This is the story of a chess set carved from waste wood by a German prisoner of war, gifted to my father who had been tasked with guarding him below decks on a cargo ship bound for Egypt. Along with 1500 of his compatriots the POW had been captured after the D-Day landings. Later, in a POW camp in Egypt, the German soldier carved the chess pieces from scrap and gave the set to my dad when he was demobbed from the British Army three years later. The chess set is now unaccountably lost. Continue reading “The story of a German POW and a missing chess set”
This shocking image reveals as starkly as any could that the struggle in Egypt is not yet over. It was taken over the weekend and shows a young woman being dragged away from protests in Tahrir Square on the third day of clashes between the Egyptian military and protesters demanding that Egypt’s military rulers give up power – protests that have left 14 dead. Tonight The UN’s human rights chief, Navi Pillay, has called for the arrest and prosecution of members of the Egyptian security forces involved in the crackdown on protesters.
Since the Egyptian uprising began back in the spring, the Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif has been reporting from Cairo as events unfold in a series of despatches to The Guardian. She and other members of her family have been active in the protests. Today her report concerns this photograph. She writes:
The woman is young, and slim, and fair. She lies on her back surrounded by four soldiers, two of whom are dragging her by the arms raised above her head. She’s unresisting – maybe she’s fainted; we can’t tell because we can’t see her face. She’s wearing blue jeans and trainers. But her top half is bare: we can see her torso, her tummy, her blue bra, her bare delicate arms. Surrounding this top half, forming a kind of black halo around it, is the abaya, the robe she was wearing that has been ripped off and that tells us that she was wearing a hijab.
Now our revolution is in an endgame struggle with the old regime and the military. The young woman is part of this. Since Friday the military has openly engaged with civilian protesters in the heart of the capital. The protesters have been peacefully conducting a sit-in in Ministries’ Street to signal their rejection of the military’s appointment of Kamal Ganzouri as prime minister. […]
They dragged the unconscious young woman in the blue jeans – with her upper half stripped – through the streets.
The message is: everything you rose up against is here, is worse. Don’t put your hopes in the revolution or parliament. We are the regime and we’re back.
What they are not taking into account is that everybody’s grown up – the weapon of shame can no longer be used against women. When they subjected young women to virginity tests one of them got up and sued them. Every young woman they’ve brutalized recently has given video testimony and is totally committed to continuing the struggle against them.
The young woman in the blue jeans has chosen so far to retain her privacy. But her image has already become icon. As the tortured face of Khaled Said broke any credibility the ministry of the interior might have had, so the young woman in the blue jeans has destroyed the military’s reputation.
Ahdaf Soueif is the author of the bestselling The Map of Love which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1999. She is also a political and cultural commentator: a collection of her essays, Mezzaterra: Fragments from the Common Ground, was published in 2004. She has a new book Cairo: My City, Our Revolution published in January 2012.
I don’t like giving up on a book after I’ve started reading it, but I’m afraid I’ve just had to abandon The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz after struggling for over a month to finish the first volume, Palace Walk.
What was my problem? I think it was the focus, in minute detail, on the daily events in a household dominated by the tyrannical Al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, a household ‘that did not allow human emotions their rightful place and where the affections of the heart were hidden behind veils of self-denial and hypocrisy’ (p170).
It is 1919, the period of the Egyptian Revolution against the post-war British protectorate in Egypt, following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Al-Sayyid Ahmad and his wife, Amina, are strict Muslims (far more rigid in their adherence to religious precepts than many of their neighbours, we learn). The atmosphere in the family is portrayed as stifling, especially for the mother and her daughters. Each acquiesce to their traditional role of no education beyond primary school, submission to the father’s domination, and marriage and devotion to family as a woman’s only duties. The women never go out of the house alone (except in one memorable scene where Amina ventures out to a local mosque, with tragic consequences) and there are many scenes that involve the mother of daughters snatching glimpses of the street through the lattice work of the balcony screen.
