Pulsing Instantiations of a Revolution: “The City Always Wins” by Omar Robert Hamilton

“Tomorrow,” the first section, opens with the gruesome massacre of 29 Coptic Christians in front of the decrepit state and radio television building in Maspero, the area named after the French archaeologist, by the Nile on October 9, 2011. Forget New York, the whole history of the world can be seen from here, flows past us here, in the Nile streaming from its genesis north and out into the waters of empire and all the brutalities and beauties they bring, emerging riotous and discordant and defiant into something new and undefinable and uncontrollable. It is chaotic, moody, dragging, filled with a heavy haziness, mirroring the claustrophobic political climate that Egypt is still passing through every day — a protracted dark age. She holds his hand. Other scenes where Nancy, a Coptic activist and member of Chaos, who parrots regime propaganda before and after the downfall of the Muslim Brotherhood, comes off as a bit unimaginative and reinforces latent prejudices of a minority supporting the strongman. Yet Cairo and all of its burdening magnificence still persists in the memories of a scarred generation. His heart is electric with love, the metal pellets in his back burn with happiness. These are powerful, strong scenes that straddle the book’s melding of a realist fiction based on hyper-real violence. He drags the reader phenomenologically with sentences like:
There’s that tree, on the corner of the square in front of Safir, that blooms blood-red flowers early every year. I’m here. Here the break happens, the record cuts and the sonorous cry of Hamilton’s thoughts scream out emphatically, “Yes, Cairo is jazz.” He continues in jazz-like flights of aphoristic fancy, a didactic spoken word artist captivating his audience:
Not lounge jazz, not the commodified lobby jazz that works to blanch history, but the heat of New Orleans and the gristle of Chicago: the jazz that is beauty in its destruction of the past, the jazz of an unknown future, the jazz that promises freedom from the bad old times. “Today” is a fast-paced section with the epigrammatic day-by-day news headlines acting as markers of the unraveling postcolonial and sectarian violence. Their happiness at having found each other glows, fills the room: they do not need to speak. “Egypt has become an island floating away from reality. Then Hamilton meditates for a minute:
[O]ccasionally brilliant solos standing high above the steady rhythm of the street. Because of its earnestness, tenderness, and sparing tone, the book’s overall succinct observations are reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway’s style. Hamilton excels in paralleling the personal turbulence with the political upheavals during Mohammed Morsi’s short-lived autocratic reign, showing how he replicated the pharaonic trappings of military rule the year before. This honest vulnerability could have been deployed and developed more throughout the text, enlivening and enriching the characters whose rawness and roundedness are too often held back. Omar Robert Hamilton’s debut, The City Always Wins, is a chronological disruption of a novel, beautifully and mostly cinematically capturing the majesty of “bodies and rage and grief” on the ground and memories in broken hearts. The characters also seem here to lose steam. He writes in the early pages:
And then to the east and the buildings surging inland, their modernist balconies and flat rooftops pushing toward the chorus of Talaat Harb Square […] the great sloped mansard roof, the dramatic gradient of its gray tiling more appropriate for the rains of Köln than Cairo’s heat but beautiful here in this city of infinite interminglings and unending metaphor. I still love you. She gets up, pulling him with her. He then proceeds to polemically punch the reader, lest sentimentality takes hold, just as the city does: “Cairo is jazz: all contrapuntal influences jostling for attention,” employing Edward Said’s musical notions in a major key. The last spaces of dissidence have been shuttered and even the famed Greek Club, the city’s emblematic refuge of well-to-do die-hard dreamers of a forlorn future — mentioned throughout Hamilton’s reflections — has embraced fabricated bird sounds bustling through its crappy speakers, instead of bodies littered with birdshots. Firmly in the dictator-pretty decade, Cairo’s revolutionary splendor has all but withered away. He upturns all senses of temporal comfort, infusing the novel with Jacques Derrida’s idea of “time out of joint,” a zone of opaque possibilities. Their psychic carcasses are laid bare. By definition there’s no neatness to his narrative or the revolution. Hamilton, in a granular manner, rounds his sentences off with a lasting laconic feeling that spectrally hovers over the novel, but one that is attuned to the realities of love and loss. AUGUST 25, 2017
BEFORE ENDING her magisterial tome Cairo: 1001 Years Of The City Victorious with an endearing postscript, the Urban Studies scholar Janet Abu-Lughod closes her final chapter, “Whither The City: A Prognosis,” in saying, “perhaps this book must end appropriately on the same note that concludes all traditional Islamic endeavors to understand the un-understandable: And God knows best.”
