Book Review: Radwa Ashour's last words

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Wednesday 24 Jun 2015

Radwa Ashour, who died last December after a fierce fight with cancer, narrated in her last two books, that together compose her autobiography, the intersections between her struggle and that of her homeland

Al-Sarkha (The Cry) by Radwa Ashour, Al-Shorouk Publishing, 2015. pp.176

Al-Shorouk, the Egyptian publishing house, chose to publish Radwa Ashour's last work on what would have been her birthday anniversary (Ashour was born in May 1946), not on her death anniversary. Maybe because the author doesn’t deserve moaning and wailing, for she lived her life to the full as a productive optimist, even as a fighter, quoting her description of herself in the second part of her autobiography and her last work, The Cry.

Ashour left our world at the age of 68 after a fierce struggle with a brain tumor. Her battle with it continued for several years, a portion of which was recorded in the first part of her autobiography, Heavier than Radwa, published by Al-Shorouk in 2013.

Ashour, who passed away 1 December 2014, was a professor in the Faculty of Arts, teaching English literature since gaining her MA in comparative literature in 1972 and then her PhD from the University of Massachusetts in 1975.

She authored 10 works, including novels and short story books, as well as three autobiographical books and six books of literary criticism and several translations. Most of her works were translated into a number of languages and received numerous awards and Arab and European recognition.

This second part of her autobiography constitutes with the first a unique landmark in Arab literature; a compact amalgam weaved with rare sensitivity, recording her triumphant journey through illness, where she underwent a number of surgeries to remove the brain tumor, in December 2010 and in February 2013. The details of the horrifying series of surgical operations intersect with events of the Egyptian revolution, which broke out while she was in a hospital in Washington, DC. She didn't see Tahrir Square until her return, and specifically on her birthday on 26 May 2011.

According to Ashour's words, she didn't record what she has lived through only, but she presented a lofty mural full with detail — such as the youth climbing the building where the Israeli embassy was located on the last floor and snatching the flag of the Hebrew state; the graffiti that the revolutionaries drew quickly, covering the huge road blocks set up by the security forces; the Mohamed Mahmoud Street events; the Maspero massacre, and many more details that intersect with the journey of illness, with childhood memories, memories of her large family house in Al-Manial neighbourhood in Cairo, memories of university, in which the writer spent almost four decades, as a student, tutor, professor and then head of the English Literature Department.  

As for the second part, The Cry, the author follows the same line — that is, weaving together her struggle with the events around her. After the return of the tumor, it was decided that Ashour travel to Denmark in order to have a complicated surgery, one that lasted for 14 hours, in August 2013.

This well as undertaking radiation therapy between May and October 2014 after returning to Cairo. These personal incidents converge on the question of what has become of the revolution, in the face of security services' encroachment and the emergence of fascist face of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Ashour refuses the way the Rabaa Al-Adawiya Square sit-in was dispersed with flashes of childhood memories, the women who enriched her life starting with her nanny and ending with the late author Latifa Al-Zayyat, one of the closest persons to her heart through the years.

We must point out that the published text of The Cry isn't the final draft. The author didn't finalise the book and there are some blank pages and headnotes or chapter titles the author wished to tackle but didn't arrive to. She stopped writing when the illness intensified in September 2014 until she died in December the same year.

According the introduction, Radwa had "chosen the book's title and set the final chapter as the reader can see. Where she has also wished to add some other chapters is obvious. Against her custom, the writer didn't allow her family and friends to view the text whilst writing it."

Putting this into consideration, the text in its published form is all the more fascinating, and remarkable in its completeness. This was the utmost that can be obtained in the light of the health condition of the author. It is certain that many chapters were written under radiation therapy. In spite of this, the reader will find steadfastness and enormous spiritual strength. The chapters on the illness, for instance, are written no trace of terror or misgivings about the approach of death, and there is no place for self-pity or sorrow, which are all legitimate feelings.

For example, she wrote her answers to questions asked by the surgeon in Aarhus Hospital in Denmark: "I am 67 years old. I am aware of ferociousness of the cancerous tumor and the slim chances of getting away from it.

Naturally, I am a fighter, but I am mature enough to distinguish between a battle that will accomplish its objectives and futile quixotic battles that one shouldn't engage in. If the recurrence of the tumor will take place with this rate, isn't it wise to walk in another direction? I mean leaving things as they are and utilising the available time in producing what can be produced or revising a dissertation thesis whose researcher, he or she, needs my guidance."

This is what I meant by the enormous spiritual strength of the writer, facing the illness with courage that befits an author of the stature and worth of Radwa Ashour. Finally, through this writer passed away, her works will surely remain for several generations to come.

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