Al-Sayyid Ahmad is portrayed as tyrannical at home, but, hypocritically, as enjoying alchohol and casual sexual relationships outside it. Yet, despite his authoritarianism and hypocrisy, both his sons and his daughters show their father unquestioning respect. Exchanges between family members follow strict formulas and expectations, invariably involving quotations from the appropriate verse of The Koran. There is little genuine communication between characters, instead often outright dissimulation and even lying. Mahfouz shows how, at all costs a false front must be preserved, both within the family and in the family’s face to the outside world. The family home at Palace Walk is a fortress of sorts against the outside world.
The Cairo Trilogy is a family saga, centred around al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad and his family – his wife, his children (three sons and two daughters), and eventually his grandchildren. It covers the period from 1917 to 1944: Palace Walk covers the period from 1917 to 1919, Palace of Desire jumps ahead and covers the period from 1924 to 1927, and Sugar Street covers the period 1935 to 1944.
Written in the early 1950s, the three volumes describe the daily events in a middle-class Egyptian family, recording a way of life that was then disappearing under the impact of western influence and the pressures of modern life. The political developments of the times are interwoven into the lives of the many characters. Members of the protagonist family represent the main trends in the political life of the country: the Wafd party, with its heroes Saad Zaghloul and Mustafa Nahhas (the party with which Mahfouz associated himself), the burgeoning socialist movement as exemplified by the writings of Salama Mousa, and the beginnings of a fundamentalist Islamic movement.
The political events that form the backdrop to Palace Walk are dramatic, but only intrude into the lives of the Jawad family members towards the end of the novel – and even then, are dealt with by Mahfouz in an undemonstrative and rather distanced manner. Soon after the end of the First World War in Europe, a delegation of Egyptian nationalist activists made a request to the High Commissioner to end the British Protectorate in Egypt and Sudan. Meanwhile, a mass movement for the full independence of Egypt and Sudan was being organized at a grassroots level. Seeing the popular support that the movement enjoyed, and fearing social unrest, in March 1919 the British exiled the leaders to Malta. For several weeks until April, demonstrations and strikes across Egypt by students, civil servants, peasants, workers, and religious leaders became such a daily occurrence that normal life was brought to a halt. The movement was characterised by the participation of both men and women, and united Muslim and Christian Egyptians. By July 1919, 800 Egyptians were dead, and numerous villages had been burnt down. The revolts forced Britain to cede Egyptian independence in 1922.
The Trilogy was considered a remarkable achievement, particularly since the Arabic novel had only recently come into being. It rapidly became a best-seller in the Arab world, and those who could not read it came to know its characters through film adaptations.
Naguib Mahfouz won the 1988 Nobel Prize in Literature and was widely regarded as the Arab world’s foremost novelist until his death in 2002 at the age of 94. He was the first Arab writer to receive the Nobel Prize, and while many of his works had been translated into French, Swedish and German, he was largely unknown at that time in the United States and Europe.
Mahfouz was born in Cairo in 1911, and his early childhood was spent in the old city’s Gamaliya quarter, the setting of many of his books. He came of age in an era of intense nationalist activity against British rule.
After his death, John Ezard wrote in The Guardian:
In 1990, when he was a physically wasted, half-blind yet zestful 79-year-old, I interviewed Naguib Mahfouz in the Ali Baba cafe overlooking Cairo’s central Tahrir Square, where he breakfasted for 40 years and which he had seen change from a Nile-side preserve of the rich to a demotic chaos. “The square has had many scenes,” he said. “It used to be more quiet. Now it is disturbing but more progressive, better for ordinary people – and therefore better for me also, as one who likes his fellow humans.” Any country is fortunate if it produces citizens like him.
Perhaps one day I will return to the Trilogy, but for now I need to break free from its oppressive atmosphere.
- Naguib Mahfouz: An Appreciation (Laila Lalami, The Nation)
It had been sitting on my bookshelf unread for some time, but with the stirring events in Egypt I decided to take down and read The Yacoubian Building by Egyptian author Alaa Al Aswany.
First published in Arabic in 2002, with an English translation in 2004, Al Aswany’s novel tells the stories of characters who either live or work in the titular apartment building (which does actually exist), located in Cairo’s old European-style quarter that, since the 1970s, has steadily become less salubrious. The Yacoubian building is located on Talaat Harb street (called Suleiman Pasha street in the book), which lies just off Tahrir Square, the focus of the 2011 revolution – so reading the book now feels felicitous. It is set in 1990 at the time of the first Gulf War and is a pretty scathing portrayal of life at different levels of Egyptian society in the Mubarak era.
