African Library: Chronicle of a last summer – a novel of Egypt by Yasmine El Rashidi

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Yasmine El Rashidi: Chronicle of a last summer: A novel of Egypt (2016)

Sometimes seen as primarily a family saga or a portrait of the teeming city of Cairo, this debut novel’s wider resonance is indicated in the subtitle; it is a highly sophisticated reading of the pulse of urban Egypt over a stretch of the 30 years between 1984 and 2014. The initial vantage point is that of a perplexed six-year-old girl, the only child in a family from which her beloved “Baba” has gone inexplicably absent. Aspects of the causes of the child’s puzzlement become somewhat clearer as the novelist adds on the middle section, in which the narrator is a student at the American University, and the last one, in which she is working on turning what was a film script into a novel, but the murkiness of Egyptian social, familial and broader political atmosphere prevails throughout. In addition, the baking heat of three exceptionally hot summers pervades the narrative, bringing its attendant lethargy and ennui. It is difficult to determine which of the three depicted Cairo summers is the “last” one of the title; perhaps the suggestion is that each of them brings to an end an era in the narrator’s life – the main feature of the 1984 summer being the absence of her Baba. The little girl remembers him as a large, gentle presence: “He would put me onto his palm and lift me into the air. I would sit perched like that as he watched TV” (page 4). Baba was, like his father, a businessman, and it is only later that the child learns of his political idealism and interest in film. Baba’s uncle had been one of the Free Officers who, in 1952, toppled the Egyptian monarchy and brought Nasser to power. This uncle is described by the girl’s eldest cousin, Dido (himself a fervent youthful activist and quite influential in the narrator’s life), as “the most principled man in the revolution”, who “resigned as vice president when the revolution goals were forgotten” (31).

The reader encounters the girl’s “Mama” as a melancholic and somewhat austere presence in her life, insistently warning her little daughter against the danger of listlessness as a condition that infects Egyptians; the girl attends an English rather than an Arabic school (like her cousins), because “four months of summer … holiday was bad for character” (5) and (in words echoing the mother) “without discipline I would become listless like the others” (37, original italics). Even so, the child’s school essay evoking herself and her mother “sittingwaiting for the power to cut” (9, original emphasis) indicates a lonely emptiness in their lives. The mother works as a translator; her emotional state is evidently in part a result of the father’s “disappearance”; with the absence of the flamboyant father and the family’s dwindling prosperity, a dullness spreads over the household. The maternal family had been very well off: the mother’s father had been a judge in the royal court; neighbouring families who had been the mother’s friends fled or had their houses “nationalised” when President Nasser brought in his austerity measures to curtail the privileges of the upper classes. In the present, a later seizure of assets [somehow linked to “Baba’s name” (8)] is vaguely hinted at when the girl overhears her mother telling a friend that their large double-storey home is the last thing left to her. While she appears often to be the proverbial “wet blanket” in the girl’s life, and even a bit of a snob, the full strength of the mother’s personality emerges slowly as the story continues. For instance, she stands rock fast with her handicapped (Down’s syndrome) younger sister, and clearly shields her child from a great deal of [what would be very] disturbing information, while warning her that she “would have to learn” about life being “unfair”; something that “time” will teach her, as she grimly explains.

