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

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.


What We Are Reading Today: Steadfast Democrats

Updated 27 February 2020

What We Are Reading Today: Steadfast Democrats

Authors: Ismail K. White and Chryl N. Laird 

Black Americans are by far the most unified racial group in American electoral politics, with 80 to 90 percent identifying as Democrats — a surprising figure given that nearly a third now also identify as ideologically conservative, up from less than 10 percent in the 1970s. Why has ideological change failed to push more black Americans into the Republican Party? Steadfast Democrats answers this question with a pathbreaking new theory that foregrounds the specificity of the black American experience and illuminates social pressure as the key element of black Americans’ unwavering support for the Democratic Party, says a review on the Princeton University Press website.

Ismail White and Chryl Laird argue that the roots of black political unity were established through the adversities of slavery and segregation, when black Americans forged uniquely strong social bonds for survival and resistance. 

White and Laird explain how these tight communities have continued to produce and enforce political norms—including Democratic Party identification in the post–Civil Rights era. The social experience of race for black Americans is thus fundamental to their political choices.