Book Review: The Unsaid in our Social History: Port Said Tragedy

Ossama Lotfy Fateem , Wednesday 22 Mar 2023

Al Harb Fi Al Sharq (War in the East) Zein Abdel-Hady, Cairo, Battana Publishing, 2022.



Port Said earned the title the Valiant City – Al Madina Albassela in Arabic – as it paid a heavy price for all of Egypt's wars in the second half of the twentieth century. But the real heroes, though, were the people of Port Said along with those of Suez and Ismailia – all of whom were displaced after their houses were bombed. They also lost some of their loved ones.

Such a tragedy occurred twice. It first occurred in 1956 during the Suez War when British and French forces attacked the city. It then occurred during the Six Days War in 1967. This time it was the Israelis who attacked the city. Port Said's people suffered, however, the most during the Attrition War – also known as the forgotten war – that took place between 1967 and 1969. The city was turned into a military zone for over six years; its people were forced to leave and live in various parts of Egypt as migrants. The people of Port Said became refugees in their own country. This experience caused feelings of bitterness in all Port Said's inhabitants, even after the forced migration ended after the war of 1973 and the liberation of the city. Zein Abdel-Hady captures this harrowing experience in his latest novel War in the East or "Al Harb fi Al Sharq".

The writer – a native of Port Said – intentionally made his novel hard to delve into. He announces early on that "War in the East" is not a novel to simply read and forget; rather he wants the readers to gird their loins as they prepare to feel and experience what their countrymen from Port Said suffered during that forgotten war. The novel simply tells the reader about the unspoken in Egypt's social history with regards to what happened to Port Said and its people.

In the dedication, the writer says he is neither imagining nor documenting, but that his soul is writing to "her," to the city of Port Said. The novel is hence a deeply personal narrative that gives voice to the pain the writer himself experienced; a pain that took him more than four decades to write about.

The main character is a small child – "Sayed" – who is born on a sailboat escaping during the Suez Crisis in 1956. His family returns afterwards and lives in Port Said until the second forced, painful migration of 1968. If the writer hadn't declared upfront that he was not "Sayed", the reader would have certainly believed that the novel was an informal autobiography.

What the author showed and described shrewdly was how a part of the population lost its belief in the state, the authority and the ruling regime of Egypt after the Six Days war. From believers and loyalists to Nasser, to feeling betrayed, fooled and disillusioned by a regime that has raised their hopes and let them down while destroying their awareness. Abdel-Hady portrays a variety of political views without stating his own views plainly, thus allowing readers to come to their own  conclusions.

A forced immigrant child's life is not an easy one. He was bullied by his colleagues at school. He was also a stranger and people are not normally kind to strangers. He did not understand why what happened to him occurred the way it did. He was forced to leave a relatively comfortable life to a life where both his family and he were refused and rejected, and where they fell victims to dire poverty. He manifested his rejection of his miserable new life by breaking his kite as he could not accept having a toy at a time when everything in his life was falling apart.

Port Said was a cosmopolitan city; many "foreigners" lived there. Greeks, Italians and French second and third generations lived there, and many of them were born in the city. This raises a rather difficult question: who is the Egyptian? Will these people still be considered foreigners after living and suffering in Port Said? In raising such a question, the writer indirectly condemns Egyptian chauvinism –  a topic rarely broached and typically eschewed.

In this context, the novel depicts a number of unfinished love stories between one of the "foreign" girls and one of Port Said's "natives", as well as a marriage between a Greek and one of the native women. To avoid speaking about religious conversions that are typically associated with such love stories or marriages, the writer chose not to discuss whether either of the couples converted to a different religion. In doing this, the writer makes it acceptable to bypass society's rules.  

Zainab, Sayed's mother, is another character that Abdel-Hady drew with great care. She is the mother who sings to her children, calms them down when frustrated, tells them stories at bedtime, and listens to music with her husband over a cup of tea. She is simply the mother that was there in the 1960's and 1970's in nearly every home in Egypt. Most readers would relate to her.

The author, whether intentionally or not, has created an unofficial record of a dark period in Egypt's history. His is the social history that was never documented. In creating it, he relied on an imagination rooted in the collective memory of those who lived during those days. Oral history played an important role in the novel; and both the author's personal experience and other people's stories gave the novel rare credibility.

Abdel-Hady meant for the novel to be unforgettable. Perhaps he succeeded. He spoke about things that writers would normally avoid, showing the layman's misery as it actually occurred. He showed how people endured that misery and how their misery was overlooked. The people of Port Said never expressed their pain for what happened to them. Besides, there were other priorities on the state's agenda. Perhaps the time has come to document that history, especially for the sake of Egyptians in other parts of Egypt who may have similar stories that are equally interesting.

The novel, however, never mentions the real cause of the misery. It is the war with Israel. By attacking Egypt, the Israelis changed the lives of millions of Egyptians forever. The people of Port Said, Ismailia and Suez were never the aggressors. They had been living a normal life and found themselves not allowed to do so anymore. Their world was turned upside down, and their souls were filled with bitterness which they still carry within them and which they have passed on to their descendants.  


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