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Review: Omar Robert Hamilton’s “The City Always Wins”

Even though we know the outcome of Egypt’s Arab Spring, Omar Robert Hamilton’s novel about the event, The City Always Wins, is addictive reading. The author, who is also a documentary filmmaker (and a CounterPunch contributor), has clearly been influenced by that medium, and the actual work he did in Cairo during the Arab Spring. Along with several others, he filmed many of the activities and released them for The Mosireen Collective, on YouTube. In his novel, Mosireen is changed to ChaosCairo, and the main characters are determined to film the brutal on-going events so the world can understand what is happening. Much of the activity in The City Always Wins reads as if it is documentary fact, reminding me of John Dos Passos USA Trilogy, published in the 1930’s. DosPassos used newspaper headlines to quickly summarize events of the time; Hamilton—who is described as British/Egyptian—uses social media, especially Twitter outbursts, and interviews.

Three characters—Khalil, Mariam, and Hafez—become the focus of the narrative, though Khalil is given an American identity, newly arrived in Cairo to participate in the on-going political events. Hafez is their photographer, while Khalil and Mariam (who become lovers) are assisted by several other young women. Mariam is the strongest of the three, constantly standing up to the police and endangering her life. All, in fact, risk their lives, while exposing to the world the fast-changing events and constant reversals of power. Collectively, they see themselves as part of a “generational war.” The events in the narrative are given specific dates. One of the first street interviews about the protests reads as follows: “In all my years as an emergency physician I have never seen reactions like this. The government is using an experimental new gas. Possibly a nerve gas. People are dying of asphyxiation,”  followed by “Within minutes the hash tag #egywarcrimes is born.”

While the protests in Tahrir Square are still in their early stages, hundreds of bodies are already being disappeared, and buried in the desert. Mubarak brings in men from the countryside to fight the non-violent protesters, who quickly become rioters. The Muslim Brotherhood courts the army, leading eventually to Mubarak’s fall. Women are especially vulnerable, both on the streets and in police custody: “Virginity tests. The doctors’ vaginal violations they call virginity tests. The police’s hosepipes forced into the anuses of young prisoners.” Despicable humiliation, which of course is the intent. Then a troubling insight: “The Brotherhood wants elections. The army wants elections. America wants elections. So surely we shouldn’t. Elections are the death of politics. The ballot box exists to quell the revolution. Democracy is always for sale to the highest bidder.”

Isn’t that more or less what happened? The election brought the Brotherhood and Morsi to power. All that really changes is that Morsi’s men are now doing the dirty work. Even the new constitution is a farce: “The new constitution that doesn’t protect any minorities, that subjugates women, that allows for torture, that invites privatization and protects the army.” More protests follow, massive protests against Morsi and another state of emergency. U-Tube is shut down, followed by Twitter. But just before that closure, one Twitter statement reveals still another humiliation: “In over a decade I have not seen as many cases of male activists fully raped in police custody as in the past few weeks.” One of Mariam’s activities is informing parents of the deaths of their children. In the process she spends increasing time in morgues.

The terse social media feeds increase with equal frenzy to the chaos on the streets:

IF YOU WON’T LET US DREAM, WE WON’T LET YOU SLEEP

EGYPT ORDERS $2.5M WORTH OF TEAR GAS FROM USA

POLICE ABUSE DEPENING UNDER MORSI REGIME

KILLING OF ANTI-BROTHERHOOD FACEBOOK ADMINS RAISES FEARS OF TARGETED ASSASSINATIONS

MORSI BURIES HUMAN RIGHTS INVESTIGATION INTO ARMY KILLINGS

Soon, the protests on the streets of Cairo are estimated to be the largest in the history of mankind. And, then—as we all remember—Sisi throws his weight around: DEFENSE MINISTER SISI SETS 48-HOUR ULTIMATUM FOR MORSI TO REACH POLITICAL COMPROMISE BEFORE MILITARY INTERVENES.

“Sisi is everywhere. On posters on every street, on car windshields, on necklaces and key rings and cupcakes the Great Savior’s saccharine smile beams out at us, his sweating underlings. Downtown Cairo has become a military-themed fairground of Sisi sandwiches and fridge magnets and posters and cooking oil relabeled with his name and cupcakes iced with his face and women in camouflage pants posing for selfies…. No talk show dares air without a paean to his virtues of manhood and charisma, no storefront is safe from the burning mob without his Apollonian gaze staring down at you….”

Had enough?

The reign of terror does not cease once Sisi becomes the man of the hour. I’ll quote one more passage: “Egypt has become an island floating away from reality.”  The young men and women who worked for ChaosCairo fear for their lives because Sisi’s men are rounding up anyone involved in the riots and filling up the jails (again).

Still, The City Always Wins ends with a ray of hope. As Omar Robert Hamilton remarks about his novel at the end of an interview recently published in The National, “The Arab revolutions of 2011 were seismic events whose aftershocks are still being felt around the world and I’ve just tried to preserve something of that moment, whose importance is still unmeasurable.”

Omar Robert Hamilton: The City Always Wins
MCD / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 312 pp., $26

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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