Al-Hamy (“The Protector”) by Ahmed El Sawan (Cairo: Ibn Roshd Publishing House), 2018, pp.333.
In his first novel, Ahmed El-Sawan has provided a new way of looking at modern Egyptian history. The writer has chosen two time periods and has written his version of history for them, backed up by a narrative of historical events, journalistic reports and extracts from politicians’ memoirs.
As soon as I finished reading the last page, the comedian actress Mary Mounib came to my mind right away. In the play Ela Khamsa (“Minus Five”), she states “every driver who works for us has to be named Abdo”. Sawan ended his story with a similar idea: a powerful man says to a man he has just appointed to new security position “from now on your name is Safwat.”
The original phrase in the play drew a lot of laughter and became a much-quoted catchphrase, but in the novel it is plain ridiculous and unrealistic, after a story full of dramatic real-life events. The Safwat character in the novel is “the revolution’s protector,” a position invented by the author but which seems to have roots in actual events under different names.
He is the guy who knows everything and everyone, puts people in prison, including his nephew, for their opinions and activities opposing the revolution, rapes his nephew’s girlfriend, gets involved in the corruption deals in the Mubarak era, makes the problems go away for the ruling class and their sons, including women problems, addiction problems; and all that is just a glimpse of what he has been doing. Basically he is the glue holding the novel together, hence the novel’s title. Transforming the name into a position is the novelist’s way of articulating that the man/apparatus that will clean up the dirt will always be there; but this could have been done in a more effective, subtle or realistic way than insisting on a specific name.
The novelist has chosen to make the novel difficult for the reader. He chose two significant dates to start two different narrations that eventually get tied up to show the continuity of the events, then he organised them like two decks of cards mixed together, one chapter from each story following the other. In addition, the chapter are short with a speedy rhythm, so it becomes a hectic book to read.
This technique makes the details confusing and means the reader often has to flip back to previous chapters in order to follow what’s going on. In spite of the admiration for the effort put into the documentation, the resourcefulness in tying the events together, and the vast number of sources used, as a reader there is a bitter taste in the end due the intentional difficulties imposed by the author.
The first date chosen by the author is the morning of July 23, 1952, the date that the free officers decided to carry out their coup d’état - later named the July Revolution - to take down the monarchy, documenting the shift under Nasser to a different kind of state. He also documents the two years during which General Mohamed Naguib ruled as president and how he was perceived by Egyptians, a part of history that was omitted for a long time.
The second is January 28, 2011, the “Friday of Anger” where the demonstration movement against Mubarak took shape and toppling the regime became a clear goal for the protestors. The main modern character Kamal, already a regular visitor to Mubarak’s prisons due to publishing posts online, a participant in the protests, tells his story, or his story is told for him by other characters. Between the first-hand experience that the author has from being in Tahrir Square in the 18 days of the revolution and the information that he acquired through research and interviews through his professional career as journalist, the novel is a fair account of what happened in 2011. The brutality and the clear murders combined with the corruption and the oppression that occurred are personified and the pain is felt through the words of El-Sawan.
The details are numerous and the novel deserves more than one reading, once in the order it was published and once in the chronological order in which he actually wrote it, to avoid the confusion that he himself caused to the reader, especially as Safwat or the protector appears from the beginning in the 1950s and also in the 2011 events. It takes some reading to make sure that they are both the same person -- another difficulty that author could have spared the reader.
There is no pre-set stance against drugs in literature per say but the theme that keeps reoccurring throughout the novel is smoking dope.
Between showing the dangerous world of drug dealing and exposing the unholy alliance between both the security apparatus and the drug lords, to showing nearly all the characters rolling or smoking hash cigarettes in nearly all their appearances in the novel, the book gives the impression that all of them since the 1950s, whether in power or marginalized, rulers or ruled, are following the same pattern of smoking dope on a nearly daily basis, tarnishing the characters that might otherwise acquire the reader’s sympathy. The novel can give the impression that events of 2011 were a revolution of stoned youngsters who toppled an old regime that has been stoned since 1952, a tarnishing picture of a good 70 years of Egyptian history.