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Revealing an Unknown Cairo

Yasmine El Rashidi, New York City, 2016
Brigitte Lacombe
Yasmine El Rashidi, New York City, 2016

The unnamed narrator of Yasmine El Rashidi’s short first novel, Chronicle of a Last Summer, records her conversation in 2014 with a young Cairene record salesman named Mohamed:

He tells me the revolution has connected us to a past that preceded us. I nod, tell him I’ve gone back into our history books to understand. I’ve read everything. I can’t believe all this I didn’t know. You might not believe me, he says, but I have too. He’s learning that history is repeating itself. We talk about Nasser. The first revolution. 1919. The Wafd revolting against the British.

What El Rashidi attempts in her deceptively quiet, adamantine novel is no less than to suffuse the present with the past, to convey the way in which a walk through Cairo and the purchase of vegetables are acts filled not only with vivid present detail but also with echoes of historical and political significance. Language, too—whether Egyptian Arabic or English—means more than itself, and in the novel’s three sections, El Rashidi’s narrator builds a small lexicon of freighted words: “listless,” “lethal,” “Tadmeer” or “devastation,” “Kifaya” or “it’s enough,” “truth.” An entire nuanced world emanates from these apparently offhand recollections.

The novel’s title is, like the book itself, artfully simple: Chronicle of a Last Summer suggests the presentation of a single, meaning-filled summer, the one final season in which all becomes clear. In fact, however, each of the book’s three sections relates the events of a different summer—1984, 1998, and 2014—and even within these, the narrator recalls other summers too. Each might be the last (i.e., final) in a different respect—the narrator’s last summer with her father, the last summer of her innocence, the last summer in her childhood home, etc. Or El Rashidi could also intend the title in the sense of the stock student assignment “what I did last summer,” which would account for the near-diaristic element of the later two segments. In any event, the title’s ambiguity hovers over the novel: we, like the narrator herself, seek elucidation, resolution, and change where there may be none to find. It is not only the character’s plight, but that of her very nation: not for nothing is the book’s subtitle “A Novel of Egypt.”

In the first section—in its details, the most vividly rendered—the narrator is a small girl. She tells us she was just three and three quarters when Anwar Sadat was assassinated, which puts her at six and a half in the summer of 1984. El Rashidi finely conjures the world through a child’s eyes, with the abruptness and near surreality of that perspective. For a child, everything is normal, or potentially so. “I am sitting with Mama waiting for the power to cut,” she writes in her school notebook, then explains that everyone in Cairo—except their most important friends—endures daily power cuts of an hour or two: “Mama also says the Sadats never have them. They are related to us, but not close enough for our power cuts to stop too.”

The narrator lives with her Mama in an architecturally notable modern house by the Nile, where her mother was also raised. The household has suffered painful attrition: the deaths of her maternal grandmother and her aunt Nesma, who had Down’s Syndrome; and, most bafflingly, the disappearance of Baba, her father. “I loved the way Baba smelled…. Even when he went on trips his smell would still be there. It had gone away this time. I was waiting for him to come back.” She doesn’t know why or where he has gone: “I didn’t know why nobody talked about Baba even though everyone missed him. I still counted every day but didn’t know anymore what I was counting to.”

Beyond this intimately unsettled domesticity lies an analogously unstable world:

There are some things that are never there the next day. There are some things that are always there. Like the billboard with the president on it. There are some things that are there for a very long time then disappear.

The cityscape changes constantly; shops and people vanish overnight; nobody explains any of it. “I told Grandmama there were too many things I was waiting to understand. She laughed and patted my head. She said it’s better not to know too much anyway.”

The narrator’s mother remains largely a cipher, at no time more so than in these early years. Her expression, when we’re privy to it, is a lament—“Mama lost many friends because of Nasser. Her best friend was the daughter of the king and had to leave. Her other best friend was Jewish and also had to leave.” The narrator knows that her parents’ politics diverge:

They would only ever fight about Nasser and money. Mama would scream about all the things that Nasser took from Grandpa. Baba shouted back that he gave his father his whole life.

