Book review: Ashour battles cancer, old regimes in newest work

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Monday 18 Nov 2013

Renowned Egyptian author Radwa Ashour recounts her fight with cancer, weaving in the Egyptian revolution's setbacks and victories

Book cover

Athqel min Radwa (Heavier than Radwa) by Radwa Ashour, Cair: Dar Al-Shorouk Publishing, 2013. pp 392

Waking up from surgery in the US, Radwa Ashour hears that former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak has been toppled. Still drowsy from the anaesthesia, Radwa cannot help but smile. She has lived, like most of her generation, for this day.

After four brain surgeries over five months, Radwa returns to Egypt fit and finally able to visit Tahrir Square, which she does on 26 May, incidentally coinciding with her birthday. 

In Heavier than Radwa, Radwa shares her triumphant defeat of sickness, weaving in the Egyptian revolution's labour pains over a journey stained with blood and sniper bullets. 

Ashour's first autobiography,The Journey: Days of an Egyptian Student in America, was written 30 years ago. The book focuses on the author's time in the eighties, researching for her dissertation degree. While The Journey chronicles a specific experience, Heavier than Radwa is a lofty mural, of which the Egyptian Revolution occupies most pages.

In the first ten chapters, Ashour lays out her extensive battle against cancer: four operations to the head, each requiring nine to 10 hours in order to remove parts of skull bone and brain membrane. After two failed attempts to implant brain tissue, a Scottish surgeon is called in to perform something that can only be called a miracle: 25 sessions of medical nuclear radiation therapy distributed over five weeks.

Befitting a writer of Ashour's stature and experience, Heavier than Radwa does not indulge in petty pains and anxieties. Rather, it contemplates the experience with steadfastness and patience, without discarding legitimate fear.

The language Ashour uses is decisive and clear, without being gloomy or depressing. The narrative is warm, but abstains from lyricism and sentimentality because the barrage of medical tests, x-rays and medical reports do not leave a space for metaphors or loaded language.

Ashour explains her experience with a medical precision. In one description of a surgery, she states

"Dr Steven Davison moved a muscle from the back, the armpit muscle, known as Latissimus dorsi, to the head, changing the course of the artery that feeds it along the way. This was performed after he secured the skull bone with a bone cut from the seventh rib, by which he bridged the vacuum resultant from the removed bone part that was made on the Wednesday operation."

Four months after the January 25 Revolution, Ashour returns to Egypt. The book's pace quickens, and the language becomes freer and hotter. With her house only a few minutes' walk from Tahrir, Ashour becomes involved in the intense events unfolding. Armed only with a big hat and ointment to rub on her wound, Ashour braces the square with an Egyptian flag that towers above her in height.

Ashour bears witness to some definitive images of the revolution: the covering of barrier walls with graffiti, the Mohammed Mahmoud massacre, the Maspero massacre and the attack of both doctors and patients in field hospitals.

These chapters, moving at a breathless pace, paint a vibrant canvass of the revolution. Ashour's recounting does not descend into naïve emotional involvement and high pitched cheering, but rather remains sincere in its heart-wrenching description of facts that surpass metaphors.

The book's title is derived from an old Arabic proverb. A mountain range in the Saudi Arabia port city of Yanbu', the Radwa symbolises firmness and stability.

Heavier than Radwa is indeed a story of mountain ranges and water streams; a journey to vanquish a tumour and to defeat an old regime that is only achieved through sacrifice and dedication. 

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