Revolution book review: Near Tahrir Square

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Wednesday 13 Apr 2011

El-Shaity lives in Kasr El-Nil street, literally one hundred steps away from Tahrir Square, and tells his story of the remarkable 18 days that changed the course of Egyptian history

Me’at Khatwa Min Al-Thawra (One Hundred Steps from the Revolution), by Ahmed Zaghloul El-Shaity, Cairo: Dar Merit, 2011. pp 51.

Ahmed Zaghloul El-Shaity ends his book “One Hundred Steps from the Revolution” with the instant Omar Soliman announced that: “President Hosni Mubarak has decided to step down from position of President of the Republic, and has appointed the Military High Council to manage the affairs of the state, and God be with us.” So ended one of the most important moments in our history, 18 days during which a simple demonstration became a revolution that shook the country.

El-Shaity has previously published a novel and three collections of short stories, and followed it with a long silence from 1994 to 2009, when he published the collection “Transparent Light that Spreads Softly,” using language that stabs, sudden yet powerful. He employs straight language, avoiding over-complication or too many additions.

“One Hundred Steps from the Revolution” was completed by El-Shaity on 22 February; his luck has it that he resides in Kasr El-Nil Street, right next to Tahrir Square, on a high floor which allowed him to observe the events and their evolution instant-by-instant, in addition to allowing him to go down and join the scenes in the square. He literally lived one hundred steps from the scene of events, whether it was Tahrir Square being taken over by revolutionaries, or Abdel-Monem Riad Square and Talaat Harb Square being taken over by the thugs of the crumbling regime.

El-Shaity was keen to state what he personally witnessed, which gives his testimonial a human touch that characterizes most of the pages. He was careful to dedicate most of the pages to the experience of millions in Tahrir Square, except on a few occasions such as 3 January in Talaat Harb, when some writers and artists gathered to protest with candles after the Alexandria Church bombing and were encircled by a massive number of troops mobilized by the Ministry of Interior. The troops were tracking artists and writers, not criminals or armed people. The demonstration was violently dispersed, and a personal conversation with novelist Bahaa Taher who was among the demonstrators revealed that he also got a share of this violence.

The author tells another story away from the main action of Tahrir Square, about an occasion long ago in his house in Damietta, when he was sleeping while a war was taking place with bombs and airplanes. After waking up, he realized it was all happening at the police station next to his house. He saw the police cars taking the hostages from the streets during their patrol, as their families and wives rushed after them to exchange a few words in the seconds before they entered the police station. He was awakened by the sounds of torture – hanging people from doors, electrocution, or half-drowning them in sewage.

These exceptions were too few, revealing the author’s self-control in only telling what he lived and observed with the revolutionaries when he could have used these events to give a little pause and breathing to the narration. But maybe he intended to take the experience as it is, so that the narration is as confined and complete as the reality was.

Also, what happened in Tahrir and in all Egyptian squares was a unique type of revolution unknown before in many ways, not only because it was peaceful, but because it was mainly done by those who were not politically-active, most of whom have never gone to a single demonstration in their lives or even faced real danger but who now moved together to reside in the square, fearless of the consequences.

This unique revolution is truly a cause of wonder, and it is to be expected that dozens of writers will talk about it in the coming months and years. One of the remarkable incidences was on the sixth day, when housewives and entire families came to join in, wearing their best clothes as if on a big feast day. Another interesting bunch were the fans of big football teams like Ahly, Zamalek and the national team. El-Shaity adds that this revolution had seemed at times like a crowd during a book fair or Moulid El-Sayyeda (the annual feast of a famous Muslim saint in Egypt) or Sayed El-Badawy (a famous saint from lower Egypt) or even a festival of arts, yet despite all that, it continued to be a revolution. He related the story of a man who went around carrying a large clay water jug and asking Mubarak to go, since he was tired from carrying the jug and wanted to crack it after Mubarak left (drawing on a famous Egyptian saying that a clay jug should be broken after someone unwelcome departs).

The fact is that such an experience will never be repeated in the country’s history, and will always cause wonder, and can continue to be told in various ways and from many different angles. El-Shaity, for example, doesn’t do any documentation or commentary, nor pausing or going back, and nearly always avoids mentioning anything other than that which he saw personally.

This choice is apparently intentional and is what gives the book its believability and spontaneity as he communicates his personal experience in Tahrir in an autobiographical way, and one that avoids empty words and exaggerated patriotism. The book successfully avoids many pitfalls and has a lot to offer us readers.

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