While writing the recent history of the Egyptian revolution I had to rely on several different types of material—some to bolster my own memory and imagination, some to be able to see out and beyond the immediate place and time (Cairo, 2011-2015) I was working within. Thinking back over it now, these were some of the key texts that shaped how The City Always Wins was constructed.
1. The Writings of Alaa Abd El Fattah
One of the most important political thinkers today is Alaa Abd El Fattah, the blogger and software developer, now imprisoned in Egypt. He is also my cousin. Throughout the years of writing I went back to his work, his essays, his tweets. He writes with a combination of critical precision, historical sweep, encyclopaedic knowledge, and poetic prose that makes him so dangerous as a writer that the Egyptian government has held him in prison for over three years. A good selection of his translated works are linked here on the independent Egyptian newspaper Mada Masr.
2. The Mandarins by Simone De Beauvoir
One of the challenges was in deciding on the level of detail to go into in a novel based on real events. Does a reader in twenty or fifty years need to know all the arguments and counter-arguments running through the months of rapidly changing politics? The Mandarins showed me that you can go into an incredible amount of detail—conversational, political, historical—while maintaining an engaging narrative. De Beavouir, though, was writing about herself, Camus and Sartre. In the end, I tried to keep The City Always Wins as trim and pacey as I could—a choice made more firmly after reading De Beauvoir.
3. Cairo: Memoir of a City Transformed by Ahdaf Soueif
We all write in relation to the writers around us. When writing The City Always Wins I saw it as working in concert with other texts from that historical moment. Ahdaf Soueif (who is my mother) captured the first years of the revolution brilliantly in her book, Cairo: Memoir of a City Transformed—in particular the initial uprising that toppled Mubarak, the transformative days that changed the country forever. The plot of my novel kicks in nine months later.
4. The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin
The depth and detail of Le Guin’s political imagination, the methodical way in which she builds her worlds and the politics that shapes them, is stunning. The City Always Wins opens during a time when people were suddenly able to imagine entirely new politics and everything was up for debate. The Dispossessed was a novel many people were reading. I read it then, and referred back to the reading later, each moment of engagement with it shedding a different kind of light on the possibilities of political imagination.
Twitter timelines were essential to the excavation of my memory. Twitter was an incredibly lively, critical, funny, engaging forum during the revolutions’ strongest years. While trying to remember the feeling of a moment, the political arguments, the jokes, the insults, the propaganda—so much of it is preserved there in brilliant polyphony.
6. The Age of Revolution by Eric Hobsbawm
There is a passage from The Age of Revolution that I read in 2012 in which Hobsbawm declares that all revolutions follow the same path through strength to division and ultimately conservative counter-revolution and defeat. I kept coming back to it in those last months of revolutionary strength before the military coup of 2013, trying to read the world around me through his lens, trying to see the different futures in competition with each other. Then, after the division and the conservative counter-revolution and defeat, I turned to writing. The main character in my book picks up Hobsbawm, tries to read the world around him through his lens… It is a central tension, not only in the book, but in life: Can you break the patterns of history or are we fated to play out the same roles again and again?
Omar Robert Hamilton is an award-winning filmmaker and writer. Based in Cairo and New York, he has written for The Guardian, the London Review of Books, and Guernica. He is cofounder of both Mosireen, a Cairo media collective formed in 2011, and the Palestine Festival of Literature. The City Always Wins is his debut novel.