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The power of historical fiction: Two revolutions revisited

Revolutions are not just unpredictable mass upheavals that sweep the political establishment and herald a new order. Like earthquakes, they erupt due to political faults and are followed by seismic waves that haunt the staggering survivors.

This July was the 227th anniversary of the French Revolution, which, like Tunisia’s in 2010, channeled a domino effect, helping trigger the Irish Revolt and the Batavian Revolution. We are still in awe of the magnitude of brutality brought about by the proponents of Enlightenment that cemented the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the slogan “Liberté, égalité, fraternité,” which has striking similarity with the slogan of the Egyptian January 25 Revolution: “Bread, freedom and social equality.”

The month of July also witnessed a historic event that has defined Egyptian politics for the last 60 years: the 1952 plot by young military officers to overthrow the monarchy, which brought about the ouster of King Farouk I, sometimes referred to as a coup or a revolution.

Innumerable studies, books and documentaries have been made on both events, relying on the political writings of involved actors and witness testimonies. But historical fiction offers a different approach to history.

Perhaps the most elaborate work of fiction written on the French revolution is Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety (1992). The 872-page epic relates a triangular story of three revolutionaries, Georges Danton, Camille Desmoulins and Maximilien Robespierre — friends and foes who dictated the revolution’s course for about five years. Mantel made a name for herself with her brilliant novels on Thomas Cromwell and the Tudors — Wolf Hall (2009) and Bringing Up the Bodies (2012) — but A Place of Greater Safety was shelved for years before she revealed in an interview that, like many novelists, she had a first, unpublished work.

Mantel introduces dozens of historical characters to narrate the revolution’s causes and the mob dynamics that led to the storming of prison cells and the killing of the “enemies” of the revolution in 1792 and 1793. But she also gives insight into the fashion and lifestyle of that era, creating unforgettable characters and witty, pithy and dry Shakespeare-esque dialogues that make her book a dazzling read. You laugh out loud or just shake your head with incredulity, given the level of violence French revolutionaries were willing to perpetrate to remain in power and save the revolution. Danton, known as a vividly brutish tyrant, is one of the most poignant characters I have ever come across in fiction.

When I began trying to find a similar novel in Egyptian literature, I came across  romanticized novels such as Rod Kalbi (Give Me Back My Heart, 1954) by Youssef El Sebai, who graduated from the Military Academy and depicted the officers as heroic freedom fighters who delivered Egypt from evil feudalists, or more realist works like Naguib Mahfouz’s Al-Saman wal Kharif (Quail and Autumn, 1962), relating the trials of a nationalist Wafd Party member fallen out of favor with the new regime. While many novels deal critically with the Gamal Abdel Nasser era, like Mahfouz’s Sarsara Fawk al-Nil (Adrift on the Nile, 1966), Sonallah Ibrahim’s terrific Telk al-Raiea (That Smell, 1966) and more recently Amina Zidan’s Nebiz Ahmar (Red Wine, 2007), the only fiction I found with a critical view of the revolution itself was Gamil Ateya Ibrahim’s trilogy 1952, Awraq 1954 (Papers of 1954, both published in the 1970s, exact date unclear) and 1981 (1994), which offer a surprising reading of that event.

Ibrahim (born 1937) has written 13 novels and short story collections. He was one of the founders of the influential literary magazine Gallery 68, and he emigrated to Switzerland in 1972, where he has lived ever since. His novel Awraq al-Eskendereia (Papers of Alexandria, 1997) elaborates on the dynamics of the 1919 Egyptian revolution.

Ibrahim’s 897-page magnum opus blends historical figures with fictional characters based on real people he knew himself, as the author, who has lost his eyesight, tells me in a telephone interview.

Most surprisingly, Nasser and then-President Mohamed Naguib are two side characters of Awraq 1954, the trilogy’s second and best part. Nasser is depicted as an opportunistic, sometimes shrewd, sometimes impulsive and unpredictable power-hungry officer who plays the Muslim Brotherhood, the Mohamed Naguib camp and the leftists against each other. He befriends fictional law professor Ahmed Pasha al-Sayed, a liberal based on prominent judge Ahmed Nagib Hilaly (1891-1958), Ibrahim tells me. Nasser trusts and seeks political advice from Sayed, but he also threatens Sayed’s communist daughter Audette, a fearless revolutionary who clandestinely fought the British occupiers in 1952.

The trilogy was published by the governmental publishing house Dar al-Hilal, which still sells Ibrahim’s books at about LE7 each. When the first two parts were published in the 1970s, Ibrahim says Dar al-Hilal asked him not to promote his novels, to avoid confiscation by Anwar al-Sadat’s government, which was clamping down on any opposition.

Because the events of July 1952 continue to have a visible impact on Egypt’s politics — particularly with the coming to power of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the overthrow of elected President Mohamed Morsi in 2013 — reading Ibrahim’s trilogy is in some ways a bitter pill to swallow. His description of the power struggle between Naguib and Nasser, which split the political landscape, the state terror Nasser orchestrated against his rivals and the narrow majority that enabled him to finish them off after Naguib was about to push the military back to the barracks, makes the Armed Forces-Muslim Brotherhood standoff in 2013 look like a repeat of history.