Any social education the narrator receives will come not from her mother but from two very different father figures: her young cousin Dido, staunchly rebellious, and her “Uncle,” a close family friend of her parents’ generation. Dido, a Communist (“It means he keeps to the left,” she explains), disapproves of her enrollment at the British School: he “says my school will repress me. It is the only thing left of the monarchy and colonialism. Mama and Baba are antirevolutionary for sending me there. Where did their nationalism go?” Uncle, on the other hand, older, an architect and a traditionalist, rails that “everything Nasser did was a failed idea.”

These two stand on opposite sides of an intellectual divide. Uncle is closer to the narrator’s mother. Mama’s social world was, in youth, that of a pre-1952 cosmopolitan elite about which excellent memoirs have been written (such as André Aciman’s Out of Egypt). In Mama’s case, being neither Jewish nor of the royal family, she has remained ensconced in an ever-shrinking aristocratic world, between her beautiful but increasingly decrepit house and “the club,” which

used to belong to the king. Then Nasser came and gave half of it to the people. He made it free. Half the fields and half the horse-racing track and half the golf course. The other half is for other kinds of people, like us.

Baba, although a regular at the club before his disappearance, came from a different background than his wife: a successful businessman (he owns a tile factory), he is descended from one of Nasser’s close associates, presumably a military officer of middle-class origins catapulted to prominence by the 1952 revolution. The novel is rich in its quiet implications—we learn, for example, that Baba’s cousin was one of Sadat’s assassins, which makes clear that “rebellion” can take the form of the Muslim Brotherhood as easily as it can communism.

By 1998, the narrator is a university student at the American University in Cairo. She aspires to be a filmmaker, in itself a radical act in a country in which visual memory has been created by the state-controlled television, in the form of frequently replayed political hagiographies showing great moments in the lives of Nasser and Sadat. “I begin to realize the power of these montages, these visual narratives of my childhood. We had all seen these scenes innumerable times. Images imprinted on us through repetition.” Inspired by a French film by Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin, the narrator proposes to make a documentary in which she asks people in the street a single question: “Maybe I could ask people if they are angry,” she muses. But she is well aware of the wariness of her compatriots when faced with a camera:

The only people who are allowed to film on the streets are the TV. They work at the Egyptian Radio and Television Union. If you work there, you are also the TV. You are also, maybe, someone with ties to the surveillance state. Someone it might be better to stay away from.

For the newly adult narrator, questions arise about how appropriately to position herself in society. Her cousin Dido still pushes her to overt rebellion; her friend Habiba educates her in Egyptian political correctness:

She didn’t buy anything made in Israel or America. Didn’t drink coffee because the money benefits Israel. Didn’t wear certain kinds of shoes because the soles are made in Israel…. She didn’t use the term Middle East because it is a creation of the British. To use it is to remain colonized. I used Middle East all the time.

In this situation, she says, “I think about Baba more and more.” Her father still has not returned. “At a point the idea of someone long absent turns from emotion into something of a mental exercise in remembering and deduction.” Figuring out who her father actually was and who she herself may be are endeavors linked, too, to figuring out the reality of her nation, and nationality: “I felt deceived too, cheated out of a life, but I wasn’t sure why, or by what. I wondered. Was that also inherited, our listlessness, our sense of resignation?” Baba’s stories and opinions glitter in her memory:

Much he had said had been true, the things I remembered anyway. The things he told me. There was much I didn’t know, and many things I imagine I had inherited, borrowed, maybe even imposed on him, the man I wanted him to be, pieced together, fading memories held tight by strands.

This imaginary Baba, “pieced together,” offers the narrator a path between Dido’s and Uncle’s, a way forward that would account for both the past and the need to change the past. When the narrator sets off to the campus science building with her camera to shoot her film, she is accosted by a guard who tries to shoo her away. Seeing the name on her ID, he practically falls at her feet: “He…asks if I need anything. What a great pleasure to meet you. Your Baba was a great man. If ever you need anything. Anything at all.”