In this opening section, the authorial technique portrays reflected Egyptian realities and histories as the child is taught by those older and adult people who educate her, each wishing to persuade her of the correctness of his perspective. Having the open-mindedness of a child who loves each of them, the narrator is nevertheless able to observe and note the small contradictions in older people’s behaviour. For instance, her mother, who is terrified of fiercely rigid Islamic practices and the threat of violent destabilisation of society, prays devoutly in moments of danger and calls for an exorcism at one point. Dido, the girl’s favourite older cousin, a Communist, swears under his breath and denounces policemen who confiscate an unlicensed trader’s goods and roughly throw her into the back of their van, but, when the girl asks him why he did nothing to help the victim of police brutality, advises her that if a force is overwhelming one needs to “duck under”. A “cleaning lady” who “stole from Mama” (22) is thrown into a faraway jail after being arrested in full view of her children and neighbours; the narrator goes with her parents to the jail to identify the woman, but the pathetic prisoner’s plea for forgiveness goes unanswered by the mother. When the child refers in a school essay to the prison visit and to “the people they [police] take away”, her teacher gives her a zero and admonishes her that she should not be writing about such things at her age (24). Is her mother’s subsequent “anger” at the teacher, at the girl herself, or at the grim conditions of life in Egypt (for some)? With Dido, the child discusses the topic (recurrent throughout the text) of the nature of a revolution and the effects of Nasser’s rise to power. “I already know about the Naksa” (44, when in the “6-Day War” Israel took Sinai from Egypt), she informs Dido; her Baba had told her that he had wanted to go and fight, but when he saw the Israeli jets flying overhead, he at once knew that “the President [Nasser] had lied” [that Egypt was winning] (44). For a girl of her age, the narrator hence has impressive historical and political knowledge; nevertheless, the author throughout convincingly evokes a child’s point of view in conveying her voice.

Without quite understanding who they are or what their “visits” are about, the child knows that the two safari-suited men who come to their house “every Saturday” to ask for her father are associates of “the President” – probably policemen or prosecutors. Only in the final section of the text is it revealed that the father’s “refusal to offer a major contract he had tendered to one of the President’s [Mubarrak’s] sons” had led to “the corruption charges they manufactured and landed him with, case after case, unrelentingly” until “they had broken him” (149), and that this was what had caused him to “disappear” from her and her mother’s lives, and their home. The bitterness of the mother indicates that she felt he had left them in the lurch, even betrayed them; it is only the older narrator who understands that “he had been a victim too” (149). No wonder the mother uses the dulling of the paint on the girl’s bedroom walls to convey to her that “it was a fact of life, things get darker” (46, original emphasis). Looking at old photos in the albums she has stashed under her bed, the narrator is reminded of the fact that a cousin of her father’s was one of the assassins of President Sadat, whom her father had admired; her Baba had in consequence stopped speaking to his uncle, resentful in attributing to him a failure to pay attention to what the cousin was involved in.

Another important influence in the narrator’s education is an older male figure somewhat confusingly called “Uncle”, since he is a friend rather than a relative of her father’s, who continues to visit and support her mother after her father’s departure, but without any suggestion of an erotic involvement between the adults. An architect with strong political views and cultural loyalties, this man tells the girl (and her mother) about the kinds of corruption, inefficiency and philistinism that characterise various presidencies in Egypt. Of Nasser’s, he says that he “bankrupted the country so it had to ration subsidized foods”, such as bread, and that the dreary “co-ops [where she goes with her mother] exist because of Nasser’s mistakes” (57). Her cousin Dido, the Communist, however, is a great admirer of Nasser for having been a revolutionary leader. Uncle reminds her that her father had wanted “a different kind of revolution” (58, original emphasis) for Egypt; he himself expects a revolution that will come because of hunger, like the 1977 bread riots that happened in the year the narrator was born. “They didn’t teach us these things in school”, says the narrator: “Only Uncle and Dido told me. And Baba, too, until he left. Mama said it was best to keep such thoughts to oneself, but Uncle never kept any thoughts to himself” (58). It is, in fact, this candid nature, in articulating his heartfelt enthusiasms and indignation, that makes Uncle one of the most endearing and admirable characters in the text – along with his hopeless, enduring love for the young woman who had been forced by her family to marry another man.

