The City Always Wins
by Omar Robert Hamilton
A debut novel that captures the experience of the Egyptian revolution like no news report could
History changes as invisibly as the future, though more painfully in having tasted what is lost.
The City Always Wins is astonishing, intelligent throughout and alternately inspiring and saddening, a novel of the Egyptian Arab Spring that covers the macro tides and currents of the movement’s development while also painting a beautiful micro narrative of two young people swept up in the wave. It recounts and reflects on the difficult relationship between revolution and democracy; chaos and governance; generational and class friction; change and order. It examines the push to maintain hope and raise a voice and stand up and be counted, versus the insidious infliction of fear and intimidation to silence and oppression for security: tools of regimes of varying political and religious stripes but all are tigers clawing at control and power. This is a louder, darker, more brash and more urgent cousin to many of the immigrant stories proliferating at the moment: this is about pressing forward for progress and justice when the political landscape is shifting beneath your feet, how raw anger and energy and emotion are either channeled into change or ruthlessly thwarted and crushed. And it’s very specifically Egyptian in character, though the ideas and ideals of revolution or change are very universal and relevant to many current debates and situations across the world today. I’d give this 4.5 stars, and round up to 5: it’s one of the best debut novels I’ve read in some time.
You need discipline to win a war. You need chaos to win an insurgency. So which are we?
I didn’t know you, but I knew we were together in this, that we have stood together, night after night, regime after regime. We stood together, we failed together. We die apart.
Hamilton’s novel is not simply a recounting of recent history. It’s a human story, focused on Mariam and Khalil and their friends at Chaos, surging forward with the power of the street and doing what they can to document, to demand change and justice, but being slowly worn down with each new martyrdom, shooting, rape. Mariam and Khalil’s young, impassioned love follows a parallel track, and we watch as the fate of an ancient nation and the fates of our protagonists and their affection and passion are tied and tested. Omar Robert Hamilton shifts perspective predominantly between Mariam and Khalil, though we also move into the eyes and emotions of the parents and loved ones of the murdered and the missing, rounding out the very human elements of a dark, depressing chapter of recent history. The writing is raw and dynamic, vacillating between profound observations and casual dialogue amongst friends to the stream of consciousness one feels in a moment of crisis, punctuated by true headlines from 2011-2013 and various Tweets of facts and rumors and fears of the time.
We’ve done it to ourselves. This cycle of horror. Each scene has to be more shocking than the last. Then they care for fifteen minutes until the next horror horrifies them. And how many horrors until people have to just switch off ?”
How many waves of outrage must we spark to reignite the revolution? How many last breaths will we auction off to the breathless internet? If a revolution’s fuel is death, then what will be its end?
There’s a rebuke for the Western audience as well, the one that expresses horror and demands action about and consumes content on a given crisis for a finite period, then moves on to the next catastrophe of Third World brown people, as though we don’t have the attention span, the empathetic capacity, the bandwidth to care for more than one sad sob story at a time. Which certainly our news programs and water cooler conversations reflect this, hopping from Egypt to Syria in terms of nations in turmoil, actions of ISIS and Boko Haram displacing those of Al-Qaeda and Joseph Kony, every now and again allowing space for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and plight of the Sudanese and the Somalians to resurface. I too am guilty: following the events from Mubarak to the military to Morsi, but once Sisi’s stranglehold over the nation took place, my attention wandered to other nations with old and new problems.
The triumph of it all is the vanquishing of imagination. There can be nothing new. No new music is imaginable, no new genre, no new memories to repackage and sell, no new stories or ideas or possibilities, no new happinesses. There is only nostalgia and kitsch and superheroes and heartbreak and a sealed fate and surrender. There is no reality other than this one and no past that wasn’t marching toward it. They call it progress. It is undeniable, they tell us, it is all-conquering, it is this and it is now. The world is made.
Hamilton’s writing is confident and unconventional: shifting perspective abruptly and sometimes without much of a page break, jumping forward in time, marking changing circumstances and major moments by text, by Tweet, by headline. And yet somehow all of it works, sometimes discordant notes coming together as a beautiful melody. The description is detailed, but never languid or lush, instead infused with a constant urgency, uncertainty, tension; the overall effect being captivated but taught as a bow string. The dialogue is smart, snappy, yet sounds authentic: how the characters address each other is as important as what they say. Hamilton also employs strategic repetition in his descriptions, for emphasis and subversion of previously laid out ideas, as well as a rhetorical type of device that calls to mind some famous Arabic songs also known for their power of telling and retelling. Hamilton’s gift as a writer is to bring this chaotic situation to life, imbue his characters with real emotion and action and indecision and fear, and explain and show the complexity to a less well-initiated audience, while also being able to fully inhabit and speak about and from multiple Egyptian perspectives with authority. And it helps that he simply has talent to spare:
Cairo is jazz: all contrapuntal influences jostling for attention, occasionally brilliant solos standing high above the steady rhythm of the street. New York may say that New York is jazz, but 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 empires and all the brutalities and beauties they bring, emerging riotous and discordant and defiant into something new and undefinable and uncontrollable. 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. Yes, Cairo is jazz. Not lounge jazz, not the commodified lobby jazz that works to blanch history, but the heat of New Orleans and gristle of Chicago: the jazz that is beauty in the destruction of the past, the jazz of an unknown future, the jazz that promises freedom from the bad old times.
Overall, I found this to be a bold, ambitious debut, well-written, enlightening and entertaining and enraging at various times. Omar Robert Hamilton is someone I’ll keep an eye on after this auspicious first novel. I highly recommend this for people who like diverse contemporary fiction, and readers who like to follow first time authors and begin tracing possible paths from their early work. On the basis of The City Always Wins, I’m thinking (and hoping) this is the start of a very fruitful career in fiction.