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Looking Back on Revolution

Yasmine El Rashidi, interviewed by Matthew Howard
“It seems vital to look beyond my everyday life and consider experiences contrary, different, more representative than my own.”

Brigitte Lacombe

Yasmine El Rashidi, New York City, 2016

This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our email newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.

Yasmine El Rashidi has been contributing to The New York Review since January 26, 2011, the day after mass protests engulfed Egypt, when we published the first of her gripping dispatches from Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Over the following days she reported brilliantly on the growing demonstrations and chaotic events that led, on February 11 of that year, to the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak after thirty years in power.

Those weeks were a heady time even for us in New York. We were publishing El Rashidi’s powerful accounts on our website late in the evening, just hours after scenes she had witnessed firsthand. I asked her this week over e-mail what it had been like to report on an epochal change in real time. “I think, like everyone, I was wholly unprepared to cover a revolution!” she told me.

That first day, on the streets, I was taking notes, and also photographs, as a way to remember. I was with my friends Mohamed and Salma that morning, on one of the many marches in Cairo. We were chanting for people to join us—you could see people watching out of windows and from balconies. As we turned a corner, our marching protest was dispersed by police, Mohamed was grabbed and taken away by security forces, and Salma and I instinctively rushed to Tahrir. I’ll never forget the moment we approached the square. It was clear there was no turning back from this—the crowd was immense, state security was everywhere but clearly retreating, the smell of tear gas was thick in the air. I went home well past midnight and wrote down everything I remembered and had felt during the day. It became my first piece for the Review.

In a searching essay, “Egypt: Lost Possibilities,” published in the Review this month, El Rashidi considers the aftermath of the revolution and its effects on her country, as well as her own life, in the decade since. She describes the hostile reactions to her reporting in 2013 on the army’s seizure of power, and explores the toll on friends who have been imprisoned, disillusioned, or lost to exile, trauma, and depression. I asked her what she thought when she looked back on those days of “hope, pride, and the sense of possibility” in Tahrir Square.

In hindsight one understands that each experience of revolution offers the hope not just that this time will be different, but maybe more so that this sense of purpose, of agency, can’t possibly dissipate or be taken away. You are so caught up in the moment, which is so far out of any lived experience, so seemingly distant from any historical accounts of revolution, that your measure—or analysis—of the situation is perhaps more visceral than anything else.

She recalled that her father, with his own experience of revolution and its subsequent disappointments, was more skeptical from the beginning. “He kept warning me to temper my excitement and expectations. At the time I thought he was just wearied from life. Of course, now I understand, and it has brought us closer.”

El Rashidi grew up on Zamalek, an island in the River Nile ten minutes from downtown Cairo, in a large Art Deco house that her grandmother had commissioned, with a garden lined with mango trees. Her mother had been born in that same house, and her grandmother lived on the first floor with an aunt, while El Rashidi lived with her parents and brother upstairs.

There were always people in and out of the house. My grandmother played the piano and hosted huge lunches, my father loved to throw a party, and I think somewhere in that space, following in the footsteps of my mother, I found the quiet I needed in books. My mother had studied literature, and she painted, so she always encouraged creative and literary pursuits. My brother took to drawing, and I to writing. There was probably something to be said for the fact that I was raised in a language that should have been secondary to our mother tongue. I went to an English school and was raised speaking English at home (my mother was an English teacher), and I imagine this voicelessness, in some sense, as an English-speaking Egyptian child in an Arabic landscape, contributed to the appeal of a written voice, a record of existence of sorts. 

El Rashidi became a contributing editor at the arts and culture journal Bidoun, and spent a year as a fellow of the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at New York Public Library, where she completed her 2016 book Chronicle of a Last Summer: A Novel of Egypt. I asked her about the turn to fiction. “The novel wanted to be nonfiction, in its first life,” she said:

Initially I wanted to try to understand what the revolution meant, for our future, for moving forward. But the more I tried to write into that, the more I realized that what I was most interested in was not this moment of noise, of rupture, but rather the silence that had marked the life I had known, and which came to bookend the revolution. The hard truths, in some sense, of our resignation—politically, as well as generally in life. That meant trying to understand a past, one not entirely my own. It seemed the only way to try to make sense of it was through fiction.

In other ways, too, El Rashidi’s writing often seems caught between different worlds: of journalism and activism, Cairo and New York. (Her visa application, which would have led to a green card, was denied in 2019 by US Citizenship and Immigration Services partly on the grounds that her work lacked “footnotes, endnotes, or a bibliography” and thus did not qualify as “original” research.) “I’m probably most comfortable and uncomfortable alike in the space of witness,” she told me. 


So even as I process and edit and look for form and forms as I write, I’m always conscious of what I have been witness, and privy, to. There’s also the fact that the stakes are high for me—I’m writing about the place I’m from and where I choose to be; it seems vital to look beyond my own parameters of everyday life, and consider experiences contrary and different and, perhaps in many cases, more representative than my own.

In her essay, she cites Masha Gessen as a writer who saw the future of Trump’s presidency more clearly than many American observers, thanks to her long study of Putin’s Russia. I asked what lessons she felt those in the US could learn from the Egyptian experience of the past ten years.

An Argentinian friend, the author and journalist Graciela Mochkofsky, joked “we are from the future.” So much of what Americans have been living politically has already played out in the countries where she and Masha and I are from. America has built an extraordinary model of what a democratic system with checks and balances can be, but it doesn’t seem to entirely take into account or believe that it’s a model subject to erosion.

El Rashidi is currently working on several different projects, including a book about her grandmother’s house. She is deeply concerned about the preservation of Egypt’s urban heritage and landscape, the subject of another current article of hers, for last month. “I am trying to conceive and coordinate, with friends, a collective archival project—probably online as well as in book form—that can be our future memory, in a sense,” she told me. “Cairo alone is changing so fast with all the destruction and construction, I fear that the city as I’ve always known it won’t exist in a few years. I want to make sure that we at least have a record of what it was.”

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