A search for jus­tice amid Cairo’s blood­shed

Film­maker Omar Robert Hamil­ton brings a cin­e­matic vi­sion to his grip­ping debut about the 2011 up­ris­ings in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Mal­colm Forbes writes

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In her pref­ace to Cairo: My City, Our Revo­lu­tion, the Egyp­tian nov­el­ist and political com­men­ta­tor Ahdaf Soueif ex­plained how dur­ing the 2011 up­ris­ing in Tahrir Square she tried to “rev­o­lute” and write about the un­fold­ing drama. “For this book to be as I wanted it to be and be­lieved it should be, an in­ter­ven­tion rather than just a record, it needed to take in – and on – as much of this present as pos­si­ble.” Soueif’s son, Omar Robert Hamil­ton, has also writ­ten a book about Cairo and Egypt’s revo­lu­tion, and it too feels more like an in­ter­ven­tion than a record. In ad­di­tion it feels fresh, cur­rent, top­i­cal – a re­cent eye­wit­ness ac­count, a newly lived-through up­heaval.

This is no small feat for The City Al­ways Wins which comes with two in­built dis­tanc­ing ef­fects: it is a novel, and as such its facts are not merely pre­sented but pro­cessed; and it ap­pears six years af­ter the events it de­scribes. But with great skill and pur­pose, and em­ploy­ing the im­me­di­acy and ur­gency of the present tense, Hamil­ton trans­ports us into the eye of the storm to thrillingly ex­pe­ri­ence his­tory as it hap­pens, and to share the hopes, ideals and even­tual heart­break of an en­tire move­ment.

The book starts in Oc­to­ber 2011 with a brief but mem­o­rable scene of hor­ror, may­hem and des­per­a­tion. A peace­ful march to Maspero, the state tele­vi­sion and ra­dio build­ing, ends in blood­shed: “The army opened fire. No hes­i­ta­tion. They crushed peo­ple un­der their tanks.” Dead bod­ies pile up in the hot cor­ri­dors of the Cop­tic Hospi­tal. The morgue is full. They should be buried now, some­one says. An­other voice speaks up, dis­agree­ing: “if we have no au­top­sies, no proof, the army will deny ev­ery­thing.” Au­top­sies are needed “for jus­tice”. Hamil­ton pans out and in­tro­duces his jus­tice-seek­ers. Chief among them are Mariam and Khalil, who along with other young ac­tivists run Chaos, a mag­a­zine, web­site and pod­cast which col­lects and spreads “news and tac­tics and tri­umphs”. Chaos ex­pands, with more vol­un­teer jour­nal­ists, trans­la­tors and pho­tog­ra­phers join­ing its ranks as a re­sponse to in­ten­si­fied un­rest. Hamil­ton’s char­ac­ters protest, pro­tect and fight back; they stage pub­lic screen­ings of atroc­i­ties (“For­get cin­ema. This is cin­ema”), search for miss­ing peo­ple and col­lect the sto­ries of the dead.

Elec­tions loom but of­fer lit­tle in the way of res­o­lu­tion: “The bal­lot box ex­ists to quell the revo­lu­tion. Democ­racy is al­ways for sale to the high­est bid­der.” The Mo­hamed Morsi regime proves equally cor­rupt and heavy-handed, and has the Chaos staff dou­bling their ef­forts to win both the media war and the fight on the streets. Grad­u­ally, Hamil­ton shows how that de­ter­mined fight turns into a los­ing bat­tle. Ac­tivists are hunted down and rounded up, Chaos is com­pro­mised, and Mariam and Khalil’s com­mit­ment – to the cause and to each other – is tested.

The City Al­ways Wins is an elec­tri­fy­ing read, its ev­ery thought, act, scene and de­scrip­tion ren­dered in vivid, graphic, adren­a­line-charged prose. The tit­u­lar city pulses on the page. “Cairo is jazz,” Hamil­ton declares, “all con­tra­pun­tal in­flu­ences jostling for at­ten­tion, oc­ca­sion­ally bril­liant so­los stand­ing high above the steady rhythm of the street.”

It is also an “un­end­ing city of sores and scars and needs that will never be sated”. At times Hamil­ton gets too car­ried away: ideas are rat­tled off with list-like monotony (“it’s all the same, same an­i­mal urges, same vi­o­lence of hands, same paunch­ing weight…”); right­eous anger boils over into tub-thump­ing polemic.

But these in­con­sis­ten­cies aside, it is im­pos­si­ble not be car­ried along by the novel’s ki­netic en­ergy and moved by its emo­tional clout. Hamil­ton is a writer but also an award-win­ning film­maker, and there is a dis­tinct filmic qual­ity to his set-pieces. Riots and demos pan out in long ex­tended sweeps, as if cap­tured in one un­bro­ken and unedited take. Tur­moil in hos­pi­tals is con­veyed in a series of jerky jump­cuts. The fo­cus is grainy, the ac­tion vis­ceral. If docu­fic­tion was not a recog­nised film genre it could be used to cat­e­gorise Hamil­ton’s unique sto­ry­telling.

Just as orig­i­nal is the book’s patch­work struc­ture. Hamil­ton’s nar­ra­tive comes em­broi­dered with texts, tweets, chants, slo­gans, quotes, lyrics, head­lines, tes­ti­monies, graf­fiti, Face­book mes­sages and even sound ef­fects, all of which en­hance the gen­eral air of au­then­tic­ity. What makes the novel truly re­al­is­tic, how­ever, is the two main char­ac­ters. We lis­ten to their con­vic­tions, fol­low their plans, then watch with bated breath as they ad­vance into clouds of tear gas.

Hamil­ton’s stun­ning debut is both a de­fi­ant fist in the air and a sucker-punch to the gut. Despo­tism and op­ti­mism have sel­dom been so pow­er­fully por­trayed.

Mal­colm Forbes is a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to The Re­view. Ten­der and of­ten funny ex­am­i­na­tion of fa­mil­ial re­la­tions. A young woman re­luc­tantly heads home to Los Angeles to care for her fa­ther who is suf­fer­ing from Alzheimer’s. As her fa­ther loses his mem­ory, she begins to re­mem­ber de­tails of her tem­pes­tu­ous child­hood.

Good­bye, Vi­ta­min Rachel Khong Scrib­ner, June 1

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