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…

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