The second section of the text is dated Summer 1998, so the narrator is by now 21 years old; she is a student in jeans and big, loose tops, travelling to the campus by bus in contrast with being driven to school when she was a young schoolgirl. The family is now reduced in size and prosperity; the mother’s sister and mother have both died and “the large and varied staff that Granny had kept and Mama inherited” (72) have had to be let go, although they still have a once-a-week cleaning lady and a man who does some chores for them. “For all the sprawl of the house it was just me and her [the mother] now … The house was like an echo chamber, most rooms kept permanently closed” (72-3). The mother’s melancholy is still evident. The narrator notes a geographical parallel as she looks out through the bus windows: “What was once a view of the Nile, of rowers ploughing through thick waters in the morning, is now just fence, wall, fence, overgrown garbage-filled hedge, more fence, more wall. Dust coats it all like rind. Army clubs and government cafés take what space they can down to the banks, reserved only for those in upper executive ranks” (75). The hovering “police state” quality of public life is suggested by the fact that Tahrir Square, later to become famous for the 2011 anti-government demonstrations, is already lined with “slouched young [police] conscripts leaning on loaded rifles” (75).

The narrator visits the Cairo Museum, striding past other antiquities to reach the statue of the Pharaoh Akhenaton, “the only one of a pharaoh, a ruler, depicting love towards a child” (78). It is because of what she perceives as Akhenaton’s “humanism” that she composes undeliverable letters to this pharaoh, thinking also of his love for Nefertiti. Dido, she knows, believes that their generation has suffered a kind of devastation and does not have the capacity for either revolution or love. This recalls for the reader Uncle’s belief that devastation had afflicted their nation. Dido, who in his job is constantly taking down testimony of victims of torture at the hand of state agents, insists that these abused people do not have “terms or designations” for what was done to them. The narrator, too, wonders how to write to Akhenaton “about this feeling of being muted. Not having a language, gestural” (80). Again the narrative reverts to 1967, to the humiliation of the 6-Day War, the Naksa. The general Egyptian attitude of resignation was possibly inherited from her parents’ generation, the narrator speculates. For she, too, feels “cheated out of a life”, but is unsure “why, or by what” (81). Dido, now even more insistently, wants her to involve herself in politics and make not so much art films as documentaries, which he sees as “more potent” (83). But Dido is the only person she knows who speaks of changing the country. “People generally don’t talk about the status quo even though everyone yearns for change” (84). The population is cowed into submissiveness and timidity; people are afraid of being asked to say on film what they think of the country and their conditions of life. The narrator’s professor of sociology takes them on a research visit to a prison where the most outspoken people are female – a pitiable woman who is denied entry to see a prisoner, because the guards make them wait till they pay bribes; and the prostitutes, known as the “most disruptive” of the inmates (86), although none of their crimes are serious. The narrator thinks, too, of a cousin, perhaps homosexual, who fled to the USA, probably after experiencing persecution. Her professor states in a class that “the drug market is largely controlled by the state’s security apparatus” (87); still the narrator feels that people do not seem angry, as Dido believes, but “disheartened” (87).

I sign out for my video equipment from the library’s AV room. People watch me. There are only three film majors, and we are all, always, watched. I exit the campus. Passersby stare. 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. I cross. On the old campus I go to the walkway between the basketball and tennis courts … I look for a power supply. A guard approaches me … You can’t set up here. But I’m on assignment. Sorry … It’s against the rules … But I have permission. Show me your permission. Here.

You can’t be? … His silence like a gasp. He had known Baba. He sets up my power … What a great pleasure to meet you. Your Baba was a great man. If you ever need anything. Anything at all. (91-2, original emphasis)

The above passage occurs immediately prior to the narrator’s filming of one of the early sit-ins at Cairo’s American University, showing the jittery tension on the part of the security authorities interacting with the treasured memory of earlier figures of resistance to the repressive state. But the event also triggers reminders of how hysterical right-wing journalism whips up fierce hatreds against the youth, melodramatically accusing them of “disobedience”, drug-taking, homosexuality and devil worship. During an earlier crackdown, police “dragged more than a hundred young men from their bedrooms in the middle of the night”, and, when they were returned more than three months later, they would not speak of what had been done to them, though all bore the “scars” of severe torture (93). At home, the mother’s gloom persists; “unasked questions” (98) about what is weighing on each of their minds, hang heavily between them. The mother sometimes sits in the missing father’s office, staring at nothing, as the dust gathers in this room. Like many in Egypt, she suffers intense anxiety about terrorism. The narrator recalls the massacre of tourists at Luxor, when 60 people were killed. This event was followed by a huge crackdown on areas of the city populated by Muslim Brotherhood supporters. The family’s housekeeper, Amina, was marooned; her husband is known by the mother to be a Brotherhood member or supporter, and she shows her anger at the event to Amina, warning her that her daughter (the narrator) might have been hurt.