The Yacoubian Building serves as a metaphor for contemporary Egyptian society, housing in its once plush apartments members of the old aristocratic class, the nouveau riche, and the army, and in the rented-out servant quarters on the roof a mass of workers and tradesmen who struggle to get by in the turmoil of the big city.
The novel describes the Yacoubian Building as being one of the most luxurious and prestigious apartment blocks in Cairo at the time of its construction in 1934 by Armenian businessman Hagop Yacoubian. Government ministers, wealthy manufacturers, and foreigners moved in or established offices there. After the revolution in 1952, which overthrew King Farouk and gave power to Gamal Abdel Nasser, many of the rich foreigners, as well as native landowners and businessmen, who had lived at the Yacoubian fled the country. Each vacated apartment was then occupied by a military officer and his family, who were often from a more rural background and lower social strata than the previous residents.
On the roof are fifty small rooms (one for each apartment), no more than eight feet square, originally used as storage areas, but gradually taken over by poor migrants from the countryside, arriving in Cairo in the hopes of finding employment. The building therefore represents – in inverted form – the class divisions in a society in which the rich oppress the poor and money and influence determines access to education, health care and justice: where, in the bitter words of one character, ‘money begets money and poverty begets poverty’.
The Yacoubian Building was the best selling Arabic novel for 2002 and 2003, and was voted Best Novel for 2003 by listeners to Egypt’s Middle East Broadcasting Service. It has now been translated into 23 languages worldwide. Reading the novel in English is a pleasure, thanks to Humphrey Davies’s elegant, fluid translation.
It seems quite remarkable that Al Aswany’s novel not only escaped the censor to become an Arab bestseller, but was also turned into a successful film and an Egyptian TV series – because it is a scathing critique of Mubarak’s Egypt, interweaving stories of vote-rigging, corruption, police brutality, Islamic extremism, secret second marriages and homosexuality. Though there were protests in the People’s Assembly against the film for its depiction of a gay romance and this element was removed from the TV series, the book was unscathed.
The novel has a Dickensian feel, with its large cast of characters drawn from all sections of society, but, unlike Dickens, Al Aswany only has some of his characters cross paths, and his characterisation lacks Dickens’ richness and depth. Like Dickens, though, he reveals his characters as all victims of a merciless society: a young woman accepts her employer’s daily groping in a storeroom because she has a family to support; another pretends to enjoy sex with her elderly husband because he can provide for her son from another marriage; a child dies in hospital where only money and influence will ensure urgent treatment; a young man dies after being drawn to Islamic fundamentalism following the crushing of his ambition to join the police force – although he has passed the entrance exams, he lacks the requisite bribe. ‘This country doesn’t belong to us’, his mother states. ‘It belongs to the people who have money’.
It would be difficult to overestimate the impact that Alaa Al Aswany’s novel has had in Egypt. The Yacoubian Building has topped the bestseller lists for over two years, been adapted for the screen by Marwan Hamid and inspired impassioned cultural debate. This addictively readable evocation of Cairo at a time of political and social ferment, during the first Gulf War, is both a damning critique and a love letter to a city and its inhabitants. It engages with corruption, homophobia, sexism, Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism; all sensitive and controversial issues in contemporary Egyptian society.
– Alev Adil’s review in the Independent
The brave, dignified, resolute, peaceful and determined people of Egypt have made history today. The Egyptian revolution – the most hopeful event of this century so far, likely to be as defining a moment as the Russian Revolution was for the last. Lenin once coined the phrase, ‘Revolution is the festival of the oppressed’. It was nonsense – there were no festive feelings in him, and 20th century revolutions were made with guns, led by vanguard parties with their own precise agendas and had deadly consequences. Tonight the scenes from Cairo really do look like a festival of the people.
