Saturday, November 27

Journey to the heart of the Arab Spring | Culture

The sheltered pedestrian street of Sharifín, in the heart of Cairo, is one of the best-kept and most emblematic veins in the center of the Egyptian capital. Here, since 1928, the headquarters of one of the oldest stock exchanges in the world has been located. And today the shadow of its centuries-old buildings and its stretched palm trees have made it one of the favorite spots for young skaters in the city, who travel up and down it.

In its scarce 200 meters, however, there is a building – number six – that stands out for the opposite: it is the only one that seems forgotten, with the façade worn and parts that have given way over the years. Perhaps precisely for this reason it is not surprising that apartment 20 on its fifth floor was chosen by the Egyptian bestseller Alaa Al Aswany to accommodate the residence of the young revolutionary Mazen, one of the protagonists of his latest novel, The republic was this (Anagrama), which has just been translated into Spanish. “The young revolutionaries, for some reason, fell in love with the city center. It was common to find a single young man or a single young woman renting a studio ”, justifies Al Aswany. “[El barrio] it is closely related to the revolution, ”he recalls.


The republic was this is a poignant fictional polyphonic account of the failed 2011 revolution in Egypt, which travels, in a harsh and humane way, from its preparation to its fierce repression. Along the way, the novel immerses itself in the brutality, putrefaction and injustice inherent in the Egyptian regime, but also in the fears and contradictions, the submission and rebellion of its most everyday protagonists. With no complacency to either side, it was published in Arabic in 2019 and banned by the Egyptian authorities.

Al Aswany (Cairo, 64 years old) is one of the most internationally successful Egyptian storytellers and his career is closely linked to his political activism, which has made part of his fame. The author was introduced to the world of literature at an early age by the hand of his father and mentor, Abbas Al Aswany, lawyer and writer. And as a child he pointed out ways: his first work was written when he was 11 years old and in it he criticized his uncles based on his mother’s opinion. “My father gave me [entonces] My first two lessons for writing fiction: ‘When you write about anything you must have more than one source, and if you write about real people, you must change their names, “he explains with a smile.

An Egyptian youth displays the national flag, while shouting slogans against President Mubarak, on February 11, 2011, in Cairo's Tahrir Square.
An Egyptian youth displays the national flag, while shouting slogans against President Mubarak, on February 11, 2011, in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.PEDRO UGARTE / GETTY IMAGES

Although he ended up with a degree in dentistry and practiced for years as a dentist in a clinic in Cairo – which he still maintains – Al Aswany combined it with literature and became a best-seller with what is still his best-known book, The Yacobián building. His political activism, on the other hand, ended up becoming a more controversial facet.

The writer was one of the most popular voices in the opposition to the Hosni Mubarak dictatorship and in the fight for democracy, and participated from the beginning in the protests of 2011. But he soon became a staunch critic of Mohamed Morsi, the first president civilly and democratically elected from Egypt – something he questions – and from his Islamist organization Muslim Brotherhood – towards whom he had maintained a conciliatory attitude in the past. Thus, Al Aswany came to support the 2013 coup that sentenced the incipient democracy in the country, and that he considered a new wave of revolution. Today the writer continues to be a critical voice of the regime and has had to leave Egypt.

All in all, Al Aswany himself could well be one more character of The republic was this able to grasp the contradictions, or at least the complexities, of the country. In the novel there is a wide range of protagonists who, in their own way, embody different sectors of Egyptian society and who, for the most part, face the difficult dilemma of having to choose, paraphrasing one of its protagonists, between putting dignity first. and freedom to life, or give up both for a piece of bread.

All of them, moreover, are cleverly divided by the pen of Al Aswany. On one side are the corrupt and clinging to power, subtly caricatured: the pious general who fails to perform any duty of the prophet while leading a brutal repressive apparatus, the ultra-conservative telepreacher who blesses the worst atrocities of the regime, and a chaste and beautiful presenter that makes manipulation his way of acting personally and professionally. The rest are traced by the author with delicacy and respect, regardless of their position: from young revolutionaries who are affected in a very different way by the popular uprising to an older Coptic actor who has always lived humiliated and the revolution shakes his life, or an old communist militant closed to any possibility of change.

Still from 'El Edificio Yacobián', a film by Marwan Hamed based on the novel by Alaa al Aswany.
Still from ‘El Edificio Yacobián’, a film by Marwan Hamed based on the novel by Alaa al Aswany.

Two problematic points in the novel are the time frame and part of the reading it makes of the story. With regard to the first, the book covers from 2010 to the end of 2011, thus avoiding one of the most momentous episodes in recent Egypt history: the coup. Al Aswany notes that the book reveals the end of the revolution, and points out that “in 2011 it was already very clear what happened next”, a debatable deterministic perspective that, in any case, avoids the controversial excuse me.

On the other hand, Al Aswany portrays the Muslim Brotherhood as a perverse organization and seamlessly controlled by its leadership, an excessively simple description of the largest Islamist group in the country that, furthermore, ignores the fundamental role of part of its cadres in the popular uprising. and the very high price they have also paid.

In Egypt, The republic was this It is forbidden. Already in 2019 Al Aswany was sued by the Military Prosecutor’s Office for insults to the president, the Army and the judiciary as a result of its publication and other texts of his, according to the writer himself, who resides in the United States oblivious to his case. “I have refused to send my lawyers for two reasons: it will not change anything and, secondly, I reject the fact that any writer can be taken to military court for his novels. I don’t recognize this, ”he explains.

Despite his interpretation of the revolution, the harshness of what was narrated and the consequences of having done it, Al Aswany slides that, ultimately, The republic was this it is written from hope: “[En el libro] you have the girl, Asma, who is not optimistic and charges against the Egyptian people. I don’t agree with her, ”he notes. “Her fiancé, Mazen, remains optimistic, and I feel closer to [él]. Why? Because when a revolution occurs there is something that changes, and that something is irreversible ”.

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