One might surmise that Baba’s return—were it possible—could provide a solution to the many irreconcilable elements in the narrator’s life. Her mother’s nostalgia, Uncle’s frustration, Dido’s rage—all swirl around and within her. It’s as if Baba, so mysteriously and so long vanished, holds the key.

Maids of honor at an upper-class wedding in Cairo, 1987
Abbas/Magnum Photos
Maids of honor at an upper-class wedding in Cairo, 1987

But the novel’s third section proves this hope to be false. By 2014, Uncle has died (in 2010); Baba, miraculously, has returned (in the same year); Mama has become a social activist; the 2011 revolution has taken place; poor Dido is in prison awaiting trial. And yet, in spite of so much change, there is only the slightest sense of progress. The narrator’s own perspective has altered over time—“Ours wasn’t a culture used to change. Permanency was valued. We lived in the same places we were born in. The less change, the less movement, the better. It was a view to stability, rather than the oppression I had internalized it to be”—and she has turned from filmmaking to writing a novel.

Instead of being filled with hope, she has reinforced, through her father’s return, the cyclical existential absurdity of the Egyptian situation: “I became less and less reactionary to Baba’s pessimism when I fully digested all that he had been through,” she records. Interestingly, we are never told what he has done or where he has been, although we understand that he was in hiding as a result of false criminal charges brought when he refused to become involved in corruption. “We have never really spoken about his years of absence,” she says. “I have pieced together stories, but never ask questions, never raise the conversation….” Instead, the cohort with which he surrounds himself explains all:

Once an outer mourning had left and marked their faces, they all began to laugh, about the old days, how they used to live…. At this time one year ago I would be sitting down to drink tea with Mubarak and briefing him. And look at me now, practically in my boxers, being served stale bread…. Here is the former state security agent. He used to be the most successful currency trader. This man used to be the minister of foreign affairs. This man was Mubarak’s adviser on Israel. This man was his photographer…. This woman used to be Miss Egypt. Once the most important newspaper columnist in the Arab world. This man used to own a bank….

The members of the club, power brokers now obsolete, mill about as if in an allegorical scene from Dante.

In this third section, El Rashidi addresses, in fiction, some of the events she wrote about in her essays for the NYR Daily, the online edition of this journal, collected under the title The Battle for Egypt (2011). Dated from January 26 to March 29, 2011, they recorded, as did her reports for the print edition, the heady unfolding of events in Tahrir Square and their aftermath; the divisions that emerged almost immediately; the sense that the vote for the new constitution was skewed by various factors. In a spirit of optimism, she wrote on February 12, 2011, that “this revolution, for the people of Egypt, may turn out to be less about a leader than about hope, pride and the sense of possibility”; but by February 23, she observed:

The splintering of the movement feels familiar…. Many of the core activists who are still coming out belong to an upper-middle-class elite…. But the larger story at this point lies with the labor movements and unions—the broader public whose participation was so vital to the uprising, and whose long struggle for economic justice continues.

For the narrator of El Rashidi’s novel, several years later in 2014, disillusionment is profound: her father “tells me that he knew a revolution would change nothing.” She recalls clashes in which the Muslim Brotherhood and the police colluded: “At the morgue piles of young men had phone numbers scrawled on their arms…. They had left their houses knowing they might not return.” Cairo’s cityscape exists for her now in a palimpsest, the memories of recent violence inseparable from those that preceded them:

My memories of crossing that street, of university, of my paralysis in the face of the city, have been overwritten. Then overwritten again. The scars of our most recent history are everywhere. I have to dig, consciously project myself back into an imagined past as I sit here now, writing, to recall going there with Baba. It was on the same street corner where Baba saw the Israeli jets [in 1967] that I first saw the square full, first experienced tear gas, saw my first dead body, shot from behind. I think of Uncle constantly and the conversations we had…. He would tell me that to be a witness to history is a burden for the chosen.

