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.