The movement symbolised by the occupants of Tahrir Square this past 18 days has no leaders and only home-made banners. They organised using the new communication technologies of Twitter and Facebook. But, as Timothy Garton-Ash wrote in yesterday’s Guardian, new forms of protest are combined with something as old as the hills:
New in Cairo 2011 is that it is now Arabs and Muslims standing up in large numbers, with courage and (for the most part) peaceful discipline, for basic human dignity, against corrupt, oppressive rulers. New in 2011 is the degree of decentered, networked animation of the demonstrations, so that even the best-informed observers there struggle to answer the question “who is organising this?”. New in 2011 is the extraordinary underlying pressure of demography, with half the population in most of these countries being under 25. Old in Cairo 2011 – as old as the pyramids, as old as human civilisation – is the cry of oppressed men and women, overcoming the barrier of fear and feeling, however fleetingly, the sense of freedom and dignity.
Tariq Ali has just written on Comment Is Free at guardian.co.uk:
A joyous night in Cairo. What bliss to be alive, to be an Egyptian and an Arab. In Tahrir Square they’re chanting, “Egypt is free” and “We won!”….The age of political reason is returning to the Arab world. The people are fed up of being colonised and bullied.
And he has quoted this extract from a poem written in 1967 by ‘one of the great Arab poets’, Nizar Qabbani:
Corn ears of the future,
You will break our chains.
Kill the opium in our heads,
Kill the illusions.
Don’t read about our suffocated generation,
We are a hopeless case,
As worthless as a water-melon rind.
Don’t read about us,
Don’t ape us,
Don’t accept us,
Don’t accept our ideas,
We are a nation of crooks and jugglers.
Corn ears of the future,
You are the generation that will overcome defeat.
Here’s another poem, For Tahrir, For Egypt, posted by Egyptian blogger Diptychal (‘I live in Cairo, where by day, I work at a publishing house. I’m 1/2 poet, 1/2 geek with a heavy dose of techno-joy….I post photos taken mostly in the streets of Cairo’).
that public square
named for fate and history
as though it knew what was to come
we stood our ground
saying, we will not be moved
painted poems on the hard asphalt
that had softened, soaking in our blood
and the world watched.
The world watched as we were called
and on television screens
in homes, doors locked refusing to let in
men spit scorn into cameras
and women screamed into their phones
eyes and hearts full of rage
unable to understand
that Tahrir was theirs, for them,
while government eyes showed only what they wanted
us to see
the sun setting over the Nile
but all it would take, was the smallest turn of the head to the left
a glance from the corner of the eye
to show the haze of Cairo’s sun through tear gas,
to show men charging the street with only their bodies
met with police trucks running them down.
Newspapers wrote of unrest across the Mediterranean
pretending that this day that had begun in Cairo
was like any other.
But something had begun.
Men and women shook the earth
with their voices.
From north to south
bodies fell to the ground, hearts stopped beating
but in Tahrir, we held our heads high for them
moving away from the walls that, our whole lives
we had walked close to, hiding in the shadow
of conformity and fear
opened our chests to murder
opened our faces to rocks, our eyes to bullets
our minds to molotov fires thrown down onto our heads
we are not afraid
because the fear of living with your face buried
in the soil of a land that can no longer feel
was nothing, nothing compared to
the fear of dying
without once having said
I am free.
Let us pray that the promise of Tahrir Square is fulfilled. As I watched the joyous scenes there this evening, I thought of Patti Smith’s poem, ‘Notes to the Future’. Here are extracts that seem to speak of this moment and its hope for the future (apologies to Patti for butchering it):
Listen my children and you shall hear
The sound of your own steps
The sound of your hereafter
Memory awaits and turns to greet you
Draping its banner across your wrists
Wake up arms
For as one to march the streets
Each alone, each part of another
Your steps shall ring
Shall raise the cloud
And they that will hear will hear
Will hear voice of the one
And the one and the one
As it has never been uttered before
For something greater yet to come
And all their hearts were as one heart.
And all their voices were as one voice.
This is our birthright.
This is our charge.
And we have given over to others.
And they have
Now my children
You must overturn the tables
Deliver the future from material rule
For only one rule should be considered
The eleventh commandment
To love one another
And this is our covenant across your wrist
It is merely a cloth,
Merely our colors,
Invested with the blood of the people
All their hopes and dreams.
