in January 2011, Soueif , who is also founder of the Palestinian Festival of Literature, had felt unable to write about the fabled city of her birth. Yet 15 years ago, soon after completing her Booker Prize short-listed 1999 novel Map of Love, which was translated into 21 languages and sold more than a million copies, she'd signed a contract with her publisher to do just that.
"It was to be a personal account of Cairo, but I just found it too sad to write about. Or rather, every time I tried, I was writing about the sad and bad things that were being done to it," recalls Soueif, "but when the revolution happened, that changed all that because then there was this tremendous outpouring of energy, this re-appropriating of the country and the city, this whole new spirit of hope and optimism that pervaded the place."
It's precisely that groundswell spirit of hope and optimism, that sense of re-appropriation she captures in Cairo: My City, Our Revolution. It all began in the summer of 2011. Soueif, who was attending the Jaipur Literary Festival when news broke of the crowds thronging Tahrir Square, caught the first plane home to Cairo to join her fellow countrymen in the streets. Then as she was taking part in the revolution and reporting on it for London's Guardian newspaper, her publisher called and said 'This must be the time for your Cairo book'.
Initially she resisted, but now says: "I'm very glad that I wrote it because it was a moment, a process, which we are still in, which I needed to articulate, to record and to engage with as a writer, as well as an activist and revolutionary. So it is a record of how it felt, how it felt for a Cairene, to be part of it."
For outsiders too, it's also that rare book that manages to take you deep into Cairo's narrow alleys, to feel the very pulse of the revolution that ousted Mubarak.
Soueif never intended it to be a memoir, but weaves details of her daily life, her memories, into the narrative without missing a single heartbeat of the revolution. Most potently, she sheets home the grief and pride ordinary Egyptians feel for the heroism of their shabab, their youth, and their shudada, the murdered ones. "The issue of the shudada and their families, particularly their mothers, became the engine of the revolution."
But as she is at pains to point out, both in her book and now, that for her, and for countless others, that revolution continues.
"We have thousands and thousands of young people now, who have over the course of the last two years, buried their friends, and again it is being, and has to be, used as fuel to help you carry on. Basically we are in this odd space now, where even though we have an elected president, the revolution continues because the government that has come into power because of the revolution does not seem to recognise, at all, that the reason there was a revolution is because the country could no longer support the old regime. They seem to be carrying on with practically all the politics of the old regime. The practices of the old regime are also continuing, and they're actually becoming much more flagrant."
In other words, she adds, "there are still people who get killed in police stations, there are still people who die under torture in jail, there are still activists and young people who are being kidnapped off the streets and beaten. There continue to be military trials for civilians and also there is a drive to actually legalise all this, to constitutionalise the practice of trying civilians in military courts.
"And, of course, underpinning it all is the issue of what is the economic policy of the new government. It seems to us than the economic policy of this new Muslim Brotherhood government is actually more right-wing and free-market than even the Mubarak regime."
Soueif is unable to stem the flow of words when she speaks of the corrupt practices that continue, of the plans currently afoot, that will see " the country's major assets stripped away," and of her and her fellow liberals' incomprehension at this squandering of opportunity by the new elected government. "They don't seem to have got it. What it looks like is that they just see themselves as having somehow inherited the Mubarak power and privilege. And that's why it can't be allowed to happen," she adds. "And we're not going to let it happen."
'There are still people who get killed in police stations, there are still people who die under torture in jail.' ahdaf soueif
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