Reading Egypt: from Tahrir Square to Zuccotti Park

If the news is anything to be believed:  Egypt is a nation in a state of more or less constant political and social strife; Egyptians are nearly all Islamists, coercing the few and far between secular intellectuals into silence; it is a society not only incapable of democracy, but more generally, incapable of progress.

If the news is anything to go by, there are only two kinds of Egyptians: There are Islamist fanatics who want to reshape Egyptian society and position it as hostile toward America, and hostile toward multiplicity, and there are the young, hip, activists, who only want democracy.  The former are no good because they look nothing like us. The latter are only good because they look just like us.  The wide swath of Egyptians in between, the rural and politically active, the moderately religious but mostly tolerant, all the apolitical bystanders, are utterly absent from the conversation, and lost from our imaginations.

When we lose them, the middle, we lose our ability to picture a full and complex society, and as Americans we lose the ability to see ourselves in them.  This is more important than ever considering the growing influence of Occupy Wall Street.  Pundits and protestors alike have pointed to Tahrir Square as a source of inspiration for OWS, and Egyptian activists are giving teach-ins and workshops and motivational speeches to Occupy Wall Street protestors.  We owe it to Egypt and to ourselves to take a closer look at the world and the people that produced Tahrir Square.

Chris Abani, a novelist and poet, said, “What we know about how to be who we are comes from stories.  It comes from the novels, the movies, the fashion magazines, it comes from popular culture.  It’s the agents of our imaginations who really shape who we are.”  It follows, to better know Egyptians, to know better what is inspiring a movement impacting the foundations of our country, we should turn to Egyptian literature.

Naguib Mahfouz

Naguib Mahfouz is nothing less than an Egyptian cultural hero.  A Nobel Prize winner, by the time of his death in 2006, he published more than fifty novels and hundreds of short stories in Arabic.  But The Cairo Trilogy – three discrete novels revolving around the same Cairo family – is unanimously regarded as his magnum opus.

The first part of the trilogy, Palace Walk, begins in 1917, and culminates with the end of British occupation in 1919.  The parents of the Abd-al Jawad family are living relics from a gone era, trying to reconcile their dichotomous identities as both parents and role models, and as individuals with their own dreams and desires: The father is a moral tyrant at home, but a libertine with his friends; while his wife – restricted to the home – yearns to go out and participate in public street life, yet fears it intensely.  The next generation, their five children, are struggling their own personal crises, dealing with unrequited love, negotiating marriages, and trying to make an impression on figures of authority, while coming into themselves as political beings who also want to fight those figures of power and thus improve their society.

Palace Walk is a portrait of a family in transition; through them we see the nation in transition as well.  Using very short chapters, and alternating narrators, Mahfouz allows the reader to check in with the inner narrative of each character, as he weaves the bigger and bigger picture: First there is the home and the family in it; then the street, the neighbors, the neighborhood.  Eventually the daughters marry, and we see all of Cairo, and British-Occupied Egypt, until each family member’s personal struggle eventually climaxes as their private lives converge with the public and political apex of that is the 1919 revolution.

Mahfouz paints a literary tableau that gives us insight into the way an average Egyptian experienced Egypt at that point in its history.  Incidentally, the work is abstractly autobiographical; the author would have experienced 1919 at the same age as the youngest boy of the family.  His imaginative accounts of that time, as a state of great tension and flux, are invaluable for today’s generation of Egyptians and Americans, as we reflect on how we experience the same state of change.

Alaa al-Aswany

Another Cairo-born and based author, Alaa al-Aswany provides a more contemporary voice.  Educated in the United States, in Chicago, Al-Aswaany is to this day a practicing dentist in Cairo.  He is also known for his regular political columns advocating for democracy in Egypt and a freer society in general, and leading a historically oppressed community of Egyptian intellectuals.  Al-Aswaany is the author of four novels to date.  His first, The Yacoubian Building, was internationally the best-selling Arabic-language novel for two years, and was later made into the biggest budgeted film in Egypt’s long and successful film industry history.

In The Yacoubian Building, Al-Aswany takes a similar approach to the novel as Mahfouz, attempting to portray the whole of modern Egyptian society by encapsulating it into a small subset of characters, building a Rubik’s Cube out of their lives. As each character’s narrative builds, a new square on the cube is colored in, until finally we can see the color of every square on every side.  We can imagine life in Cairo from so many angles.  If the family unit was Mahfouz’s cube, Al-Aswany’s is the Yacoubian building itself, a real Art Deco style building in downtown Cairo, just a few blocks away from Tahrir Square.  Once an impressive façade, housing only luxury apartments in the 1930’s and 40’s, the building is crumbling now, and its elite residents have long moved out.  Now it contains some middle class apartments, many professional offices, and on the roof, a number of huts have been fashioned, where some of Cairo’s poorest residents live on top of their wealthy employers.

The characters, in their turn, face all manner of challenges: A professionally successful resident struggles with his sexuality, while the young poor kid who opens doors for wealthy people, finds doors of opportunity are closed to him.  A bird’s nest of intersecting narratives interact in clever and poignant ways that give us a sense of the challenges modern Egyptians face, how they feel, what they struggle with, and why they’ve made the personal and political choices they have.

Both Mahfouz and Al-Aswany bravely tackle themes of corruption, religious fundamentalism, homosexuality, promiscuity, love, death, and violence.  In light of OWS (not to mention the ongoing race to find a Republican Presidential candidate), these are themes we as Americans have to take on in a big way. Through reading Egyptian literature we have an opportunity to learn about a culture that has impacted us, a chance to better understand ourselves through embracing the other, and are given examples of how fiction can help shape a culture.

In a recent interview in Cairo, where pro-democracy protests are renewed, and more violent than ever, Al-Aswaany said: “Being a novelist means defending human values… defending freedom, equality, and justice.  If you defend the human values, and when people are in the streets facing death for their freedom, you cannot stay home… I am a novelist, I am a writer, and I know exactly where I should be… I am always with the people.”

The Cairo Trilogy and the Yacoubian Building were written by Egyptians, for the Egyptian people.  Yet, while the work may seem very specific to Egypt, we as Americans can read these books and see ourselves as well.  As Al-Aswaany says, these are stories to defend human values, to portray human truths: Sometimes we pedal and don’t get anywhere.  Sometimes heartbreak breaks a person.  Sometimes revolutions happen, but things still stay the same. Things true in 1919 Cairo remain true in 2011 New York.  Egyptian literature shows that fiction can help pave the way for a revolution, guide a country through the change, and be there as the people begin to find themselves in the new world they/we have created.