It has its excellence
Yet it is nothing
It shall not be a tyranny above us
And the children shall march
And bring the colors forward
Investing within them
The redeeming blood
Of their revolutionary hearts.
The full text can be heard on YouTube:
We’ve had revolution in Tunisia; in Egypt Mubarak is teetering; in Yemen, Jordan and Syria suddenly protests have appeared. In Greece strikes and riots continue to protest the financial crisis. This week Ahdaf Soueif, author of The Map of Love, reported from Tahrir Square:
Four generations, more than a million people (according to the army count at 2pm) are here. They are all doing what they have not been able to do for decades; each and every one is having their say in their own way and insisting on being counted. Their dominant demand, of course, is for Mubarak to step down.
In the regime’s response to this people’s revolution they have displayed the same brutality, dullness, dishonesty and predictability that have characterised their 30-year rule. They have shot and gassed their citizens, lied to them and about them, threatened them with F16s, tried to foist a “new” cabinet on them – everything except the decent thing: go.
Meanwhile the citizens on the ground have come into their own. Tahrir is about dignity and image as much as it is about the economy and corruption.
So, asks Paul Mason of BBC’s Newsnight, What’s going on? This is his answer, in 20 bullet points:
1. At the heart if it all is a new sociological type: the graduate with no future
2. …with access to social media, such as Facebook, Twitter and eg Yfrog so they can express themselves in a variety of situations ranging from parliamentary democracy to tyrrany.
3. Therefore truth moves faster than lies, and propaganda becomes flammable.
4. They are not prone to traditional and endemic ideologies: Labourism, Islamism, Fianna Fail Catholicism etc… in fact hermetic ideologies of all forms are rejected.
5. Women very numerous as the backbone of movements. After twenty years of modernised labour markets and higher-education access the “archetypal” protest leader, organizer, facilitator, spokesperson now is an educated young woman.
6. Horizontalism has become endemic because technology makes it easy: it kills vertical hierarchies spontaneously, whereas before – and the quintessential experience of the 20th century – was the killing of dissent within movements, the channeling of movements and their bureaucratisaton.
7. Memes: “A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes, in that they self-replicate, mutate and respond to selective pressures.” (Wikipedia) – so what happens is that ideas arise, are very quickly “market tested” and either take off, bubble under, insinuate themselves or if they are deemed no good they disappear. Ideas self-replicate like genes. Prior to the internet this theory (see Richard Dawkins, 1976) seemed an over-statement but you can now clearly trace the evolution of memes.
8. They all seem to know each other: not only is the network more powerful than the hierarchy – but the ad-hoc network has become easier to form. So if you “follow” somebody from the UCL occupation on Twitter, as I have done, you can easily run into a radical blogger from Egypt, or a lecturer in peaceful resistance in California who mainly does work on Burma so then there are the Burmese tweets to follow. During the early 20th century people would ride hanging on the undersides of train carriages across borders just to make links like these.
9. The specifics of economic failure: the rise of mass access to university-level education is a given. Maybe soon even 50% in higher education will be not enough. In most of the world this is being funded by personal indebtedess – so people are making a rational judgement to go into debt so they will be better paid later. However the prospect of ten years of fiscal retrenchment in some countries means they now know they will be poorer than their parents. And the effect has been like throwing a light switch; the prosperity story is replaced with the doom story, even if for individuals reality will be more complex, and not as bad as they expect.
10.This evaporation of a promise is compounded in the more repressive societies and emerging markets because – even where you get rapid economic growth – it cannot absorb the demographic bulge of young people fast enough to deliver rising living standards for enough of them.
11.To amplify: I can’t find the quote but one of the historians of the French Revolution of 1789 wrote that it was not the product of poor people but of poor lawyers. You can have political/economic setups that disappoint the poor for generations – but if lawyers, teachers and doctors are sitting in their garrets freezing and starving you get revolution. Now, in their garrets, they have a laptop and broadband connection.