Dido’s exhortations against Egyptians’ general passivity persists; he insists that change can only come if it is demanded, but the narrator muses that the nation might have “inherited” its stance of defeat. She herself feels robbed of a fuller, freer life, but thinks the term “anger is too simple a word, too reductive”, wondering whether “languor” (111-2, both original emphases) better fits their condition. She wonders, “How did we land in our lives?” (113). She still constantly calls her absent father to mind, “his absence ever present in the questions unasked”; for these questions “linger for everyone” associated with Baba; all that is known is that there had been “problems with the [Mubarak] government” and its strategy of “selective” persecution (114). The middle section of the text ends on this uncertain note of bewilderment and unease.

Section 3 is dated 2014, so we know that the narrator has reached her mid-thirties and that major events such as the 2011 toppling of Mubarak by popular uprising is in the immediate past. She seems able to write more or less full-time, perhaps as an academic project; only her mother’s on-going employment is mentioned. But the first major change that is mentioned in this section is the death of Uncle, the mentor figure and family friend whose passionate socio-political concern she had so deeply admired. He died of a heart attack “a few months before the revolution” (117), but his physical deterioration gets linked to the probably state-backed demolition of a Coptic Church by fanatic Islamist youths – a desecration that greatly perturbed him, although for aesthetic-cultural, rather than religious, reasons. She sees herself as having become “sceptical” like Mama, distrustful of people’s motives, and as lacking the “activism gene” that Dido has, “more interested in abstracting experience with my writing and films than representing it” (118-9). She seems correct in seeing Dido as primarily a romantic: “I knew that in his heart what he really wanted was for comrades, dissidents, to unite: raise a flag, occupy the streets, talk about love, peace, revolution” (125), for all his fervent talk of fighting. Of course, this description fits the early phase of the 2011 uprising and the demonstrations in and around Tahrir Square, but the grim crackdown on idealistic young men and women would soon follow, as the narrator goes on to recall.

The first signs of change in the familial circumstances of the narrator and her mother are that she clears out and puts into storage her grandmother’s and aunt’s things from the ground floor of their home, which had been locked up for several years, and makes this her own space, even if she describes herself as having done so with “a tepid urgency” (128). In the mother’s case, she, for the first time, selects clothes to give away – mostly those that Baba had given her. Even such seemingly small decisions on both their parts are remarkable, for Egypt’s “wasn’t a culture used to change” – “permanency was valued” and “most people’s homes were like time capsules” (129). The last time she had seen Uncle, he had told her that her writing would liberate her, and that he was waiting for her book – for as we gather, the envisaged film script is now intended to be a fictional portrayal of Egypt. Now, however, it is “four years since Uncle died” and “forty-one months since the revolution” (135); Morsi has been installed as head of state, and toppled in his turn; Sisi is the new president. Yet, like most of her friends, the narrator seldom manages to sleep through the night. The unease, one gathers, is because of the now recurrent anti-youth, repressive and rigidly restrictive public culture of Egypt at this time. The freedoms that appeared to have been gained, have been lost again; the worst betrayal was collusion of the Islamic Brotherhood with the police in suppressing the 2011 uprising, the narrator feels. She and Dido have become estranged. They quarrelled in a café where they were sitting, at a time before the 2011 events, as he spotted a group of young men who were clearly colluding with and acting as informers to undercover police, and fiercely denounced them. She demurred and argued for more tolerance and understanding of the reasons for such conduct, which incensed Dido so much that at Uncle’s funeral, he still refused to acknowledge or speak to her. What had preceded their public spat in the café was their ongoing difference of opinion about the value and function of literature. Dido “thought writing in a country like ours to be an exercise in passivity, a luxurious musing, not a tool for change”, whereas the narrator sees writing as “an action”, something that “becomes a physicality” (137). He saw the young informers as traitors.

