Robin Yassin-Kassab

The City Always Wins

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City Cover ExtraAn edited version of this review appeared first at the Guardian.

“The City Always Wins”, the astounding debut novel by British-Egyptian film-maker Omar Robert Hamilton, opens after the seeming triumph of the Egyptian revolution’s early stage has passed, though it is remembered, cinematically, as “an explosion of light, sound and epic consequence with no room for ego or doubt.”

Now the revolutionaries are flailing in various tides of counter-revolution. The new Muslim Brotherhood government forces through a constitution which ignores key revolutionary demands. Brotherhood ‘security’ and a revived police force torture and murder at will. The army kills too, and prepares to seize total control. To emphasise these reversals, parts one, two and three of the novel – though the story moves forward chronologically – are titled respectively Tomorrow, Today and Yesterday.

Crowds are evoked through disputatious voices. A large and striking cast of characters struggles in night-time streets, chokes in traffic or on tear gas, argues in bars, and waits in hospitals and morgues. They are brought together through the figure of Khalil. Palestinian-Egyptian, and American born, Khalil’s problematised nationality, and people’s responses to it, is one way in which the novel questions the nature of community. Khalil’s partner Mariam is a medical worker seeking a life worthy enough to “conquer death with memory”, and a feminist in the way she lives and loves, though she never mentions the word.

Khalil co-founds Chaos, a magazine, website and podcast (in the real world, Hamilton co-founded a media collective called Mosireen). The office “becomes a cerebral cortex at the centre of the information war.” Significantly, the novel begins at the massacre of (mainly Christian) protestors outside Maspero, the state media HQ. Later, Khalil will have reason to repeat: “I wish we had taken Maspero.”

The revolutionaries set up illegal radio transmissions, write manifestos, crowd-source, make public art. Increasingly they also tend the wounded, comfort the bereaved, and find lawyers for the detained. Some of the people here are real, like the imprisoned activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah, Hamilton’s cousin, to whom he dedicates the book.

Cairo, hyper-real but never overstated, is as large a presence as the title suggests: “a city of thousands of years past piled high upon each moment of the living present” where “alleyways become complicit in your roguishness.” Cairo is also like “jazz: contrapuntal influences jostling for attention, occasionally brilliant solos standing high above the steady rhythm of the street.” That last metaphor could describe the novel itself.

Obstacles soon multiply, and swell beyond the narrowly political. Women are subjected to military ‘virginity tests’, and raped in Tahrir Square, dominated now by “men who infect the air with testosterone and territory.” In this mood, Cairo is “a city of women and another of men stalking in dark parallel”, and not only the nebulous regime but patriarchy, society itself, becomes the opponent.

“Something new is coming that we can’t see yet.” Mariam articulates this ominous phrase. The most persistent arrival is accumulating death, and an accompanying “unbearable grace”. The novel pays reverent and repeated attention to the impacts on the parents and friends of the dead, and asks what the dead are owed. Khalil “follows the bloodline, follows the careful stones lining this new holiness.” The emotional, even spiritual shock of political deaths – their noisy horror and silent awe – is rarely so well expressed.

When the army under General Sisi makes its move, over 900 Muslim Brotherhood supporters are massacred. The unliberated radio justifies the slaughter by whipping up panic concerning infiltrators and Palestinian spies, while declaring that the army has developed a cure for AIDS. (Hamilton is faithful to facts here; this claim was actually made).

One of the Chaos crew shares the pro-Sisi hysteria. Another is killed. Unity splinters, energy dissipates, the protests shrink. “A million becomes a thousand becomes a hundred becomes one … This is the long end of the extraordinary.” Cairo takes shape finally as “this sulfuric city of our dead, our metrocropolis [sic] of failure”, and Khalil asks in bitter retrospect if the revolutionary victory was confined to “two hours between the police retreating and the army deploying.”

“The City Always Wins” is a tale of defeat and dashed dreams – and of hope’s persistence too – told in a poetic prose often worth reading aloud. The style is at once pared down and highly expressive. The tension between exuberance and restraint fits the subject matter and defines Hamilton’s method.

And the novel is beautifully crafted. Hamilton splits scenes to great effect, interspersing text messages, tweets, and (real) headlines, raising the pitch until the final, cascading, coruscating stretch of Khalil’s stream-of-consciousness. This private, continuous flow of thought at the end is an apt reflection of the retreat from collective, social energy to the individual and interior.

The relentless acceleration of pace mimics the confusion of the events, the sense of the people – who once seemed to hold the reins – losing control. Here is the novel form proving itself again, revealing far more than journalism can.


Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

August 4, 2017 at 7:59 am

Posted in book review, Egypt

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