12.The weakness of organised labour means there’s a changed relationship between the radicalized middle class, the poor and the organised workforce. The world looks more like 19th century Paris – heavy predomination of the “progressive” intelligentsia, intermixing with the slum-dwellers at numerous social interfaces (cabarets in the 19C, raves now); huge social fear of the excluded poor but also many rags to riches stories celebrated in the media (Fifty Cent etc); meanwhile the solidaristic culture and respectability of organized labour is still there but, as in Egypt, they find themselves a “stage army” to be marched on and off the scene of history.
13.This leads to a loss of fear among the young radicals of any movement: they can pick and choose; there is no confrontation they can’t retreat from. They can “have a day off” from protesting, occupying: whereas twith he old working-class based movements, their place in the ranks of battle was determined and they couldn’t retreat once things started. You couldn’t “have a day off” from the miners’ strike if you lived in a pit village.
14.In addition to a day off, you can “mix and match”: I have met people who do community organizing one day, and the next are on a flotilla to Gaza; then they pop up working for a think tank on sustainable energy; then they’re writing a book about something completely different. I was astonished to find people I had interviewed inside the UCL occupation blogging from Tahrir Square this week.
15. People just know more than they used to. Dictatorships rely not just on the suppression of news but on the suppression of narratives and truth. More or less everything you need to know to make sense of the world is available as freely downloadable content on the internet: and it’s not pre-digested for you by your teachers, parents, priests, imams. For example there are huge numbers of facts available to me now about the subjects I studied at university that were not known when I was there in the 1980s. Then whole academic terms would be spent disputing basic facts, or trying to research them. Now that is still true but the plane of reasoning can be more complex because people have an instant reference source for the undisputed premises of arguments. It’s as if physics has been replaced by quantum physics, but in every discipline.
16.There is no Cold War, and the War on Terror is not as effective as the Cold War was in solidifying elites against change. Egypt is proving to be a worked example of this: though it is highly likely things will spiral out of control, post Mubarak – as in all the colour revolutons – the dire warnings of the US right that this will lead to Islamism are a “meme” that has not taken off. In fact you could make an interesting study of how the meme starts, blossoms and fades away over the space of 12 days. To be clear: I am not saying they are wrong – only that the fear of an Islamist takeover in Egypt has not been strong enough to swing the US presidency or the media behind Mubarak.
17. It is – with international pressure and some powerful NGOs – possible to bring down a repressive government without having to spend years in the jungle as a guerilla, or years in the urban underground: instead the oppositional youth – both in the west in repressive regimes like Tunisia/Egypt, and above all in China – live in a virtual undergrowth online and through digital comms networks. The internet is not key here – it is for example the things people swap by text message, the music they swap with each other etc: the hidden meanings in graffiti, street art etc which those in authority fail to spot.
18. People have a better understanding of power. The activists have read their Chomsky and their Hardt-Negri, but the ideas therein have become mimetic: young people believe the issues are no longer class and economics but simply power: they are clever to the point of expertise in knowing how to mess up hierarchies and see the various “revolutions” in their own lives as part of an “exodus” from oppression, not – as previous generations did – as a “diversion into the personal”. While Foucault could tell Gilles Deleuze: “We had to wait until the nineteenth century before we began to understand the nature of exploitation, and to this day, we have yet to fully comprehend the nature of power”,- that’s probably changed.
19. As the algebraic sum of all these factors it feels like the protest “meme” that is sweeping the world – if that premise is indeed true – is profoundly less radical on economics than the one that swept the world in the 1910s and 1920s; they don’t seek a total overturn: they seek a moderation of excesses. However on politics the common theme is the dissolution of centralized power and the demand for “autonomy” and personal freedom in addition to formal democracy and an end to corrupt, family based power-elites.
20. Technology has – in many ways, from the contraceptive pill to the iPod, the blog and the CCTV camera – expanded the space and power of the individual.
I’ve been reading John Berger’s book, The Shape of a Pocket. In it there’s an essay on the Fayum portraits. During the 1st to 3rd century AD in Egypt, painted panel portraits (more commonly referred to as Fayoum or Fayum portraits) were bandaged over the heads of mummies. These astonishing portraits depict the inhabitants of Greco-Roman ancient Egypt in exacting detail. They were finely executed in a beeswax-based paint on wood or stuccoed linen. Continue reading “Fayum mummy portraits: the earliest painted portraits”