Rachel Aspden (Other Press – 2016)
The young people in Cairo’s Tahrir Square mezmerised me in January 2011. I was glued to social media and the Al Jazeera channel streaming on TV.
I knew very little about what sparked the millions of Egyptians to leave their homes and take to the streets, but something clicked in me. Their revolution was contagious. If Mubarak, who came to power in 1981, could be thrown out, then perhaps the entire corrupt world order could be turned on its head. Their success was intoxicating and fueled my interest to learn more about the Middle East — history, politics, current events — I began reading anything I could get my hands on. I purchased my first ticket and flew to Cairo in August 2011. I’ve returned for extended visits (months at a time) four times since.
One thing I’ve learned in the past six years: there’s no description or explanation that easily explains Egypt and Egyptians. I’ve met and talked in more than just passing terms with street vendors, university students, hotel staff, government officials, the Egyptian Foreign Ambassador, NGO workers, taxi drivers, police, rural and urban Egyptians, hotel owners in Cairo and the Red Sea, the Muslim Brotherhood, Coptic Christians, aetheists, lawyers and professors, and the young, old and middle-aged. (Arabic is not in my repertoire so my slice of Egyptian life has been limited to English-speakers except where translators were available.) No two Egyptians share the same opinion about anything — on politics or popular culture.In Generation Revolution, Rachel Aspden has captured the impossible. I felt that same awe of Egypt and its people while I read her book. I couldn’t put it down.
In 2003, Rachel Aspden arrived in Egypt as a 23-year-old journalist. She found a country on the brink of change. The two-thirds of Egypt’s 8 million citizens under the age of 30 were stifled, broken and frustrated, caught between a dictatorship that had nothing to offer them and their autocratic parents’ generation, defined by tradition and obedience.
In January 2011, the young people’s patience ran out. They thought the revolution that followed would change everything. But as violence escalated, the economy collapsed and as the united front against Mubarak shattered into sectarianism, many found themselves at a loss.
Following the stories of four young Egyptians – Amr the atheist software engineer, Amal the village girl who defied her family and her entire community, Ayman the one-time religious extremist and Ruqayah the would-be teenage martyr – Generation Revolution exposes the failure of the Arab Spring and shines new light on those left in the wake of its lost promise.
The author seems to have no fear, putting herself in situations that I would never dare. She’s also able to record events unfolding — such as the Rabaa massacre — from the inside out, from the accounts her friends shared who were actually there.
I wonder how some of my Egyptian friends would respond to Generation Revolution. I know just who I would send a copy to, if only I could. The mail in Egypt is outrageously unreliable. In November 2015, officials in the local post office told me that no snail mail to the U.S.would be accepted because there were no flights between the U.S. and Egypt. Seriously!
Rachel Aspden’s ability to weave the personal lives and dreams of the Egyptians in her book within the larger political context of a revolution – coup – and the military rule of today is a testament to her mastery of journalism skills and deep affection for the people she came to know so well.
I won’t soon forget Aspden or Amr, Amal, Abdel Rahman, Mazen, Ayman, Abu El-Hassan, Ruqayah, or Sara (some names she changed to protect their identities).