The Open Door
One thread of The City Always Wins is a feminist love story in revolutionary times that moves beyond the lean-in, colonial-militarist feminist fantasies. This is the one of the main threads in Latifa al-Zayyat’s revolutionary-feminist-bildungsroman The Open Door, (translated by Marilyn Booth) which takes place more than half a century earlier, during the 1940s and 1950s, when Egypt was working to end direct colonial rule and its protagonist, Laila, was struggling against family, colonial rule, and society to find a satisfying life that breaks with patterns of the past.
Beer in the Snooker Club
While both Egyptian insider-outsiders writing debut novels, Omar Robert Hamilton and Waguih Ghali have markedly different sensibilities as novelists. Yet it’s also interesting to see the overlap between the two books: Both were writing in the time of a depressing return to autocracy, after a moment of hope had escaped from them; both have a bleak sense of humor; both are concerned with torture, autocracy, and escaping the rotten patterns of history and politics. Both are clever authors who have an eye for mocking hypocrisy. Ghali’s brilliantly satiric novel is set after al-Zayyat’s, after the shine had worn off Gamal Abdel Nasser’s revolution, at least for many of those in Egyptian prisons.
This grim future history is one of several dystopias to hit the shelves, and was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2016. It resonates strongly with The City Always Wins, depicting an Egypt spun out of control, a living representation of communal despair and rage. Set between 2011 and 2024, Otared follows a police officer, Ahmed Otared, as Cairo cycles through occupation, civil war, and grim nightmarish poverty. Worse, the characters have fallen into a moral torpor; the shock of events have reached such a pitch that any horror can be digested, sometimes literally.
The then-young revolutionary author Sonallah Ibrahim was one of those jailed under Gamal Abdel Nasser. Ibrahim’s Zaat (translated by Tony Calderbank) is a quintessentially Egyptian history, following a working-class woman (Zaat), and weaving a cacophony of news headlines through the course of Zaat’s life during the regimes of three Egyptian presidents: Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and Hosni Mubarak. Zaat works in the Department of News Monitoring and Assessment, and later in Archives, part of the mouthpiece of Egyptian propaganda that so frustrates Khalil in The City Always Wins.
This book, a memoir written soon after Egypt’s Eighteen Days (January 25-February 11, 2011), is about the award-winning author’s life and her relationship with Cairo. It probably won’t age as well as her son’s debut novel, The City Always Wins. But it could be considered a sort of prequel to Cairo, Memoir of a City Transformed, as it fills in some of the earlier, more hopeful backstory that continues in Hamilton’s novel.