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Book review: The Egyptian revolution rises in fiction

Ammar Ali Hassan's new novel is a testament to the January 25 Revolution in literary form

Hesham Taha, Sunday 25 Aug 2013
Ammar Ali Hasan
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Suquut As-Samt (The Silence has Fallen) by Ammar Ali Hasan, Cairo: Al-Dar Al-Masriya Al-Libnaniya Publishing, 2013. 662pp.

Political scientist Ammar Ali Hassan builds his new novel around a revolutionary named Hassan Abd-Al-Rafi, with whom nearly all the characters of his lengthy novel, however minor, get in touch. He uses the killing — or more precisely the assassination — of Hassan as a launching pad for the whole novel, and also to present what can be considered a testimony of the January 25 Revolution in novel form. It transpires that Abd-Al-Rafi was able to compile condemning evidence about the diabolical network that was — and still is — governing Egypt. Thus his enemies were many, some even within revolutionary ranks, out of jealousy apparently.   

The plot is about finding the killer of Abd-Al-Rafi and at the same time completing the data on the diabolical network governing Egypt. All but the missing link was saved on a flash memory that was stolen from Abd-Al-Rafi after his killing. However, it transpires that there is a backup Abd-Al-Rafi left with his fiancée, Safa Iliwah, who exerted enormous efforts to reach the missing link, thus, completing the infernal hidden circle tightening its grip on the country.

The author leaves this main thread and is entirely consumed in describing in details the revolution for long, long chapters. He returns to the central thread in the final pages of his 75-chapter novel, to assert that Safa hid the flash memory until the moment of justice arrives. As for the killer of Abd-Al-Rafi, the case was closed because the police destroyed all the evidence and covered the killers' tracks. In other late chapters, a high ranking judge complains that he and his colleagues are caught between the hammer and the anvil. For on the one hand, they suffer from lack of proof that the police should have presented, and actually erased, while the people and revolutionaries exert pressure on them to issue verdicts on high officials of the former regime that they deem fair without caring for the evidence available.

It is noteworthy to mention that all the Islamist characters the author portrays were either obedient followers or devious fellows. Even the non-politically Islamist Sufi Sheikh Abd-Al-Raheem Al-Quusi deviates from the sublime path and gets corrupted by the deposed president Mubarak. The only Islamist character the author presents in favourable light is a young Muslim Brotherhood member who was expelled from the group, thus "liberated," quoting one of the protagonists. The writer portrays all the most vicious human characteristics in Sheikh Rafat Moghazi and sums up all the Muslim Brotherhood as a group formed in his persona. On the other hand, he glorifies Hassan Abd-Al-Rafi to such an extent he nears sainthood, with untiring efforts (going to Suez during the revolution just to be sure that the revolution got the steam it needs), limitless patience (never ever getting angry, except once when comrades brought him a tortured citizen mistakenly presuming that he is an informer), boundless optimism, awareness and bravery. 

The novel derives its title from a poem by the late Egyptian poet Amal Dunqul, from whom the author uses his description of Tahrir Square as the "Stone Cake" throughout.

Aimed at presenting a panoramic view of almost all walks of life, the author depicts professions (medical doctors, engineers, a nuclear physicist, teachers, nurses, even a prostitute), different age groups, various social strata (from extremely wealthy to abjectly downtrodden), and diverse geographical regions (Upper Egypt, Suez, Delta, Sinai, and of course different neighbourhoods of Cairo).

Within the course of the novel, the revolution purifies a prostitute (Dalal Mishriqi) and a bank accountant (Khaled Al-Sabi), who became almost a thug, and a paid sexual harasser (Zein Al-Abagy), driving them to choose the right path.

From the very first page to the very last, the author accuses Islamists of stealing the revolution, or at the very least waiting until it fell with its fruits in their laps. He belittles the number of martyrs of Islamists during the revolution, using one of his protagonists as a mouthpiece. He asserts that the military also has its own interests to protect, which it deems inseparable from those of the country.

His fifth novel to date, Hassan has made animals (camels and cats) and inanimate objects (statutes of Sheikh Omar Makram and the Pharaoh King Zoser) think and act in a human way. He also used the spirits of martyrs to comment on and foreshadow future events.

Trying to record almost every creative activity related to the revolution, Hassan inserts a vast number of slogans, songs (even Bedouin ones) and graffiti (by explanation). He tries to conceal the real personalities appearing in the novel by giving them fake names, only to be known by the reader through their professions or deeds. He does the same for important personalities, like deposed president Mubarak, for instance, by describing him "the Big Man," and the former defence minister as "the Commander."

Finally, Hassan, who has received the State Award for Excellence in Social Sciences, opts for a symbolic open end to the January 25 Revolution, the novel insisting that the reign of Islamists will be terminated and that the tree of revolution will blossom and be fruitful sooner or later, no matter the hindrances.

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