A Grim and Poetic Cairo in Omar Robert Hamilton's Striking Debut Novel, The City Always Wins
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The City Always Wins doesn’t open during Egypt’s “Eighteen Days,” a mayfly-brief historical moment that began with the Police Day protests of January 25, 2011 and ended when Hosni Mubarak stepped down from the presidency on February 11. Omar Robert Hamilton’s striking debut novel doesn’t even flash back to those days, although they’re at the book’s throbbing, whispered center.
The Eighteen Days made for some of the highest highs many of us in Cairo ever experienced, when ordinary people held a power that felt not only thrillingly communal, but as though it could re-write our unjust world in a new language.
The City Always Wins opens several months later, after the Maspero massacre of October 2011, when twenty-eight mostly Coptic Christian protesters were killed and more than 200 were injured. For many who believed in the promise of the Eighteen Days and lived the roller-coaster of events that followed, Maspero was the first moment of shocking, overwhelming despair. Hamilton’s novel begins in its wake.
No Eighteen Days, no triumph
The character Hafez Mansour gives one reason why the book avoids recounting the events of January and February 2011: “It’s impossible to do the Eighteen Days without being clichéd. It’s ruined already by its overtelling.”
More than that, the Eighteen Days would have unbalanced the novel, which stays close to the ground, scratching out Cairo in a grim, poetic prose. There are moments when the young revolutionaries are filled with hope, but this novel is not about triumph. Its focus is the art of struggle when a seemingly impossible tide is killing your friends, lying about you, and pushing you under.
At the book’s core is the insider-outsider Khalil, an Egyptian-Palestinian born in the US, and his beloved partner Mariam, who is part of the relentless, unsleeping heart of revolution. While it’s Khalil’s soft voice that threads the novel together, the story is not about him nor any other individual. The book is polyphonic, multi-genre: part script, part poem, part novel, part collage. It’s filled with the sort of quotes and news clippings that animate Sonallah Ibrahim’s classic of twentieth-century Egyptian historical novels, Zaat.
In the novel’s second section, headlines relentlessly interrupt the text. Often, they have nothing to do with the action, but instead serve to disrupt and heighten anxiety, as FEBRUARY 26: DEADLIEST BALLOON CRASH IN DECADES KILLS 19 IN EGYPT, which sits between an uncomfortable meeting with Mariam’s father and images of torture, the morgue, and Mariam watering a single red flower.
It’s not only the shouting headlines that heighten the tension. During some of the crowd scenes, the text is laid out script-like, with voices blocked in different locations. These unidentified voices are ranged out among the white space, so that it feels as though they’re moving and shouting around us.
The youth of ‘Chaos’
In the ring just outside Khalil and Mariam are the young people who have started “Chaos,” a nonprofit media collective that must be modeled after the real Mosireen—a media collective co-founded by the book’s author. “Chaos” isn’t the only real or reality-based element—legitimate events and people underpin much of the book’s forward motion.
In this, The City Always Wins hews much closer to realism than most other post-2011 Egyptian fiction, and yet it has echoes of recent dystopian novels. As in Basma Abdel Aziz’s horror-fantasy The Queue (2013), Khalil carries state bullets inside his body. In a clear echo of the post-apocalyptic Egypt of Mohamed Rabie’s Otared (2015), Mariam tells Khalil she dreamt “we’re all dead. And we’re living in hell. We just don’t know it yet.”
But The City Always Wins is also determinedly itself: de-centered, and moving toward a poetic, anti-hierarchical form.
Khalil and Mariam are not the book’s most important characters, but they hold it together. Khalil doubts, while Mariam remains rock certain. Mariam barely sleeps, and seems always to be checking on hospitals, prisons, and morgues. The novel is unflinching in its depiction of violence, particularly the violence inflicted on women.
As the book moves between its three main sections, the tone progressively shifts. At first, “To bloody battles and bruised arms!” is a drinking cheer, and the group at the core of the novel, Chaos, are unified. Bit by bit, their hope and cheer are ground away. And then comes the summer of 2013, with the Tamarod protests and General Sisi’s assumption of power.
The book keeps its sense of humor, but it goes from black to gritty; humor shared while walking on broken glass. A voice jokes: “Oh Sisi, my Sisi, you are the answer to my crossword puzzle. Your name, in its perfect and eternal symmetry, can sell my potatoes.”
Life becomes much more difficult to navigate after the summer of 2013. Elements of the narrative flip, and people are no longer martyrs if they die in state violence, but terrorists. Khalil, now in the third person says: “Soon he is knee deep in a new dawn of the pro-military’s bullying triumphalism and the Brotherhood’s sanctimonious hypocrisy. And the hectoring paternalism of the international commentariat.”
The fragmenting of ‘Chaos’
The group called “Chaos” slowly breaks apart. One member is seen among the pro-Sisi protests. Umm Ayman, the dedicated mother of a young man killed in protests, won’t come out any more: “So many have died, she can’t have another life on her conscience.” Mariam is heartbroken, more visibly upset by the situation than by the fracturing of her relationship with Khalil.
What should Egyptians have done differently? Khalil sees turning points, but, unlike the international commentariat, he’s never sure what they could’ve done differently. He reflects that a “wild dog hunts mathematically, it hunts with a system. If the deer could hold a straight line, it would get away. The deer is faster. But it is hard—impossible, maybe—in the thicket.”
Some of the warmest moments, oddly, are those spent with Mariam’s family. Not with her stoic doctor mother, but with her wealthy father and his manicured wife, Nelly. Mariam’s father pressures her about marriage and remains doggedly confused about what she does. “’When I ask her what she does she says she’s an activist—‘“ / ‘I never say I’m an activist,’ Mariam says.”
Many of the characters who populate The City Always Wins are real people, including the author’s own imprisoned cousin, Alaa Abd El Fattah. The fictional Khalil writes Alaa a letter, and he attends the funeral of Alaa’s father—the author’s uncle.
Unlike Hamilton, Khalil is not part of this inner circle. Khalil sits at the dizzying back, looking on with the rest of us, watching Alaa and his younger sister Sanaa, both brought to their father’s funeral from prison. The author himself must be at the funeral, somewhere, but we don’t see him. The revolutionary energy at the funeral explodes off the page like no other scene, but then Alaa and Sanaa are taken away. As of this writing, the real Alaa remains in prison.
The novel scrapes hard against the bone of the present moment, and not only in Egypt. It is a shout against the darkness anywhere, as people struggle to break out of the repeating circles of injustice, endlessly spinning.
Here are suggestions for five more books to read about Egypt.
Top image courtesy of Revolution Graffiti: Street Art of the New Egypt