The Egyptian Contemporary Novel:

A Survey of a Revolutionary Endeavour

By Nada Ramadan
Ahdaf Soueif

One of the recurrent discussions in literary circles in Egypt is whether a new literary movement has started and whether we can dub it “Revolution Literature.” It was on the 25th of January, 2011, that the Egyptian Revolution was hailed as successful, and why not, President Mubarak’s abdication was celebrated till the early hours of dawn in the streets and squares across the country. Egyptians were caught in a frenzy of hope and euphoria, volunteers cleaned the streets, pavements were re-painted, the debt to martyrs was chanted, and everyone dreamt of a tomorrow relatively free of corruption.

One year after the 2012 presidential election, the picture has become utterly different. An alarming public debt, the prevalence of corruption, a constitution that threatened to curtail freedom and degrade the fragile position women and children had held in society, a weakening sense of security, the near collapse of various sectors in the country, especially tourism, all have merged with a rise of fanaticism and an ongoing attempt by the Muslim Brotherhood (whose political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, held an outright majority as well as the presidency) to dominate constitutional, governmental, political, and social life, which has led many to question the nature of the revolution itself.

Did the events taking place in Tahrir Square constitute a real revolution? Did the West manipulate the Egyptian uprising or even the Arab Spring itself? And if the uprising was genuine, did the different Islamic parties hijack it? If one cannot define what the Revolution stands for, how can one define “revolution literature?” Moreover, if the term is accepted, what will constitute such a movement? Should it be restricted by content and/or publishing date? Creativity is not always an ephemeral excitement; if an element of writing literature involves prolonged periods of observation, “revolution literature” will need ample time to evolve. Art, in general, has prospered around the revolution; street performances, graffiti, underground music bands, auto/biographies and political writings have flourished. Traces of the revolution can be tracked through books written during and after the Mubarak 30-year era. And those revolutionary strands must be explored, dividing the novels into three categories based on their publication dates: works published between 2000 and 2011, works written during the 18 days of the Revolution – from the 25th of January until the 11th of February, 2011– and works written after Mubarak’s abdication.

At the turn of the 21st century, Egypt witnessed prolific writings that warned of a coming political and social change. Such writings – which could be more appropriately described as “Resistance Literature” – include the internationally acclaimed “’Emaret Ya’koubeyan”(“The Yacoubian Building,” written in 2002 and first translated in 2004) by Alaa al-Aswany. Set in downtown Cairo in the 1990’s, the novel condemns the corrupt one-party state, whose citizens either abandon the country for promising careers abroad or show no loyalty to the government and, in many cases, resort to extremism to counter the growing poverty, moral degradation and economic stagnation. In 2005, Youssef al-Kaeed highlighted the ambiguous and volatile relationship between Muslims and Christians in Egypt in “Kesmet al-‘orama”(“Division of Adversaries”), where different characters narrate the events of a single day. It is no wonder the more conservative readers have often criticized such a sensitive subject –described by al-Kaeed as a “contrived religious crisis” and “artificial devoutness.” The year 2008 saw the publication of two resistance novels: “Yotopya” (“Utopia”), a grim futuristic account of Egyptian society in the year 2023, by Ahmed Khaled Tawfiq, and “al-Afandi” (“Effendi”) by Mohammed Nagui, a criticism of the middle class obsessed with chasing monetary and personal gain even at the expense of the nation and the society. In 2009, the feminist, activist, and writer Nawal al- Saadawi published “Zeina” (English translation published in 2011) where reality, dreams and fiction overlap to challenge the stigma of illegitimacy and confront the patriarchal oppression of the Egyptian society. Set against the backdrop of revolution in Cairo, the novel allows the reader to grasp al-Saadawi’s activism in the Tahrir Square Revolution. Though published in March 2011, Hamed Abd al-Sammad’s novel, “Wada’an Ayotteha al-Sama’” (“Farewell Sky”) was written in 2010; it revolves around the Egyptians’ lack of hope in the future in Egypt and their desperate attempts to emigrate. “The novel that predicted the 25th of January Revolution” is what is written on the cover of “Ajnihat al-Farash” (“Wings of the Butterfly”). Written by Mohamed Salmawy in January 2011, the novel is considered a foreshadowing of the uprisings in both Tunisia and Egypt months before they actually took place; though the novelist himself admits that his intention was far from foretelling. His aim, rather, was to portray contemporary political life in Egypt. According to Salmawy, “Literature is not a photographic art that depicts reality, on the contrary, it looks to the future with all its political and social manifestations.” 