Ibrahim’s work has tangible sympathies with the leftist opposition, embodied by the revolutionary peasant Abbas Abu Hemeida, the liberal Sayed and communist Audette. Despite his focus on political turmoil, Ibrahim weaves in personal stories, depicting life in the fictional Giza village of Ezbet Eweis. He relates the feudal owners’ relationship to the peasants and the power relations between the royal family, the village leader and day laborers before the revolution, reminiscent of Abdel Rahman Sherkawy’s celebrated decolonization novel Al-Ard (The Earth, 1954).

The trilogy is important because it offers a multilayered perspective on momentous historical events, such as the Cairo fire of January 1952 and the turmoil of 1954. Many real people are mentioned by name, including Mohamed Hassanein Heikal (1923–2016), Al-Ahram editor-in-chief and one of Nasser’s closest advisors, Mahmoud Amin al-Alem (1922-2009), a prominent leftist intellectual incarcerated by both Nasser and Sadat, and Abdel Kader Ouda (1906-1954), a Brotherhood lawyer Nasser executed. I tried to track down the real-life characters in historical documentation, but in some cases this was not easy. The real Audette, leftist Tagammu Party head Refaat al-Saeed tells me in an interview, was a ferocious communist leader who was partly responsible for the split of the Democratic Movement for National Liberation (HADITU) in the 1950s, creating the splinter Communist Egyptian Organization before emigrating to Switzerland.

Ahmed al-Sayed Pasha’s character puzzled me even more. His name inexplicably changes to Sayed Ahmad Pasha in the trilogy’s second part, only to return to Ahmed al-Sayed Pasha in the third. Ibrahim says he cannot remember exactly why he changed the name, but my guess is that the real person whose first name was Ahmed was offended

Ibrahim is a skillful narrator, and has clearly invested lots of work and craftsmanship in his writing, particularly in 1952. Yet the thorough descriptions of the village and everyday lives of its inhabitants are tiring at times, and the plot drags for the first 50 pages, until the political events start to unfold with the officers’ Ismailia insurrection against the British occupation on January 25, 1952 and the burning of Cairo one day later.

The villagers react angrily to the news on the radio and rely on word-of-mouth propaganda, but they also pursue their normal lives — reminding me of how in the months after the January 25 uprising, fatal confrontations would take place between police and protesters in Tahrir Square, while other citizens drank tea and smoked shisha only a few hundred meters away.

1952 contains passages on the events of the Cairo fire, and shows how the various factions all blamed each other. “Word spread about the broken whisky bottles that were spilled and the looting that took place, as if Cairo was a city filled with thieves and thugs,” Ibrahim writes. “All of a sudden he [Abu Hemeida] was standing in front of the nightclub Hodhod near the Mariotteya channel, where dozens of youth and boys armed with stones and axes were pelting the nightclub, madly shouting: ‘Allahu Akbar’.”

1981 takes place in Geneva, where rural worker Zaheya, who has married Sayed, coincidentally meets her lover Karama, an opportunistic diplomat from Ezbet Eweis, and their illegitimate son Mohamed Naguib, named after the ousted president. 1981 contains many repetitive passages and is tangled up between being omniscient and first-person narratives.

Most interesting are the discussions between Sayed and leftist Abu Hemeida, who was forced into exile by Nasser and Sadat: Abu Hemeida criticizes Sadat’s open-door policy, which allowed businessmen to create a practice of “pillaging,” while Sayed, arrested on Sadat’s orders during the September 1981 crackdown on intellectuals and opponents, narrates how he received news of Sadat’s death along with Heikal, Wafd Party leader Fouad Sarag Eddin and leftist writer Salah Eissa in a prison cell. Astonishingly, the characters opposed to Nasser in Awraq 1954 have a conciliatory tone toward him in 1981. Abu Hemeida, for example, says that compared to Sadat, Nasser sought to realize “little dreams,” like abolishing titles, establishing free education and advancing the irrigation system. He forgets the brutal repression highlighted so clearly in Awraq 1954.

When using fiction to relate history, the writer must decide which characters to chose and what their narrative perspectives will be. Ibrahim chooses an omniscient narrator in 1952, but opts for a first-person narration for each character in Awraq 1954, and even tells a chapter from Naguib’s perspective. This is a tool Mantel also uses to offer a fresh perspective and a change from her omniscient voice. Like Ibrahim, Mantel engages the reader by offering various narration techniques, but also includes excerpts from writings of Robespierre or Desmoulins that add an authentic edge.

Both Mantel’s novel and Ibrahim’s trilogy are full of political intrigues, as every faction tries to finish the other off. But the time lapsed since the French revolution certainly grants Mantel room to maneuver, whereas Ibrahim is more confined, particularly in 1981, which deals with the aftermath of Sadat’s death — in my opinion the trilogy’s weakest part.

Historical fiction, if well-researched, as with Mantel and Ibrahim’s books, offers readers a more personal and multilayered approach to history. Through the process of instilling life into historical characters and putting words into their mouths in an attempt to explain their actions, while chronicling social and political upheavals, revolutions here appear as uncontrollable avalanches triggered by zealous political actors, who, as the 19th-century French adage “the revolution devours its children” implies, seek to fill the ensuing power gap by eliminating one other.

As revolutions justify violence or at least the threat of it to coerce a brutal regime to abandon power, a dramatic cycle of violence is likely to erupt, paved with the people’s shattered aspirations. Thus the dramatically analytical tools of fiction, with its potential for contradictions and speculation, can enable a better grasp of a bewildering reality.

Sherif Abdel Samad