'I Haven’t Understood You':

Novel Explores Buildup to Egyptian Revolution

By Nada Ramadan

Haven’t Understood You (Ma Fahemtakom) (In Arabic)
By Mar’ee Madkoor
Egypt, Dar al-Hilal, 2011

In 2010, the Arab world was hit by a Tsunami wave of demonstrations and protests, culminating in revolutions, periods of civil unrest, violent clashes and power shifts. Not only is it impossible to predict the outcome of such tremendous changes – on political, social, and economic levels – but there are also debates about whether these uprisings were entirely genuine or the result of the subtle manipulation of peoples’ grievances by the West to serve a long-term political agenda. If there is no clear definition of what constitutes the so-called “Arab Spring,” no wonder it is more difficult to define what constitutes “Revolution Literature.” Writers, in a form of protest, have described brutality and increasing social inequality long before the waves of revolution reached the Arab shores; they did not stand on the sidelines. Yet since the outbreak of the “Arab Awakening,” many works carry a more straightforward image of the political and social upheavals. Nevertheless, is a mere publication date reason enough to categorize some literary works as Revolution Literature? This is one of the foremost questions that come to mind when reading Mar’ee Madkoor’s latest novella, “I Haven’t Understood You.” 

Madkoor, an Egyptian writer and journalist, directly draws the reader’s attention to the revolutionary nature of his narrative on the cover page, where the title “I Haven’t Understood You” is a play on the last words of former Tunisian president Ben Ali before fleeing his country. Contrary to Ben Ali who could finally claim to “understand” the reason behind his people’s uprising, Madkoor’s characters do not grasp why they have been inflicted with diseases, humiliated and forced to suffer for over 30 years. The mere fact that he dedicates his work to various journalists, writers, public figures (known for their anti-Mubarak writings), martyrs, and an army general (remember, the novella was written way before public opinion started changing concerning the role of “revolution protector” played by the Armed Forces) clearly states where Madkoor stands in regards to the 25th of January revolution.

The four-chapter novella opens with the story of an impecunious man who sets himself on fire in imitation of Mohamed Bouazizi, swiftly moving to the protagonist’s shock: discovering being infected with hepatitis C. Yet Madkoor’s treatment of that theme is not restricted to its being a creative necessity, for the novella becomes a sort of manual for patients, and a direct criticism of Egypt’s health system that provides only the rich and those in power with a decent health insurance. Scenes from the narrator’s quest for unattainable healing are interweaved with scenes from Tahrir square, the iconic locale and the primary destination for demonstrations. Yet one must marvel at the analogy between a corrupt government that has systematically weakened the nation and a vicious disease eating away at the narrator’s body. Is he waiting for a miracle, a revolutionary medicine that will keep the disease at bay? And if such a comparison is valid, how can readers who, a few months after the publication of the novella, are already disillusioned with the revolution and the new political power players – mainly the West hiding behind various Islamist political fronts – perceive the outcome of the protagonist’s fight against hepatitis C?

IHaven’t Understood You is a heart-wrenching narrative that follows the life of its unnamed narrator through a mix of classical and Egyptian colloquial Arabic, his dreams and nightmares through events and fictitious characters, all while capturing childhood memories and folkloric traditions. There is definitely much to appreciate about this work, however, the fast pace of the novella is hindered by the excessive use of footnotes; though witty, entertaining and well-researched, they tend to distract the reader from the main narrative. 

Nevertheless, the novella outlines a clear historical and socio-political background against which the problems plaguing Egyptian society emerge. In the closing scene, we get to see the narrator returning to Cairo on the 28th of January, 2011, asking his body to hang on until the bleeding of the nation is stopped. He could finally understand and hope for a better future.  

This review appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 17, no. 64

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