INTERVIEW: On the roller-coaster of hope and dismay

Dina Ezzat , Monday 24 Jul 2023

Medhat Ghabrial discusses his debut novel, 'A Bar on Adly Street - An Egyptian Memoir,' which provides a bird's-eye view of the impact of the "July Revolution" on Egypt.

A Bar on Adly Street

 

Al-Mahroussa Publishing is set to release the Arabic translation of Medhat Ghabrial's debut novel, 'A Bar on Adly Street - An Egyptian Memoir,' later this year. Ghabrial, an Egyptian-Canadian civil engineer, published the novel in English last summer, coinciding with the 70th anniversary of the July Revolution. The novel, which spans nearly 500 pages, attributes much of Egypt's misfortunes over the past seven decades, including the 1967 military defeat and the wave of Islamization that followed the October War, to the revolution. The book also touches on the limited impact of the 1973 Crossing on the morals of the "lost generation" of the 1970s, which was left with little hope before being "scattered all over the earth."

Aside from chronicling the personal story of the Copts and other Christians in Egypt during the eras of Gamal Abdel-Nasser and Anwar Sadat, respectively described by the father of the lead protagonist as a man who "was wrong all the time but believed in what he said" and "a lying buffoon...and a snake in the grass," 'A Bar on Adly Street' also delves into how the poor transitioned from a type of liberalism to a type of socialism. It explores the intricate issues surrounding the Jews and Europeans in Egypt, as well as classism in the country.

The novel is a personal narrative of a man who lived through it with his upper-middle-class family before being forced to depart the country with a great deal of pain behind him and significant uncertainty ahead.

Speaking in Cairo, a city no longer resembling his past or his dreams, Ghabrial, who describes himself as "an engineer by profession and a writer by passion," discussed 'A Bar on Adly Street,' the iconic Greek Kharampolous, and his moments of hope, such as the 1973 Crossing and the 2011 Revolution, as well as his many moments of despair, including the 1967 defeat and the failure to revive even a truncated version of liberalism that was present in Egypt before the "Free Officers took over."

Ahram Online: 'A Bar on Adly Street – an Egyptian Memoir' reads actually a lot more like a memoir. Why didn't it just come out as a memoir?

Medhat Ghabrial: Well, first of all, because this is how I wrote it; this is how I felt it should be written, maybe essentially to disguise some characters and some elements of an otherwise personal narrative. Also, while the story is a personal account in so many ways and based on real characters almost fully, it is also the story of the city, of society as it was and of the country during these years between the 1967 defeat and shortly after the October War.

AO: From this perspective, much of the case against the Free Officers rule is offered through the character of the father, a retired army officer who did not like what the Free Officers did, neither from the military nor from the civilian points of view.

MG: Yes, but it is true that my father was an army officer who fought in the 1948 war prior to the rule of the Free Officers. Actually, when I was born towards the end of that year, my father was still at the hospital being treated for an injury that he sustained during that war.

AO: And the son of this army officer is a civil engineer, exactly like yourself.

MG: Oh yes, because while it was the thing for the generation of my father's generation to join the army for my generation it was the thing to be an engineer; it was part of the Nasser ‘thing’ to be an engineer to contribute to the call of development, industrialization and construction.

AO: So, like the lead protagonist of your novel, you had faith in Nasser?

MG: Our generation had faith in Nasser; what he spoke seemed to be our dream; we were wrong because we missed the very important point that a country needs democracy as much as it needs independence, industrialization and political status.

Inevitably, I come from a family that has for decades and decades subscribed to the cause of pluralism and freedom. Actually, my maternal grandfather was one of the early people who joined the call of Saad Zaghloul and the 1919 Revolution.  I grew up in a family house where it was not unusual to see pictures of Saad Pacha. However, like others of my generation, I was so devastated when Nasser announced a decision to step down in the wake of the defeat. Our generation, actually the entire country, was highly influenced by the propaganda to the point that we did not believe it at first when we heard on some foreign radio stations that we were defeated in 1967.

That was the shock; everything believed in turned out to be wrong and everything we hoped for lost its meaning.

This said I have to say that like other students, men and women, when I joined the 1968 demonstrations, I was hoping for accountability. We wanted to punish those who were responsible for the disaster – those who claimed to be able to bring the country its glory but actually took it towards its defeat.

Still, it was not easy to firmly turn the page on the Nasser story. I actually did cry when I learned that Nasser died and I sort of felt it was June 1967 all over again. However, I remember that my paternal uncle was kind of relieved when Nasser passed away in September 1970. I remember him saying that “Nasser’s death gave Egypt a chance to live again."

AO: Was this true – at all?

MG: Well, When Sadat first took office, he was subject to much ridicule, I mean compared to Nasser with all the aura he had. I did not think he would stay on the job for long but he actually survived a lot and when 15 May 1971 came [and Sadat ousted all his top political adversaries] I realized that after all, he was not the idiot we took him for.

Then of course, the Crossing of 1973 was a total surprise; it was actually the surprise of all times; it was just like the January 2011 Revolution; it was a moment when one felt proud to be an Egyptian and hoped for better days to come and for Egypt to be able to live the life it deserves. But, oh well…

AO: Meaning?

MG: Well, after the October War things did not actually pick up the way one had hoped. The opposite. We started seeing an expansion of the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood and radical Muslim preachers like [Mohamed Metawli] Al-Shaarawi and others who were coming from the Gulf.

Politically speaking, Sadat was trying to use the Islamists at large to deal a final blow to the leftists and those who supported Nasser. However, he was actually giving the upper hand to Islamism and that was very intimidating to Christian families and to others, to be honest. It was an issue for those who felt that the identity of Egypt, as it has been one way or the other, was being compromised.

For a short while, we were hanging there between hope and despair. Ultimately, many felt that their country was not the same country that they knew or they wanted to live in. The idea of leaving became pressing for many; we were leaving for North America or Australia.

I left for Canada leaving behind a family that I loved and a country that I had hoped would have a different chance and friends who were on the frontline during the October War fighting for the country to regain its land, its harmony and its soul – of course, the painful memory of Aida, the woman I loved and who died very young.

AO: You left behind the country that was the making of the Free Officers rule or that of Islamists’intellectual dominance?

MG: I left behind a country that was not the country set to pursue the dream I thought it merited to have – yes, partially because it chose to abandon the path of liberalism and pluralism and to keep on bouncing from faux socialism to fanatic Islamism.

AO: And the title is actually a demonstration of both faux socialism and fanatic Islamism?

MG: Well, yes. The bar is closing towards the end of the novel in a sign for what was bound to be the end of the reminisce of pre-July 1952 Egypt.

AO: And you managed to part away with Egypt for real? If this was the case, why did you write this novel which is more about Egypt than about anything else?

MG: I wrote to escape reality; to emotionally get off that roller-coaster, of hope and dismay, that my entire generation was stuck with for long. I had to come for a few occasions [including the passing away of family members]. The first real visit of choice that I had to Egypt since I left in 1974 was during the January Revolution. My daughter was here first at Tahrir Square; then I came along. But it did not take long before I realized that the window for Egyptian society to regain its own soul and identity was fast and firmly closing.


* A Bar on Adly Street: An Egyptian Memoir, Al-Mahroussa Publishing

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