When I arrived in Cairo three months ago my first stop was not the Pyramids. Not the Egyptian Museum. Not even the beating heart of the revolution- Tahrir Square.
(Be warned your first trip to Tahrir will be disappointing- never has a more chaotic, confusing, and somewhat ugly collection of streets, buildings, and traffic islands played host to something as lyrically inspirational as the overthrow of tyranny).
No, on my second day in Cairo, I set out with my map to find a rather nondescript building on the bustling Talaat Harb Street.
The Yacoubian Building is the setting of the most successful modern Egyptian novel. Alaa-Al-Aswany’s tale of family, politics, crushing despair and redemptive love is a masterpiece. I had bullied my Book Club in Dublin into reading it before I left for Cairo- but this selfishness paid off, because to flick through the pages of ‘The Yacoubian Building’ is to receive an insight into modern Egyptian life that no guide book can provide.
The narrative is traditional in an old fashion realist way, no magic realism or even some of the extreme imagery deployed by Naguib Mahfouz in some of his novels. The tale is also somewhat soap opera like- a series of families and individuals interacting in the one building, their personal lives reflecting wider societal norms and problems.
However if it sounds like the form of the novel, may be suffocating in its conservatism- it is not. For the content, with its beautiful characterisations, the perfect pitch of pain and pleasure, the soft sweep of the storyline- is almost overwhelming in its delivery.
You care for these people- really care.
As it seems with most great novels, the most interesting characters are the women. (I’m thinking Molly in Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’, Amina in Mafhouz’s ‘The Cairo Trilogy’ eh…Holly Kennedy in Ahern’s ‘PS I Love You’)
But it was the tale of political and religious radicalisation of Taha el Shazli the young son of the building’s doorman that sticks with me. No need for a spoiler alert, I won’t give too much of the plot line away. But just to say, every step on this man’s journey to radicalism makes sense. Al Aswany’s genius is to make it intelligible to the reader- how the combination of disappointment and despair created under the former dictatorship helped to propel this young man into the cause of militant Jihad.
But it is not just dealing with the dictatorship that turns him- it’s also personal. His relationship with his childhood sweet heart Busayna is put under extreme pressure, because of social taboos, religious interests, and his lack of money and chances of progress in a crushingly corrupt country. His heart breaks- and slowly hardens.
The question of what principally moves us in our lives- the broadly political (as in society, our class background etc) or the personal, is a long standing one.
There have been some who have looked at the Arab Spring this year and sought very narrow personal factors as the principal motivator. At its most extreme, there have been unintentionally hilarious attempts to see the uprisings as the product of mass sexual frustration in the Arab world.
This begs the question if sexual frustration is a chief contributor to revolutions- why then was Ireland in the 50s and 60s not in constant open revolt…or say the Vatican City now- why are they not manning the barricades in St Peter’s Square? Such frustration may not be generally healthy in a society – but it hardly means that if you are not “getting any” your principal reaction would be to involve yourself in a political organisation or movement and try and overthrow your dictatorial government!
But at the same time I have spoken to young Egyptians who want to get married and have children – but they cannot because of finance, lack of work etc. This is a significant contributor to personal tales of hopelessness here. This personal despair is a reflection of wider societal problems, and in turn reflects how you view the world.
What Al Aswany displays so well, is how our actions and development are moved by both the political and personal. Both factors influence each other to such a point that “How can we know the dancer from the dance?”- WB Yeats.
One night during the “second revolution” here at the end of last month, I was walking towards Tahrir. In the square people were fighting and dying, but just ten minutes away, young couples stood under trees across from the Opera House. Giggling and flirting in the very restricted way (by western standards) that you can here. At one time in my life I think this would have really confused me. Too flippantly hold hands and joke while the fight for freedom takes place just across the Nile – sure that would almost amount to counter revolutionary behaviour 😉 But at this stage in my life I know things are a little more complicated than that.
Even in a city in open revolt, all of life’s aspects continue in parallel. For every Molotov cocktail thrown, or bullet wound bleeding, somewhere else in the city there is a first kiss, or a baby born, a cancer diagnoses delivered, or a cute puppy choking on a chicken bone. It all goes on – all of the time.
The two weeks of revolt in Tahrir last month was intense in this city. For the rest of my life I will recall how it felt to be breathing at that moment in this city of 20 million people crowded around the Nile. I will remember the voices of brave resistance, the hopes and creeping despair – the governments falling, the tear gas swirling, the chatter of freedom and concern.
I think it will be the wide sweep of history that will chiefly frame my memory – but there will also always be the potent image of a pair of brown eyes and the inquisitive mind behind them that briefly shared some of those moments with me.
It’s just the political and personal – moving us, like the characters in Al-Aswany’s Yacoubian Building.
This post originally appeared on Arab Spring in My Step on Friday 16th of December. Photo’s by David Lynch.
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