She poses a series of prophetic thoughts that were written 40 years before the un-understandable city erupted in revolutionary fervor in 2011:
The social lines of tomorrow’s Cairo are as important as its physical ones but here both the forces and their results are somewhat less tangible […] What will the new organizing principles of Cairo’s social life be and how will they shape the future face of the metropolis? The book is divided into three parts: “Tomorrow,” “Today,” and “Yesterday” — counterintuitively recounting the events of the period in reverse order. Their relationship expectedly fizzles out as sadness and diverging paths shape their lives against the backdrop of a faltering revolution, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s stifling populism, and the facade of public order. Hamilton self-reflexively thinks of the revolution as a structure, not as an event, and toys with this Barthesian jouissance: “It’s impossible to do the Eighteen Days without being clichéd. The most sublime passage of the book though comes halfway, in the second section, “Today,” when Khalil is luridly dreaming of a doctor who is saving lives of those injured in clashes with Muslim Brotherhood militias:
They are in a house of warmth and soft furniture and they are in love and his hand is on her knee. Alaa Abdel Fattah, Hamilton’s cousin who the book is dedicated to, is serving time for protesting against a draconian law prohibiting protesting, and he is paid tribute to throughout the novel with his tweets and various texts. The tempo of “Today” nicely breaks into “Yesterday,” the final part of the book. Hamilton goes beyond nostalgic ruminations and romantic representations to distill Cairo, the towering and enveloping character haunting his book, to its purest form. ¤
Farid Farid is a Cairo-based journalist and independent scholar. The people waiting for the bus on the street corner crush its soft body bleeding underfoot. The mask moves toward him, moves in for the kiss, the darkness swirling now into a cosmos of bullet holes and breathing and bleeding. These streets laid out to echo the order and ratio and martial management of the modern city now molded by the tireless rhythms of salesmen and hawkers and car horns and gas peddlers all out in ownership of their city, mixing pasts with their present, birthing a new now of south and north, young and old, country and city all combining and coming out loud and brash and with a beauty incomprehensible. I still love you, he says, I still love you. They are broken, hurt, disillusioned, and lonely. It prepares us for the coming heat. Hamilton’s main protagonists are a pair of tepid lovers: Mariam, an Egyptian activist energized by the maternal instinct to document and tend to those injured physically and emotionally during the heady clashes with the army or Muslim Brotherhood or whoever is in power; and Khalil, a savvy Palestinian-American filmmaker whose pragmatism gets the better of him most of the time. They are further helped with the immediacy of carefully chosen tweets from figures who became the virtual lifeline, archiving a miasma of excitement and suffering. It’s ruined already by its overtelling.”
Hamilton revels in this time-space rupture to smash the idea that the past six years have been anything but tumultuous and disorienting. Mariam’s voice in particular seemed lacking when compared to Khalil, but her important thoughts are lucidly and touchingly recorded when she is taking care of her friend Alia, who has been gang-raped. He follows and sees she has something strapped to her head and when she turns it is not her face he sees but the black of the gas mask, the long darkness within it. One of his novel’s characters, the learned Hafez, alludes to this, wary of the baggage to record and present a Hollywood narration of events. And then flick, something lands on his chest and a red flower begins to bloom and he wakes with a start and a burning back and a grief cut with a silent guilt that racks him until the dawn. A madhouse, and we’re all locked in together,” Khalil says. He has been published in several news and academic journals, including The New Yorker, The New York Times, Social Semiotics, and Vanity Fair. It is harrowing and depressing, and an urgent reminder that the fiction is real; that the novel, with all of its lilting turns of phrase and witticisms throughout, is flattened under the crushing realization of defeat and shattered dreams. Hafez is shot in the traumatic massacre of Rabaa, where nearly 1,000 Egyptians were killed in one afternoon in an upmarket Cairo suburb, so powerfully elucidated in the final pages of “Today.” He ends up in a coma, which becomes the binding focus of his disparate friends from the Chaos media collective. His prescient journalistic reports hold the novel together, retrieving sedimented images, thoughts, feelings, and protests that have been buried in the humdrum of Cairo’s relentless and fast-moving politics. It is perhaps the most serious attempt toward answering Abu-Lughod’s poignant questions through fiction in many years. Abdel Fattah’s astute and melancholic political thoughts punctuate a bulging text dealing with the magnanimity of moving from one event to the next. This is a smart move because it bypasses the colossal task of documenting the euphoric 18 days in January 2011, memorialized in online annals now with terrible news headlines and over-eager punditry, to focus on the specificities of how the revolution was an ongoing agitation for something more. This scene is elegantly economical with an emotional valency that ripples on the page. He is not shy of recording his experience as a participant of Cairo’s revolutionary life. I still love you. I’m here with you. The reader gets a sense of this when Khalil says, “I don’t remember it being so cold in the 18 Days. But he also is reflective when writing minor characters in brief vignettes such as Um X, Ashira, or Umm Ahmed, who all have lost loved ones. They are part of the grassroots media collective Chaos, modeled on the real life Mosireen collective, which Hamilton was a founding member of. Hamilton transposes it skillfully it onto other characters such as the over-ambitious young academic Hafez, or in quoting the political theorist Eric Hobsbawm (who Hamilton lists as an influence in the writing process) or even taking passing shots at the fetishistic Orientalism of white girls and white journalists enamored by the revolution’s libidinal energy. This intertextual technique shakes the reader out of her ontological slumber, to engage with Hamilton’s narrative rather than read his dispatch-like writing as a bystander. The red cotton tree. The days were bright and clear and cheering us on.” He regrets how his “memories are slipping, fading at the edges.”
The City Always Wins is a brooding read, one that is manifestly rich in its gritty juxtapositions of pain, satire, elation, and the corporeal textures of blood and bodies, Cairo ever melancholically present.