I am just now finishing a first read of Ali Bader’s حارس التبغ (The Tobacco Keeper, trans. Amira Nowaira), and it has struck me, again and again, how different the public square is here from its counterparts in Egyptian literature.
The Tobacco Keeper‘s publics (similar in some ways to publics in The Last of the Angels, Fadhil al-Azzawi) are often mobs, erasing individuality. Public squares are places where your humanity can be stripped, where kitsch triumphs over art, where one dictatorship can follow another.
To greatly oversimplify, Egyptian (literary) public squares are a very different beast. These square are often a place of a lost “almost,” a place of one-time hope or victory that is eroded or corroded.
Radwa Ashour’s Tahrir Square of 1972 (Specters), where she was struggling for justice with her poet-husband Mourid Barghouti; Ibrahim Aslan’s (The Heron), Khaled al-Khamissi’s (Taxi), and Mahmoud Wardani’s (Heads Ripe for Plucking) Tahrir of 1977. Waguih Ghali is in Suez, not Tahrir, in Beer in the Snooker Club, but Suez is also a space of collective hope and collective not-good-enough.
In Sonallah Ibrahim’s Tahrir of 1946 (Zaat), the character Sheikh El Arab tries to compete with television news to tell his (old, nearly forgotten in all the commercial-political drone) story of the midan:
“‘In ’46 I was working in a textile factory in Shubra. We went out on a big demonstration down to Bab El Hadid. The workers carried me on their shoulders. The demonstration lasted till Ismailia Square, Tahrir now. I used to have a picture of me shouting slogans, bullets flying through the air all around me, but State Security took it. I had a powerful voice and it rang through the square without a microphone. We were shouting for the struggle of the working class, the students, the Egyptian people, and the fall of Britain.'”
Feel free to beat me up over this terrible simplification as I return (with pleasure) to The Tobacco Keeper.