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Saturday, 08 May 2021

Book Review: On Egypt’s long and unending strife for freedom and justice

The late Salah Eissa’s carefully selected accounts from the history of Egypt, mostly during the 19th century, read like a perfect resume of Egypt’s modern history

Dina Ezzat , Monday 8 Feb 2021
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Hekayat Min Daftar Alwatan (stories from the nation’s notebook), Salah Eissa, Al-Karma Books 2020, 550pp
 
“To Egypt, my destiny that I embrace, my fate that I hold on to; a lover has no escape when passion is his fate and heart-felt love is his destiny”
 
With these few lines, Salah Eissa, a Journalist and Writer with dedicated interest in history launches his rich and entrancing volume: Hekayat Min Daftar Alwatan (stories from the nation’s notebook) which came out originally in the 1970s and was reprinted several times after – including the three editions put out successively during last year by Al-Karma Books.
 
Eissa is a Leftist activist by political association, who was born in 1939 and passed away in 2017. He has many well-selling titles that capture bits and pieces of the country’s history.
 
In 'Hekayat Min Daftar Alwatan', Eissa offers 13 stories that he had assembled from history books with the intention, perhaps, of drawing a profile of an Egyptian population that dreams of living in a free country where fairness and justice prevail.
 
The bigger parts of the accounts that Eissa is telling happen between the late 19th century going through to the mid 20th century.
 
The chapter titled “the Patriarch in exile” that Eissa dedicated to the story of Pope Cyril V of Alexandria – who lived between 1824 and 1927 – offers the essential timeline for the stories that come in this book.
 
The picture that chapter offers for the conflict between the strong head of the Coptic Church of Egypt and both the palace and its allies within the Coptic community could serve as a typical image of the many layered intrigues that marked politics in Egypt during these years.
 
Indeed there is always a story that involves the palace, its associates in affluent social, financial or executive quarters and then there is the masses and their leaders who are not willing to succumb to the explicit or implicit coercion that the ruler is set to exercise to serve a narrow agenda of political survival over the national agenda of freedom and egalitarianism.
 
Clearly, the most central of accounts and figures in the book are those of both the Orabi Revolt of 1881-1882, on the eve of the British occupation of Egypt, and the 1919 Revolution that led the way to the end of this occupation.
 
And as Eissa himself wrote in the introduction, those accounts fitted very well with the idea he once had to write about “the agonies of Egypt” – the country that never yields, despite all the pain and hardship, to the sway of invaders and tyrants – be them from the Mamlouks, the Ottomans, the French, the British or even Egyptians – who always wished but always failed to coerce a population that can dwell to patience at times but whose anger is rough when patience wears thin.
 
“The people do not forget; the people do not forgive” is how Eissa commented on the reaction of the people to the attempt of one lawyer who defended the killing of Egyptian villagers at the hands of British soldiers when they tried to recalibrate.
 
In his accounts on the ‘defeated dreams of the uprising’ both during the Orabi Revolt and the 1919 Revolution, Eissa repeatedly shows how Egyptians never give up – when a generation is defeated there is bound to be another that would come in a few years or a few decades to pick up the pieces and move forward.
 
However, he wrote, the oppressors who resort to brutal police force and at times even try to implicate the army don’t ever get the message because they always think that they can resort to a clique that is reigned in by favours or to a foreign power that has interests to pursue in Egypt. Khedive Tewfik resorted to the British to quell the Orabi uprising and so did King Fouad to oppress Al-Wafd Party.
 
However, as Eissa tells and tells again in every one of the 13 accounts in this very interesting read, no amount of political plotting and no amount of oppression works. No matter the torture and no matter the killing, Eissa tells his reader, the people of Egypt always find their way – sooner or later.
 
It was in 1973, the year that Egypt managed to secure the crossing of the Suez Canal after the 1967 defeat had brought in Israeli control, that Eissa finished the first manuscript of the first part of this book and it was after the 1977 food riots that he embarked on the second part. The two parts are compiled together in the edition that Al-Karma re-printed last year.
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