On reading "The Republic As If", I was introduced to the character of Ashraf Wassef in his apartment overlooking Tahrir Square, to his personal troubles and the collapse of his marriage. I also learned about the freedom afforded by the revolution, mixed with his love for the maid Ikram. I noted to myself that Al Aswany continues to engage the readerʹs attention and his curiosity.
Ashraf earned my pity and my compassion – and suddenly I realised how the novel turned and took us to the story of the revolution of 25th January 2011 in all its complexities and details.
One could say that the novel succumbs to conspiracy theories through the character of Major General Ahmed Alwani, head of the security apparatus. The plot woven by military intelligence from the moment the revolution began gives the novel the feel of a detective thriller and makes it hostage to its own brilliance.
A rare testimony to the Arabellion
A novelist is free to do what he wants, but the structure of this novel is insignificant by comparison with the momentous revelations contained within it. The "Republic As If" is, in my opinion, the only comprehensive literary record of the revolution and of the tragic fate which befell the young people who were killed, imprisoned and tortured against a background of the diabolical alliance between the Egyptian army and the Muslim Brotherhood (which later fell apart in the June coup and the massacre at Rabia al-Adawiya in 2013).
In this rare testimony lies the importance of this novel, with its exceptional capacity to collate and document the facts, paying tribute to the memory of Egyptian suffering by recounting the story of the youth of the revolution and how the army and the Brotherhood usurped their dreams of change.
This novel is made up of a network of diverse characters, including General Alwani and his daughter Dania, the friend of the martyr Khaled Madani. They also include Nourhan, the television presenter, and her three husbands, as well as Sheikh Shamil and his Salafism, which is selectively used to serve tyranny, people on the make and crooks. The novel also tells the story of the love which brings Mazen and Asma together, of the cement workersʹ struggle, as well as of the character of Madani, the poor driver who inherits the revolution through the blood of his martyred son Khaled.
Al Aswany uses every literary device, from letters and testimonies, to judicious editing of TV and film clips, to elements of a detective thriller, in order to create a story that exposes the reality. To this end, he creates a group of characters, some of whom seem predictable and simplistic, but who ultimately portray the defeat of the revolution and the rise of the counter-revolution.
A story that lays bare the facts
The importance of this novel lies not in its style, which harks back to pre-Mahfouz novels, nor in its stereotypical characters or simple, flowing language. Rather, it is significant in that it provides a remarkable record of the January 2011 revolution and of a new generation who reached for the stars, despite living in a stagnant political world where, after long years of tyranny, the only organised forces in Egypt were the secret police, the army and the Brotherhood.
Al Aswany has broken the cultural silence over this heinous crime committed in Egypt, albeit part and parcel of the criminal tyranny prevalent in the Arab world. The latter has reached its zenith in Syria, where oppression reigns and death has long triumphed.
The collapse of Egyptian culture at the hands of this oppression is a lamentable fact worthy of serious analysis. It is as if the prevailing culture had devoured its opposition by scaremongering about the Islamists. The critical voices have disappeared. The counter-revolution appears to have succeeded in creating a new tyranny even worse than the past and more brazen in breaking every humanitarian convention.
The courage of this novel is that it has broken the silence. For this reason, it deserves to be read as a record of our times and as a testament to the Egyptian peopleʹs shattered dreams.
I salute the brave writer Alaa Al Aswany.
© Qantara.de 2018
Translated from the Arabic by Chris Somes-Charlton