The second stage of revolutionary or resistance novels includes the writing built around the first 18 days of the Egyptian uprising, mainly Mona Prince’s “Ismi Thawra” (“My Name is Revolution,” 2012) and Ahdaf Soueif’s “Cairo: My City, Our Revolution” (written and published in English, 2012). Both works are gender sensitive, as they highlight Egyptian women’s activism during the 18 days of the Revolution. In her autobiography/novel, Soueif records the revolution using newspaper headlines, tweets, Facebook statuses and YouTube sources – elements of social media that characterize the Arab Spring – and interrupts her narrative with autobiographical extracts; she does so in the same way the reader’s experience is interrupted with reality. While Soueif’s style is analytical and metaphorical, Prince’s style is more dramatic and humorous. “My Name is Revolution” follows the day-by-day events in a chronological order. Contradictory to other works where the role of the Egyptian woman during the uprising is marginalized, both novels by Soueif and Prince bring forth women’s role in the Revolution, transcending the traditional orientalist image of Arab women. This openly contrasts other works written roughly at the same time, such as Saad al-Kersh’s “al-Thawra al-Aan . . . Yawmiyat Men Midan al-Tahrir” (“The Revolution Now . . . Diary from the Tahrir Square”) which is nearly void of women’s participation in the Revolution.     

The year 2012 witnessed the publication of various novels that fall under the third phase of revolutionary literature. Journalist Ibrahim Eissa started writing his novel “Mawlana” (“Our Sheikh”) in 2009 and only finished it in March 2012. Reflecting his political battles with authority (Mubarak’s regime and later Supreme Council of Armed Forces temporary rule), Eissa’s work tackles the new phenomenon of the sheikhs who have become TV stars and their shady, intertwining relationships with politicians, businessmen and security institutions; he boldly exposes how religion is currently misused in Egypt. Eissa’s novel is open-ended, concluding right after the church bombing which took place in real life, a few weeks before the eruption of the Revolution. Although “Ana ‘asheqt” (“I Fell in Love”) by Mohammed al-Mansi Kandeel does not directly discuss the revolution, its portrayal of the protagonist’s journey from the slum areas to Cairo’s posh neighbourhood and from university to an over-crowded prison, sheds light on a city on the verge of a revolution. “The novel is not a testimony of the revolution as it happened, it is a struggle with the limitations faced by individuals and writers . . . an act of unmasking society and politics in Egypt” was how Ezzedine Shoukri Fishere described his latest novel, “Bab al-Khuruj” (“The Exit”) in which he prophesizes the future of Egyptian politics. In his novel, Fishere exposes the future restructuring of the Ministry of Interior and the government’s failure to stand against street thuggery, themes that already occupy the current Egyptian political scene. “Bab al-Khuruj,” therefore, becomes a catalogue of how Egypt will collapse if its current political, social, and economic dire situations are not addressed.      

In the Eleventh International Symposium on Comparative Literature, hosted by Cairo University in November 2012, keynote speaker Bill Ashcroft argued, “creativity is important to revolution because its function is to inspire hope. The belief in future change is the fuel that drives the revolutionary spirit, and art and literature are prime movers of that belief because they reveal that a different world is possible.” Literature, resistance, and revolution will always intertwine, for no future can be achieved unless it is first imagined. 

The current political turmoil in Egypt raises a fundamental question about the future of this relatively new subgenre of literature. Morsi’s government’s embankment on various confrontational policies against all non-Muslim Brotherhood factions has fuelled the slogan “the Revolution goes on,” pushing millions to take to the streets on the 30th of June 2013, seeking change and supported by the army. Whatever direction Egypt is pulled in, there is no doubt that a fourth phase of the new subgenre of the resistance/revolution novel will emerge and go hand in hand with the situation in the country, reflecting the turmoil during this interim phase and whatever that would come afterwards.

This essay appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 17, no. 65

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