The City Always Wins

They come at dawn with a crane and trucks. The army soldiers push the crowd down Mohamed Mahmoud Street, away from the Ministry of the Interior. The crane drops concrete blocks on the asphalt. Block by block a wall is built. Doctors from the Muslim Brotherhood, dressed in their white coats, their beards cut close, climb on the wall. One stands hand in hand with a general and shouts out to the crowd over a megaphone:        

“Go back to the square. The revolution is in the square! The army has put this wall up for your own safety! Go, you can safely protest in Tahrir! Go back to the square. The revolution is in the square! The revolution is in the square!” 

One of the books I read to get into the proper headspace for Egypt was Omar Robert Hamilton’s début novel The City Always Wins, which was published in 2017. The author is a filmmaker and political activist who participated in many of the street protests and demonstrations during the 2011-2013 revolution in Egypt.*

Hamilton has fictionalized his experiences, building a novel that follows a group of young Egyptians, including the strong and determined Mariam—with whom the novel opens in a powerful scene in a morgue—and Khalil, an Egyptian-American (like Hamilton himself), who struggles with being accepted in Egypt because of his dual identity. Mariam, Khalil, and their friends run a media collective that broadcasts “real” information to counter the propaganda of the state-run media during the chaotic months of the revolution.

One of Hamilton’s interesting choices is to begin the novel not in January 2011, but 9 months later, when political events are beginning to sour. The book ends in 2013, with the characters severely disillusioned by a revolution they believed would bring about a completely new Egypt. The broken idealism is mirrored in Mariam and Khalil’s relationship, which is at its strongest in the heat of their activism, and slowly frays as political events unfold.

Short chapters written in a close present-tense voice, newspaper headlines, tweets, jumps in time, monologues from the point of view of parents whose children were killed during the protests… Hamilton has thrown everything he could at this book, and the effect is accumulative and powerful, a layered and ambiguous portrayal of political awakening and social upheaval.

This book is a must-read for anyone interested in the events of Egyptian revolution. It shows, from the inside, how a country can break itself open and then put itself together again.

*He is also the son of the Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif and the British poet and literary critic Ian Hamilton.

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