May Hawas on "Cairo Swan Song"
Cairo Swan Song: A Modern Arabic Novel
Translated by Adam Talib
Reviewed by May Hawas
In Cairo Swan Song, Mustafa, a writer, tutor, amateur filmmaker and former student radical, joins his American girlfriend in making a documentary about Cairo’s street children (numbering one million according to the latest World Bank report). Mustafa wanders back and forth among the worlds of Cairo today, telling of his insights into the lives of the many women with whom he has affairs, the foreign friends and students he is drawn to and repelled by, his formerly radical colleagues and comrades who have ‘sold out’ to conformity and capitalism in various ways, and the protégés he picks up from the streets.
In line with Walter Benjamin’s “messianic time”—the simultaneity which makes the novel possible—the worlds which the narrator sees through his American girlfriend’s camera lens parallel and mock the realities of the communities that Cairo’s other millions inhabit: sordid in their day-to-day third-world practicalities, inescapable and inevitable in the self-illusions that people weave, and endless and repetitive in their occurrence. The layers are many: infant glue-huffers, masturbators, jailbirds, pimps and prostitutes; American university students and Egyptians who want to “live [W]estern lives”; house-party regulars in high-security buildings; hawkers of human rights and NGOs; Islamists, corrupt politicians and money-obsessed capitalist robots; and the individual’s own sense of multiple realities as he stands outside it all, understanding and not understanding, belonging and not belonging.
It is perhaps the novel’s resolution that asserts the impossibility of linear progress. The more Mustafa delves into the lives of others, the more he wonders what the future contains. This swan sings its last realization: death is the only definite; disappearance from the world the utmost success and liberation. Forward is an endless repetition of the present, for the present is an endless repetition of the past with the same hegemonic power struggles and anti-hegemonic ruptures. Westerners learn Arabic so they can continue to control the third world for many more years. Old leftist activists who once rose against a corrupt regime become corrupt themselves, still calling for an ideal—any ideal, even if Islamist or capitalist—and think they have realized Truth. Characters are remakes of old ones: people do not change; they change shape. Compassion, especially that extended by foreigners who attempt to improve the lives of war refugees or “reveal the horrific lives of the underprivileged,” is condescending and self-serving.
The tensions manifested in this book can be analysed critically in many ways, broadly speaking through terms of Marxism, postmodernism, deconstruction, postcolonialism, and nation theory, and reach across different fields of interest: sociology, literature, and human development. The translation from the original Arabic reads well, with lucid prose and intelligent interpretations.
Most originally, Mekkawi’s latest novel introduces a contemporary Cairo that is far removed from stereotypical images of fellahin driving cows at sunset, pyramid touts asking for baksheesh, and revolutionary gossip at street cafes and behind arabesque windows. Like many contemporary Egyptian novels, it takes us to trendy and artisan downtown Cairo. It also branches off to affluent Zamalek, however, to present the lives of Westernized Egyptians today and tell the fate of their Westernised counterparts of the seventies, thus underlining the strongly present, often surprisingly large expat circle in Cairo: their jobs, viewpoints, pastimes and preoccupations. Cairo Swan Song makes intriguing reading for those interested in contemporary third-world and developing societies, without any grand statements attempting to capture the “essence” of the country and its peoples. For a change, this is neither simply nostalgic eulogy nor bitter dirge, but the expression of a fleeting moment of truthful realization—ironically, one that is admitted to be necessarily limited—of the confused reality of Cairo’s many princes and paupers.