The Revolution: Report From Literary Egypt

Stephen Morison Jr.
From the March/April 2013 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

My phone rings; it’s El-Boudy, who was supposed to meet us here. “I’ve heard there are thousands gathering in Tahrir. The traffic could be bad. How does it look? Should I come in?” I confirm that there’s been fighting, and we agree that she should stay home for the day.

“I think I’ll go back to the square,” I tell the lawyer.

He nods. “Yeah, it’s a good opportunity for you.”

The number of people in the square has doubled in the hour since I left; now, there are four or five thousand; they’ve spilled out from the sidewalks and grassy midan onto the paved traffic circle. New banners are up, facing the old; the largest is black with three-foot-high Arabic script proclaiming: Justice. A couple hundred people on a corner across from the Metro begin chanting anti-Morsi slogans, then they wade into the larger mass. Men are lying in the street chalking ornate slogans on the tarmac while cars, buses, and taxis honk at them and edge around; two small girls, ages four or five, wearing little Palestinian kaffiyeh head scarves, stand on a subway grate holding a sign that says in Arabic: “The system is killing me; my blood is cheap for you.” A man with a cart is selling lemonade; another sells seeds. I wade into the crowd, take pictures, and eventually emerge by a T-shirt vendor across from the Egyptian Museum. The vendor tells me he’s from Aqaba, a city in Jordan, three hours from where I live; he warns me to be careful. “You’re a foreigner; you should leave the square.” Beside us, on the sidewalk in front of a café, middle-aged men in traditional dishdasha robes sit in small groups. They aren’t drinking tea; mostly they stare at their feet and appear to be waiting. I cross the street to the road that fronts the museum; it’s blocked by museum guards with machine guns—the museum was ransacked during the January 25th Revolution—who glance at my foreign face and let me pass. 

Fifteen minutes later, there’s a rolling cheer, a wave of sound like the bellow in a stadium after the home team scores, and four hundred men sprint out of Tahrir, past the eastern side of the museum, followed by a cloud of rocks arcing overhead, then another mob of five hundred men chases after them. The pursuing bunch stops and forms a line across the street; some hold squares of cardboard over their heads; a few wear split buckets or other helmetlike contraptions. They hold the line for fifteen minutes or so, tossing rocks, absorbing rocks, picking up new rocks and throwing them again; then there’s a roar from my left, and the men in front of me turn and run. The original four hundred return on the attack; they surge forward, forming little scrums around a couple of guys who didn’t run away fast enough. Shoving becomes shouting becomes punching. 

The guards beside me maintain their posts but look nervous. A dozen middle-aged men and women—the women in hijabs and conservative clothing, the men in dishdashas and Muslim caps—emerge from the sidewalk to our right and ask the guards if they can pass in order to escape the fighting. The guards hesitate; the women plead, and they’re allowed to pass. I follow them past the museum then circle around behind it and make my way back to my hotel.

Two hours later I’m on the second floor balcony of my pension overlooking Talaat Harb Square, drinking tea with the short story writer Mohammed Abu il Dahab and watching groups assemble beneath us. They gather in hundred-person formations, rectangular phalanxes, like Elks getting ready to enter a Fourth of July parade, then they raise their banners and disappear down Talaat Harb Street toward Tahrir.

I ask Abu il Dahab if the politics and protests are affecting his writing. “A critic last Monday said he wanted to kill himself [after reading my latest novel]. He asked, ‘Why is it so depressing?’” the writer says while sipping his tea and smoking a Pharaoh-brand cigarette. “He said that I am a good writer, but in this book, I made the art dirty. He said I have to respect the religion more than this.”

Abu il Dahab is a social worker at a mental hospital in Banha City, about twenty-eight miles north of Cairo. He grew up in the area and remembers aspiring to be a screenwriter when he was eleven or twelve, but then he read one of Naguib Mahfouz’s story collections at age fifteen and everything changed. “This book changes many things [for me]: about how to be a writer, about how to see the world. It made sure for me that I have to be a writer.”

He began to read the canon of Egyptian writers and was most affected by Edwar al-Kharrat, who is the “only writer, in my opinion, who combines ammiyya [the colloquial Arabic that is spoken on the street and changes from region to region] and fusha [the classical Arabic that is read and written across the Middle East].” He credits the work of al-Kharrat with helping him solidify his ideas about how to write. “I found my voice,” he says. He was twenty years old. 

There’s a shout from Talaat Harb, and we glance down to watch twenty men shuffle into the square carrying an injured man. They lay him on the sidewalk and crowd around. The man is bleeding from a head wound. Someone produces a gauze bandage; someone else begins to wrap his head. 

“I have seven books,” Abu il Dahab says. “The most important thing that affected me was a death. In my first six books, in all my books, death is the major theme: death, death, death.”

Abu il Dahab is from a family of limited means, and he met a girl from Alexandria, from a family unknown to his clan. Forsaking tradition, he ran away with her to Cairo where they moved “from hotel to hotel to flat,” he says. “One day, she called the elevator and opened the door, but the elevator wasn’t there, and she fell: five stories.” Her name was Suhayleh. “Her name occurs again and again in my books,” he adds.

He remarried, this time to his cousin. It was a match his family approved of, but it didn’t last. After three years, she grew sick of him spending four hours a day reading books or writing on his computer. She wanted a child and blamed him for their failure to conceive; eventually, she divorced him. “But during that time, I wrote very many short stories and sent them to many journals and magazines,” he says.