Oct/Nov 2017 Reviews & Interviews

The City Always Wins

The City Always Wins
Omar Robert Hamilton.
Faber. 2017. 312 pp.
ISBN 978 0 571 33265 6.

Review by Ann Skea

We will not be cowed by the army or the Islamists or the police or global capital. Maybe we are the endless march. Bread, freedom, social justice. We are the opposition. Is this our role?

Buy now from Amazon! Revolutionaries. Young people fighting tyranny, despotism, injustice and torture. Young people giving their lives in the cause: "Marching, fighting, chanting, dying, changing, winning, losing... This time will be different. This time the future can still be made new."

The City Always Wins is a remarkable debut novel: terrifying, moving, harrowing, but horribly gripping and based closely on the events of the Egyptian rebellion of 2011. Do you remember reading of the Arab Spring? Do you remember seeing news footage of the thousands of Egyptian people who occupied Cairo's Tahrir Square for 18 days demanding the end of the regime of President Hosui Mubarak? And do you know anything of what happened after Mubarak's resignation, when the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood took over government and eventually, bloodily, put down more protests, until the military, under General Sisi, took advantage of the unrest and took control?

Omar Robert Hamilton's novel covers all of this from the perspective of Khalil, an American born Egyptian/Palestinian who gets caught up in the march on Mospero, the Cairo headquarters of the State media, when the army opens fire on the protesters and crushes people under its tanks. In the ensuing chaos, Khalil is thrown together with Mariam and becomes part of the small revolutionary collective to which she belongs.

Mariam is a fiercely independent and courageous young woman who works with the injured and their families, fighting for those who have been wrongfully imprisoned, tortured, and murdered. She has developed skills with which she confronts those in authority, but her position, as a single woman in this society, is always precarious. She and Khalil become lovers, but love, too, is a precarious thing in the dangers and the life-and-death horrors through which they live. The collective to which they belong organizes protests and founds a magazine called Chaos, which aims to document and challenge the injustices and corruption as the regimes change and public support, which was once so strong, fades. Khalil ensures that by using web technology Chaos is broadcast to the world. And Hafez, who has returned to Cairo from studies abroad, is their photographer and regularly risks his life at the heart of the protests.

Action is immediate and tension in the novel is constant and palpable as Hamilton uses a mixture of prose, dialogue, tweets, text-messages, real headlines, and news reports, stream-of-consciousness, and the grieving testament of mothers and fathers whose children are missing, imprisoned, or dead. Khalil returns briefly to America and sees the revolution as it is seen by uninformed, disinterested outsiders before he returns to the very real dangers which now threaten him and his friends. But he questions, too, the effectiveness of revolution:

You have a peaceful revolution to topple a dictator but to have a peaceful transition you need elections and the only people with the resources and network to win elections are ex-dictators and dictators-in-waiting. We're trapped in an Escher painting.

Hafez is also becoming disillusioned with the need to photograph increasingly disturbing situations in order to attract the attention of those who have become used to images of death.

Each scene is more shocking than the last. Then they care for fifteen minutes until the next horror horrifies them. And how many horrors until people just switch off?

And a mother whose son, Ayman, died in the massacre in Tahrir Square and who vowed to continue his fight for justice, finally stops being a public spokesperson for mothers who have lost sons:

She can't stand on another stage or talk to another cameras and declare eternal revolution. So many have died, she can't have another life on her conscience.

Omar Robert Hamilton, who is a well established British Egyptian film maker, writes from experience. He was in Cairo during the revolution and co-founded the Mosireen Collective which, like Chaos, sought to create an archive of material as testimony of the events. As he says in an interview in the Guardian, when the military coup happened, he took all his material to New York, intending to make a documentary, but it turned into a novel.

The City Always Wins is a powerful novel with a strong documentary style that brings the events and the people involved vividly to life. At times it is harrowing to read of the carnage, the torture, the inequalities and injustices, but it is also moving and thought provoking, a testament to the courage of ordinary Egyptians who, like Hamilton's imprisoned cousin, Alaa Abd El-Fattah (to whom this book is dedicated), fought against dictatorial tyranny.


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