In late January 2011, the world watched as a revolution erupted in and around Tahrir Square in Cairo. Thousands of Egyptians flooded the streets, demanding the overthrow of the regime of President Hosni Mubarak. Novelist and journalist Ahdaf Soueif and her nieces were in a motorboat on the Nile when they heard "a great shout" from the Qasr el-Nil Bridge. "I look at Salma and Mariam,” Soueif explains in her new book Cairo: Memoir of a City Transformed. “ ‘Yes, let’s,’ they say. I tell the boatman we've changed our minds." Soueif and her companions head away from their homes and toward Tahrir Square, disembarking and finding themselves "within, inside, and part of the masses." They stand on the island in the middle of a road “and that was the moment I became part of the revolution,” Soueif writes.
Soueif's complete immersion in the protests—as well as her lifelong love of Cairo and her novelist's sensibility—enabled her to create Cairo, a rare work. The book is a report from the front lines of the revolution, a bittersweet love letter to Egypt and a memoir of Soueif’s life, written in the precise, lyrical prose that illuminates her novels. (The Map of Love was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and became a worldwide best-seller, but my favorite is Soueif’s sprawling debut, In the Eye of the Sun.)
Soueif actually signed a contract to write a book about her birthplace 20 years ago, but she found herself unable to type. "When I tried," she writes, "it read like an elegy, and I would not write an elegy for my city." I ask Soueif how the revolution on also now known as the "Lotus Revolution") inspired her to finally write Cairo. "With the revolution there came hope and a tremendous burst of energy," she explains by email. "Writing Cairo became an act—not of commemorating a past and railing against the present, but of fashioning a narrative of the city in the grip of revolution and hope; on the threshold of a future we were—we still are—trying to imagine."
Soueif’s portrait of Cairo is nuanced, detailed and heartbreaking. So many parts of the city have changed since her happy childhood. Soueif remembers the Lazoghli neighborhood, for example, as the place her Aunt Toufi set up house as a young bride. Toufi had a balcony where, as a girl, Soueif “had a full view of the screen of the open-air Cinema Lazoghli.” In her memory, “Lazoghli was freedom with a prime seat at a summer cinema every night.” Under the Mubarak regime, however, Lazoghli housed the State Security Intelligence Bureau and Coroner’s Office. Instead of a sweet place to watch movies, Soueif writes, “Lazoghli was disappearances…torture.” In 2011, when young revolutionaries attacked Lazoghli, Soueif writes about the grim fate of her idyllic childhood haunt: “five snipers are on the roof, snipers whose existence the ministry will deny despite their images captured on film.”
Soueif introduces readers to "magical architectural features" of downtown Cairo: pedestrian passages that run at street level between and in the middles of buildings. Soueif's own grandfather’s house had such a passage. But just as a reader begins to imagine the delight a child would feel in a secret tunnel (some with hidden shops!), Soueif describes going into one passage (which leads to Tahrir Square, also known as “the Midan”) during the revolution. She sees a makeshift mosque with rows of prayer mats. On these mats, she explains, "lie young men covered in blood, and other young men are running through the Midan entrance carrying yet more young men covered in blood and lowering them carefully onto the mats, and by the walls, figures are stretched out, shrouded in dark blankets.”
Soueif, unlike a visiting war reporter, makes the horror of the revolution personal. Not only does she evoke joyous times in similar passageways, she knows many of the young men who are fighting—her own two sons take part in the revolution, as do her nieces, nephews and the friends of children. The doctor tending the bloody men in the passageway is Mona Mina, a friend of Soueif’s sister. Alongside her scribbled journalist’s notes, Soueif also lists things the makeshift hospital needs: “Betadine, dressings, spray anaesthetic…surgical gloves, painkillers.”
But even as the revolution rages, Soueif thinks of her beloved city’s wonders: “For a moment, as I was running down the slip road with my eyes closed, holding onto my nieces, I had the—typical—thought that we might nip into the Ramses Hilton and wash our faces, maybe even get some tea.” Instead, Soueif, passing “charred cars,” finds that the hotel is “dark and shuttered,” surrounded by soldiers. “It is clear that a five-star interlude is out of the question,” she remarks wryly.
One evening, Soueif walks past tanks and soldiers in camouflage. Behind one of the soldiers, she notices the sign of a restaurant, Paprika, and writes, "as I look at the restaurant's darkened window I see—so clearly that my breath catches—I see my younger self, ablaze with love and poetry...sitting, leaning, across the table from the man I love." Such vivid memories enjoin Soueif's political dreams and her personal ones, creating a vibrant combination of memory and reportage.
The situation in Egypt remains complicated and unstable, and Soueif’s memoir is not an easy book to read. But it is powerful, informative and suffused with the beauty of a city (and nation) in transition. Soueif invites readers into Egyptian homes and histories, daring us to understand that behind the scenes of bloodshed are individuals who yearn for freedom—living rooms filled with mothers and fathers, grandparents and squabbling children.
I ask Soueif to describe a perfect night in Cairo. “Well,” she writes, “the TV would be on, with a talk show, or the news or an old movie. Fruit, nuts, cheeses and sweet pastries on a big central coffee table. Endless tea. The talk all of family affairs, a bit of gossip, but mainly and predominantly and always politics and public affairs, Egyptian, regional and international. And a balcony nearby where you can retreat for a private conversation or a cigarette (which one shouldn't have).”
Amanda Eyre Ward’s fifth novel, Homecoming, will be published in 2015.