Book review: Revolution through the eyes of a hesitant change-maker

Donia Kamal’s writing is even-tempered and her narrative is rooted in history, making for a captivating read. (Photo supplied)
Updated 30 May 2018
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Book review: Revolution through the eyes of a hesitant change-maker

  • “Cigarette Number Seven” by Donia Kamal is a carefully paced novel about a young woman whose life has revolved around a non-traditional upbringing
  • Kamal’s writing is even-tempered and her narrative is rooted in history, making for a captivating read.

CHICAGO: “Cigarette Number Seven” by Donia Kamal is a carefully paced novel about a young woman whose life has revolved around a non-traditional upbringing that has led her to the edge of the Egyptian revolution in Cairo. Joining in with the sit-ins at Tahrir Square and taking care of her father, Nadia’s life crescendos and decrescendos from significance into apathy as she looks back at everything that has brought her to this point in life.

Author Donia Kamal is a novelist and producer. She has an extensive history of producing documentaries and television shows in the Middle East. “Cigarette Number Seven” is her second novel, which was first published in Arabic by Dar Merit in 2012. The novel was translated into English by Nariman Youssef, who translates fiction, poetry, song lyrics, and even the 2012 Egyptian constitution draft, and published in 2018 by Hoopoe, an imprint of the American University in Cairo Press.

Kamal’s narrator, Nadia, remembers small details of her past, but never the full picture. She remembers Umm Kulthum playing on the radio while her grandmother cooks in a fifth-floor apartment. Nadia remembers the smell of coffee brewing, onions being cut and garlic being peeled, but not much about anything else, least of all her mother who leaves her in her grandparents’ care when she moves to the Gulf to find work.

Nadia moves in with her activist father after her grandmother dies and it is with him that her life begins to take shape. Thus begins her time as a revolutionary. Although Nadia feels conscious, convinced her voice is too thin to appeal to anyone, she marches with her father and friends.
Kamal’s book offers an individual perspective of the Egyptian revolution. Through her main character, Nadia, and her father, Kamal is able to pinpoint what it is in ordinary people’s lives that brought them out to protest and demonstrate. Kamal reveals how the zealous atmosphere helps to keep them motivated. Even after violent encounters, there is a collective spirit that cannot be broken, as Kamal writes: “Still, the spirit of the square was like a magic balm over these wounds. The square was mighty and clear. It had power and influence and spirit… With unbelievable continuity it pushed us to carry through what we were doing.”
Kamal’s writing is even-tempered and her narrative is rooted in history, making for a captivating read.


‘Tales of Yusuf Tadrus’ — the story of a struggling artist with bills to pay

Updated 20 June 2018
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‘Tales of Yusuf Tadrus’ — the story of a struggling artist with bills to pay

  • Esmat’s novel is a glimpse into the life of an artist, his constant attempt to merge imagination with reality and the life of a Coptic-Christian in Egypt

CHICAGO: Winner of the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature in 2016, Adel Esmat’s “Tales of Yusuf Tadrus” is the story of a young man from the city of Tanta that sits in the Nile Delta. Yusuf struggles to find a balance between his dream of oil painting, canvases and light with his reality of teaching English, providing for a family and attempting to understand where he stands in the world. 

Esmat’s novel is a glimpse into the life of an artist, his constant attempt to merge imagination with reality and the life of a Coptic-Christian in Egypt.

Beginning every chapter with “Yusuf Tadrus Says,” Esmat delves deep into the life of his protagonist, a young man whose very birth leaves him uneasy in life. Knowing his mother had not intended on having children and had devoted her life to God, Yusuf believes he is destined to be extraordinary and embarks on a complicated journey in art and life.

Esmat’s portrayal of Yusuf’s struggle is intimate and detailed. Yusuf is an extremely introspective, introverted character, whose world clashes with his art as it takes him from Tanta to Alexandria, back to Tanta and as far as Al-Tur.

Esmat insightfully narrates an incredible story of struggle and longing. He paints a picture of Egypt, especially Tanta, of the alley where Yusuf grew up on Ghayath Al-Din Street and his family life, his mother who collects contributions for the Holy Bible Association, and his father, Khawaga Tadrus Bushra, donning a Saidi jallabeya, a skullcap and a white scarf as he sells dry beans and seeds. Yusuf spends his childhood riding his bicycle with friends, collecting contributions with his mother, experiencing the Six-Day War and winning a painting competition that brings him to the Palace of Culture on Al-Bahr Street where he learns to draw and, eventually, paint.

Esmat creates in Yusuf a multifaceted character who is both the protagonist and antagonist in his own story, tormented between a dream and reality against the backdrop of an unforgiving society.