The City Always Wins: a poetic, intimate debut set in Cairo during the Arab Spring

by rebeccaswirsky

This review was first published in New Statesman

Literature can have the emotional edge, telling the truth in a way pure reporting cannot. Despite Egypt’s revolution having been well televised, Omar Robert Hamilton’s novel offers us a psychologically acute perspective on the uprising as it unfolded, positioning the reader alongside political dissidents – kids, barely – who, for a short while, made the impossible seem possible.

The author and political commentator (and Hamilton’s mother) Ahdaf Soueif wrote a diary of the revolt’s first 18 days entitled Cairo: My City, Our Revolution. Hamilton’s novel, written in a poetic, stream-of-consciousness style, divided by sub-headings like news bulletins, also reads with a diary’s intimacy.

Beginning on 9 October 2011, the novel is divided into three parts: “Tomorrow”, “Today” and “Yesterday”. Events are told through the actions of 20-something Khalil and Mariam, who meet while ducking into a stairwell, checking each other’s bodies for Tahrir Square bullets. American-born Khalil, a former law student, translator, journalist, fixer, copy editor, graphic novelist, English teacher, NGO worker and volunteer, believes “Cairo is jazz: all contrapuntal influences jostling for attention, occasionally brilliant solos standing high above the steady rhythm of the street.” Mariam, an activist with the bravado required to confront officers used to inspiring fear, is the chain-smoking daughter of two doctors who used to run the best cancer unit in the country.

Khalil and Mariam, alongside Rania, Rosa, Malik and Hafez, form part of Chaos Cairo, a collective of podcasters, video-makers and photographers. They are joined by a host of other volunteers. The Chaos office, a crumbling apartment paid for by crowdfunding, is a hub where, initially, information is relayed to domestic and foreign media with lightning speed, offering an intoxicating sense of empowerment.

A hacktivist-savvy generation, the young are taking back the streets with bloodied bodies and busy laptops alike. The whole world – including Khalil’s ex-girlfriend in America – is watching: “They can’t keep up with us, an army of Samsungs, Twitters, HTCs, emails, Facebook events, private groups, iPhones, phone calls, text messages all adjusting one another’s movements millions of times each second.”

The question of how to bear witness belongs to all massacres, and cataloguing injustice is a central theme of the book, weaving from the streets of Tahrir to Gaza to Michael Brown’s prone body in Ferguson, Missouri. Ultimately, the need to wage a media war leaches poison into Khalil and Mariam’s psychic bloodstream, as potent as any gas. While the lines of communication to Athens and America dry up as the world’s attention shifts, the tremors, lack of sleep, and teeth grinding from visiting field clinics, pharmacies, doctors, donors and morgues remain. For Mariam, the odour of the morgue drips off her hair like “cigarette smoke in the shower”.

Khalil and Mariam’s belief that they “could have done more” before the Muslim Brotherhood opened their negotiations with the army is devastating. Their thoughts and observations come in an onslaught, and line by line Hamilton has the power of a crack poet. His prose is sometimes a little too burdened by poetry, too didactic or fractured in tone, but the anger and pain throbbing from these pages is palpable.

The Brotherhood having been ousted, a fever for Abdel el-Sisi, then minister of defence, as a potential presidential candidate grips Cairo’s streets. Torture and death seem close, while coffee and cigarettes and courage last only so long. Khalil and Mariam’s voices blur into one another, their tone taking the form of a lament. Khalil believes that: “It was lost from the start, lost from the moment we didn’t take Maspero, lost with the Molotov held back from the second army truck, lost when the square emptied after Mubarak fell.” Reading George Orwell and Eric Hobsbawm, he wonders: “Are we all doomed to the certainties of the historical materialist? Or is that a deflection of responsibility?”

Egypt’s future currently looks bleak. President el-Sisi’s human rights record is proving worse than that of Mubarak. Egypt has seen 19 new prisons since the 2011 revolution, 16 since el-Sisi took office, with Egypt’s activists dubbed “generation jail”.

Hamilton’s connection with the Egyptian prison system is personal. Activism is in his blood; he comes from a family of dissidents. The book is dedicated to his incarcerated cousin Alaa Abd El Fattah – a blogger and lauded activist, who is mentioned by characters throughout the book.

Khalil reads the spray-painted words on a Cairo wall: “If you don’t let us dream, we won’t let you sleep.” This graffiti is an imaginative act, showing defiance of spirit, much like the book as a whole. Most essentially, this novel bears witness, recording injustice and aiming, as all good literature attempts, to tell the truth.

“The Common People” by Rebecca Swirsky appeared in the collection “Best British Short Stories 2015” (Salt)

The City Always Wins
Omar Robert Hamilton
Faber & Faber, 320pp, £14.99