Past Tahrir Square

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Half­way through The Egyp­tians: A Rad­i­cal Story, Jack Shenker re­calls a mo­ment of soli­tary med­i­ta­tion that for him brought home the Egyp­tian rev­o­lu­tion. “My note­books are as raw as my mem­o­ries … the pen’s nib has punc­tured the pa­per.”

Shenker, for­mer Egypt cor­re­spon­dent for The Guardian, is at his finest chron­i­cling events in which he was caught up. This finely re­searched book, marked by care­ful re­flec­tions of the au­thor’s ex­pe­ri­ences, comes five years af­ter the rup­ture of the Arab world, an up­heaval that saw mil­lions de­mand­ing their dig­nity. The world was en­tranced by the magic of Tahrir Square, though Shenker notes “there is a danger of pro­ject­ing too much of the rev­o­lu­tion on to this sin­gle square”.

Shenker of­fers a grounded analysis of how a rev­o­lu­tion was en­gen­dered in po­lit­i­cally claus­tro­pho­bic con­di­tions. This book has a cinematic qual­ity in how it pans in and out of his­tor­i­cal tracts, mar­ry­ing them to re­cent events with skil­ful nudg­ing of dis­patches from one chap­ter to the next.

He marks spe­cific sites and then di­verts to ex­plain how the state ef­faces places with toxic pol­i­tics that up­roots com­mu­ni­ties. He tracks a myth­i­cal oa­sis in the western desert called Zerzura. He refers to a 13th-cen­tury Syrian gover­nor’s de­scrip­tion of it, adds a foot­note about Michael On­daatje’s novel The English Pa­tient, a quote from an age­ing man he in­ter­viewed in the western desert and then ties it all to how

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