El Rashidi’s novel is elliptical, at times even oblique. Much is discreetly omitted from her text—the narrator’s name; Mama’s character; the circumstances of Baba’s long absence. The book’s three sections, each at so considerable a chronological remove from the others, have the effect of vivid but separate snapshots from a vast album. The book coheres instead around the trajectory of a rebellious energy, the struggle against that ingrained vocabulary of listlessness and defeat that permeates so much of the characters’ discourse.

Uncle and Dido are, in this sense, the novel’s central characters, more so even than the observing narrator herself. By 2014, Uncle is dead, and Dido is in prison, “on charges of inciting anarchy, disrupting the state.” The narrator and Dido have been intermittently estranged over the years, but she visits him there—“he seemed to sit as if in obligation, answering me in monosyllables”—and eventually he asks to see her father. Baba’s symbolic importance affects Dido, too, and the older man offers a version of a blessing: “I heard him [Baba] whisper that he was proud of him [Dido], that he was much braver than he had ever been.”

Soon thereafter, the narrator has the realization, of her rebellious cousin, that “more and more he sounds like Uncle.” Dido’s personal journey—from youthful optimism (1984) to a fierce restlessness (1998), thence to a boil (the events of 2011), and on to disastrous deflation and despair—mirrors that of Egypt itself over these years. That trajectory, the book suggests, has been repeated over generations: it was also Baba’s; in a different form, it was Baba’s father’s, too, by Nasser’s side.

There is, at the novel’s close, a meaningful shift in the narrator’s family, at least: Mama finally decides to leave the beloved family home. Although she remains largely in the background, Mama is the character apparently most energized by the revolution of 2011, the person who has found purpose and focus, eschewing nostalgia even as the men who surround her have lapsed into rueful inanition. Whether her newfound vigor will prove effectual is unclear—the country’s fateful defeatism is a strong adversary—but in the disheartening aftermath of the revolution, there is mercifully some modest sense of an opening to the future, the prospect of something new and possibly better.

Chronicle of a Last Summer wastes no words. Every sentence has meaning, though not portentously so. The novel can be read swiftly, as the personal narrative of a young girl growing into womanhood while her aristocratic family collapses around her and she tries to find her artistic path; or it can be read more slowly, as a domestic tapestry through which are threaded all the complexities of recent Egyptian society.1

As a small child visiting the Mugamma (a Cairo government building) with her mother in 1984, the narrator overhears a group of women talking about Ayman al-Zawahiri (one of the men arrested after Sadat’s assassination and the current leader of al-Qaeda): “He should be in jail forever, and they’ve now set him loose on us. Yalahwee.” In 2014, she remembers Uncle’s last year (2010):

He had been saying all year that it was untenable. La faim. He told me to watch for certain things. The price of tomatoes and okra. If the man carrying the bread on his head as he cycles is whistling or not.

Camus of course wrote about Algeria’s famine in the 1940s as one cause of the war for independence; similarly, the famine in Syria has been cited as a cause of the civil war there.2 On the one hand, the narrator simply records Uncle’s passing conversation; on the other, she elucidates for us both the tenor of the times and its significance.

In El Rashidi’s novel, as in life, the familial and the societal are ultimately inseparable. It is Uncle’s melancholic perspective that provides the book with its abiding wisdom:

Uncle said it was inevitable, eventually some change would come, but much more so he wished our lives were different. To fall in love, to build a life with a loved one, was the greatest freedom. He hoped I, we, would have that one day.

  1. 1

    Fully to appreciate this evocative debut, some American readers may be grateful for a background account of modern Egyptian history. Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid Marsot’s brief volume, A Short History of Modern Egypt (Cambridge University Press, 1985; updated 2007), while it does not cover the last tumultuous decade, provides a succinct, engaging, and often witty account of the last century that puts El Rashidi’s narrator’s family history into enlightening perspective, and makes clear both the importance and the complexity of Egyptian national identity.  

  2. 2

    See Albert Camus, Algerian Chronicles, translated by Arthur Goldhammer, with an introduction by Alice Kaplan (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 2013); and see also Ian Sample, “Global Warming Contributed to Syria’s 2011 Uprising, Scientists Claim,” The Guardian, March 2, 2015.