I read the first two novels of Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet in Cairo, where long, warm, sunny days make up most of the year. In a city whose pace—a down-tempo lull—gives a sense that time is expanded, Autumn, with its meandering, time-traveling, light-footed story of a friendship between a young girl and an old man, felt exhilarating, deeply touching, even breathtaking. Winter, which is not strictly a sequel except in the seasonal sense and which revolves around a Christmas gathering at a family home in Cornwall, was fraught, overwhelming, dire. Too many people, too many egos, too many ideas, too much tension. “Ghastly” is how I have heard the season, which I have never experienced in its entirety, described—but the word “somewhat” applies to it and the temperament of the novel as well.
I observed, in myself and my friends, how inured we had become to the events of our own recent history, which were landmarked by the sites where they had occurred: this was where the Copts got trampled by army tanks; on this street corner I saw a pile of dead bodies; here supporters of Morsi opened fire on young activists; there two hundred people were killed at the hands of the police; and this was where the prosecutor general was assassinated by a car bomb. It was only as I made these mental notes that I realized how I, too, had slipped into some variation of the so-called inertia.
From its first issue in 1963, Robert Silvers was either co-editor with Barbara Epstein or, after her death in 2006, editor of The New York Review. Bob worked almost to the very end of his life, which would be no surprise to those who knew him well, including those who have written these brief memoirs.
There is a particular kind of gnawing at the soul that happens when you live in a city under political duress. The sort of place that dictates how you act and who you get to be. A city that forces you to curb or conceal desires, swallow and suppress ideas, hide beliefs, stand in the shadow of who, elsewhere, you might be. It is a matter of survival, fitting in. In these cities, such as Cairo or Lahore, the desire to leave is constant. Imagining a life elsewhere occupies you, even as you know, if only from literature, that exile will be equally fraught.
Tellingly, some of the actors had to earn exceptions (by way of petitions) to the Trump administration’s “Muslim travel ban” in order to enter the United States to perform. That is a clue to the resonance the play has wherever it tours. The nationalities and geography depicted have come far from their original setting, in the camp at Calais, but the stories The Jungle tells are everywhere the same.
In his quiet film In the Last Days of the City, Tamer El Said brilliantly captures a struggle I’ve had for years: how to pin down what it is about Cairo that leaves us feeling as if we exist in a no man’s land, somewhere between past and present, constantly searching, never quite there.
Dido believed fervently that anarchy was better than the despotism we had. My reservations were inherited. He had hoped I might turn out as political as he was, but I’d failed him in every way. He consumed literature voraciously, but thought writing in a country like ours to be an exercise in passivity, a luxurious musing, not a tool for change.
For those of us who were part of Egypt’s revolution, Iranian artist Shirin Neshat’s new series of works, “Our House Is On Fire,” captures a reality that surrounds us, yet has been all but overlooked in the continuing story of the Arab uprisings: the reality of a country struggling with despair.