Leopard förlag, 2014.
Reviewed by Darcy Hurford in SBR 2015:1
Review Section: Non Fiction
Since the Arab Spring, Egypt has regularly made world news. From the fall of Hosni Mubarak to the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to the fall of Mohamed Morsi, it has been a country in upheaval. Tina Thunander, a journalist at Sveriges Television whose previous books concern child brides and women in Saudi Arabia, examines this upheaval in more detail during three separate visits to Cairo. The first lasts from December 2011 until January 2012, a time of optimism.
She returns in November 2012 as Morsi, now president, fires the Prosecutor General, provoking outrage. On her third visit, a military regime is in place and the Muslim Brotherhood has been declared a terrorist organisation.
Her guide to Egyptian society is the Doctor Nasser of the title, who supplements his meagre consulting fees by giving Arabic lessons. Despite his intelligence and phenomenal work ethic, Nasser cannot afford a car, mainly because he lacks the influential contacts and family wealth so necessary to succeed in Egyptian society. Through Nasser, the author is introduced to everyday life in Cairo. She meets his friends and talks politics, attends the surgery in the poor areas of the city where he works, and even travels to his home village to visit his relatives. The result is an account that takes the reader well beyond the news headlines. The three snapshots taken between 2011 and 2013 illustrate how rapidly the political climate changed. During her first visit, the author was introduced to Jasmin, an unmarried woman in her thirties who worked as a child-minder for one of Nasser’s friends. Jasmin was discovering that she liked posting political comments on Facebook and dreamt of travelling to the US or to Lebanon. By the third visit, however, Jasmin was no longer in Cairo. As the male acquaintances with whom she used to discuss politics became more enthusiastic about the Muslim Brotherhood, they distanced themselves from her to the point where they deleted her phone number. When questioned, they guessed that Jasmin was working in one of the Gulf States – hardly the liberating outcome she had hoped for in 2011. Nasser’s changing view of the Muslim Brotherhood also comes across clearly. A devout Muslim, he was initially enthusiastic, but later realises their shortcomings.
Despite the political upheaval, much remains the same from visit to visit. There are always demonstrators in Tahrir Square. The poverty and the dirt are constant. By and large, Tina Thunander lets the people she meets speak for themselves – much of the text is directly quoted dialogue – which is one of the book’s great strengths.
However, one question niggles. Did the people Thunander spoke to know that they would appear in this book? Nothing indicates that pseudonyms have been used. The wealth of information about people she met, and Nasser in particular, makes him fairly identifiable. While he might be amused to read that he looks like ‘a bouncer in a rowdy pub’, certain facts about his professional life are revealed that he might not want to be widely known. As Åsne Seierstad found out when she was sued by the second wife of the real-life Bookseller of Kabul, people may react badly. Doctor Nasser opened up his private life to a foreign journalist. One can only hope that trust was not abused.