Out of the blue, the narrator’s mother – evidently made very tense by this change – tells her one evening as she gets back home (with pauses between the words to indicate how difficult it is for her to speak of this), that “apparently” her “Baba is back”, staying at her aunt’s and wanting to see her (the daughter). Evidently, the estrangement between the parents is permanent. The mother adds, “As you can imagine, he has been through a rough time”. We (readers, quite likely the narrator also) still do not know whether Baba had been imprisoned and likely tortured; gone into hiding in Egypt, and, if so, where; or fled into exile. The narrator wants to, but still cannot, articulate the question, “What kind of rough time?” (143, original emphasis); nor is she later able to put this seemingly blunt question to her father. In the first few weeks after his return, the narrator (seeing her father’s physical decrepitude and the signs of trauma suffered) is unable to look at him for long “without needing to turn away” (145). Probably because of an underlying and inexpressible anger at what she has lost because of his absence, and compunction at what he has suffered, she finds that she gets irritated with him; they even bicker. She says, “I felt resentment, both at his absence and now at his presence. Things felt fraught, and at moments I even wished he weren’t there” (145). In a description like the above, one sees the author’s skill at imagining and portraying the emotional difficulties of reconnection among even the closest family members, following separation because of state brutality and the terrorism of a government making enemies of its own people.

Months later, when the protests begin, the narrator spontaneously telephones her father, wanting to share her exhilaration at this at last unleashed political energy with him. He, too, is now “sceptical”, however, but she grows to understand his attitude, as some further knowledge of what he has undergone begins to filter through in hints and allusions, as they converse (almost daily) at the club, where she runs while he swims.

His group of friends got larger. Those who had once pursued him through government and legal cases now sat side by side, also victims of this cyclical history I was just beginning to grasp in the aftermath of [the] uprising. They would sit around rusted tables pulled together, piles of newspapers between them, peanuts in brown bags, sometimes sandwiches of ful and taamiya, debating the news. The army will do this. The Islamists will do that. My source tells me the Americans forced the army to let Morsi win. It was forged. I have documents proving it. Impossible. I swear. They all had theories, sources, certainty. Once an outer mourning had left and marked their faces, they all began to laugh, about the old days, how they used to live [having all more-or-less come down in the world]. (147)

Perhaps alluding to his own life in comparison to a friend’s, an upright man terribly aged by state persecution, her father states, “There was a time when either you stayed and lost your life, or you fled” (148). The narrator understands now, too, that her father would also never come to terms with having been absent when “Grandmama” (presumably his own mother) had died (149).

What the narrator learns at this stage is that, with respect to allowing suppressed anger to erupt, “our breaking point was about opportunity, human emotion being offered an outlet, in tandem discovering its source” (150) – which in her case is understanding at last that her father had been victimised. Although she feels that she herself has grown more in empathy than in anger, she cannot persuade him to become excited by the uprisings, which she had hoped would “pull Baba from a past that lurked at every corner” (150). Only “a larger trauma or a fleeting euphoria” (151) would achieve that change, she realises. A particularly interesting development at this time is in the attitude and conduct of the narrator’s mother. She joins the narrator in attending an anti-Morsi protest, and had even begun “to attend more protests than I” (151). Mama’s “stamina” would come to outlast her daughter’s, we are told. “Time changes perspectives, she used to say. Things become darker, like paint” (as she had told the narrator in her childhood). The constantly self-questioning narrator asks herself “what it means to be a witness”, as she strives to be in her writing, wondering about “the responsibility of it” (152). Uncle used to tell her that “to be a witness to history is a burden for the chosen” (160). Her friend (perhaps lover), Habiba, holds a similar opinion and backs her in her writing task. Her doubts about whether “the silence of objectivity and being an observer” (i.e. bearing witness to and recording an unfolding history) is the same thing as complicity, stem from Dido’s questioning of her more forbearing attitude as contrasted with his persistent demand for the “absolute” (152).

