Novels that ‘Predicted’ a Revolution

Al Jazeera recently interviewed Habib Selmi about his most recent novel, The Women’s Orchards. They asked the IPAF-shortlisted author (for The Scents of Marie Claire, trans. Fadwa Qasem) if his latest novel hadn’t predicted the revolution. Selmi said that he did not capital-P predict the Tunisian uprising and successful ouster of ex-President Ben Ali, he was just a good observer of society:

– العديد من النقاد والصحافيين الذين كتبوا عن الرواية بعد ثورة تونس أشاروا بطرق مختلفة إلى أنني تنبأت بالصدام الذي فجر الثورة التونسية، ولكني شخصيا لا أميل إلى استعمال هذه اللفظة الكبيرة لفظة التنبؤ لسبب بسيط، وهو أنني أعتقد أن الكاتب ليس نبيا أو عرافا لكي يتنبأ، أفضل أن أقول إنني أصغيت إلى حركة المجتمع والتقطت ما كان يعتمل فيه من الداخل، وهذا برأيي هو وظيفة الروائي…

The first few chapters of The Women’s Orchards were excerpted in last year’s Banipal39. When I read them in October 2010, I don’t remember thinking anything about a revolution. But nowadays, I’m reading with different eyes. On my fall 2010 read of Kamel Riahi’s The Gorilla,  excerpted in the bilingual collection Emerging Arab Voices, I didn’t think about revolution. But after what happened in December, I re-read the chapters and found that…it was right there in front of me.

I’m currently reading the highly entertaining صالح هيصة by Khairy Shalaby, translated as The Hashish Waiter by Adam Talib (published in Arabic in 2000), and I’ve caught myself thinking several times: “Look, here he predicted the 2011 protests…and here…and see how relevant this passage is!”

Although Marcel Proust might be surprised by this, while reading In Search of Lost Time, I felt he predicted WWII, and I was sure Dostoevsky knew about the coming of Communist rule in Russia.

Mohamed Salmawy’s Wings of the Butterfly is widely credited with “predicting” some of the events of the last six months. But this probably has less to do with Salmawy’s ability to see the future and more to do with what Sonallah Ibrahim called “a total vision” in a recent interview with Jadaliyya:

A novel might give expression to a complete vision of a historical period or era, or simply a person at a moment or the like—and then get into developing it. For instance, I might write a novel about a person in Midan al-Tahrir. But for that novel to be a good novel, it would have to have a firm grasp of the past, the present moment, and the future—what will happen, or what might happen afterwards. All this entails having a total vision.


  1. I always learn such a great deal reading your blog, Marcia–which I follow avidly. As for this subject, perhaps you might also like to consider Before the Throne by Naguib Mahfouz, about which you’ll find more in the following links:

    All best, and keep up the great work,


    PS: And many thanks for your kind reference at the time to my absence from the annual Naguib Mahfouz Award in Literature ceremony at the AUC on Dec. 11 last year, due to my being unexpectedly blacklisted, detained and deported two days before, evidently due to an article I had published in Foreign Policy critical of then Culture Minister Farouk Hosni. I hope to be back in Egypt soon–do wish me luck.

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