The narrator is sorrowfully aware of the toll taken by the uprising, noting that “the scars of our most recent history are everywhere” (161). She remembers rushing to a hospital where a friend lay unattended, stabbed multiple times by a crazed conservative, left disabled by the attack. In her view, “the chaos, the nonchalance” went to show the cheapness of life in her country: “unable to accommodate or contain those it already hosts” (167), but always efficient in deploying security personnel and sinister interrogators. Inefficiencies have worsened; in 2014, power cuts happen every few hours. People “mutter”, but “real grievances are mild”. Most people the narrator knows, such as “Mama, Baba, even Habiba”, voted for Sisi, while she herself had slept through the election, in the absence of an alternative. “If it weren’t Sisi, it would be terror” (177) is the cry of the moment. Then we learn that Dido has been flung into jail for his unrelenting opposition to state oppression (since he appears never to have perpetrated acts of violence). He and eleven other activists are awaiting-trial prisoners. Sadly (to the narrator, who keeps this from Dido), he – who is now at the centre of an international cause célèbre – no longer draws demonstrations of support locally. Baba “sees some of his younger self in Dido”, and accompanies the narrator (who has mended fences with her cousin) on a prison visit to him. Dido had asked to see Baba; he has been deprived of books and writing materials, and “they made sure he couldn’t see the sky”. He had told the narrator that “prison was breaking his soul and he was doing everything he could to fight that” (171). Baba’s visit helps him; the old man, in tears, tells his nephew that “he was proud of him, that he was much braver than he had ever been” (173) and hugs him goodbye.

Dido is also cheered by being told about the narrator’s mother’s increasing activism, at her campaigning for sensible social reforms on Facebook and by other means. She cannot bear to visit Dido in jail; his condition grieves her and upsets her too intensely, but “she has become involved with a community association, writes letters and petitions, joins marches, spends what free time she has [since she still works ‘long hours doing translation jobs’] walking around the city taking pictures of things that need to change” (174). “Although I still see her weariness, I know something in her has shifted”, writes the narrator: “She laughs more, for one” (175). And, as a personal and decisive act of “revolution”, she announces to the narrator that the time has come at last to pack up and leave their too large house (in which she had been born and lived ever since, for her all of 70 years), to go and find a new dwelling space. They will first have a party, though, “opening the house to all those who haven’t been here in years” (180). Having reconciled with her cousin Dido, with each of them making concessions for the other’s way of fighting for justice, the narrator dares to ask “hesitantly” whether her mother would allow her father (who for 30 years has not “set foot in this house that once was his home”) to come to the home-leaving party. Mama tenses, then relaxes, though we do not hear her answer. The narrative ends at this point.

In its intense moral concern with the tenor and texture of a society under pressure, El Rashidi’s text is a memorable work, impressive in the gravitas of its tone and the profundity of its social analysis. Repression, revolution (in different guises) and steadfast endurance intersect throughout the period portrayed. Despite the gloom, fear and passivity of the society evoked, there is never a note of condescension toward, or alienation from, the people who are portrayed in this text. Incorporating as it does the age-old contention of whether direct political activism against – or, rather, reflective and interrogative portrayal of – a repressive system will achieve more lasting effects, adds to one’s sense of how much is at stake for the narrator (and the author) in this vivid depiction of participants in three decades of modern Egyptian political and social history. Uncle’s passionate caring; Baba’s integrity in resistance; Mama’s moral growth; the narrator’s quiet, probing search for the difficult and elusive truths about her time and place; and Dido’s self-sacrificial idealism are the signs that, in a desert of listlessness and helpless timidity, small signs of courage keep hope alive and stand guard over Egyptian dignity.

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