Omar Robert Hamilton discusses his '˜terrifying' first novel

Over three years during Egypt's Arab Spring protests, Omar Robert Hamilton set up and ran the media collective, Mosireen (the name is a play on 'determined' and 'Egypt'), making YouTube videos chronicling the protests in an antidote to state television's take on events.

Omar Robert Hamilton 's debut novel mirrors his real-life role filming Egypt's failed revolution. Picture: Sam Waxman
Omar Robert Hamilton 's debut novel mirrors his real-life role filming Egypt's failed revolution. Picture: Sam Waxman

From January 2011 Mosireen produced and posted over 250 short videos, viewed over five million times in Egypt and beyond. You can still access them online, either through YouTube or Hamilton’s own site: chronicles of torture, killings, and street demonstrations brutally broken.

In 2014 Hamilton, the son of an Egyptian author and a British poet, arrived in the US with about 1,000 hours of footage, intending to make a two-hour documentary on what he’d witnessed By then, the army was back in control on the streets of Cairo, and “it had become very difficult to film anything” in an atmosphere of paranoia and xenophobia.

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When he sat down to write the voiceover for the documentary, what came out instead was a vivid, breathless, terrifying first novel, The City Always Wins, that puts us on the street with Cairo’s young revolutionaries, their loves, dreams, and deaths.

The main protagonist and sometime narrator is Khalil. Like Hamilton, he is running a video site, Chaos, and is partly an outsider, an American-born son of Egyptian and Palestinian parents.

This gives him a measure of protection, as well as the ability to leave Egypt. But like Hamilton, Khalil has a partner in protest, who does not. Mariam, the daughter of a doctor, a medical worker and volunteer, is his fiercely revolutionary lover, though they have little time to themselves. Their fear for each other, the minute-by-minute monitoring of each other’s movements, helps drive the drama.

Looking for comparisons for Hamilton’s recreation of a battlefield, his spare but unsparing prose, from a writer who was so clearly there, you might reach for a book like Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, about the American Civil War, with famous scenes like one showing a soldier dying on his feet. Crane, of course, made it up; he was born ten years after that war started.

As he wrote his book, Hamilton was given The Mandarins, by Simone de Beauvoir, an award-winning novel about the lives of French intellectuals in the wake of the Second World War. He cites Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell’s personal account of six months with an anti-fascist militia during the Spanish Civil War, as another influence. “The Mandarins was useful. Homage was useful. I am still on the lookout for something that feels like it has the same configuration for how it came about.”

Ask Hamilton what is true in his novel, and he says it all is. “I think everything in it is true,” he said. “I put it into a narrative form. I’ve had to imagine myself into some situations, and some sectors, but I don’t think there’s anything in there that is fictive.”

The novel moves in short bursts, broken up by a ticker tape of key moments, comments and Twitter feeds. Like noises off, or the storyboard of a documentary, perfectly attuned to the short attention span of an internet surfer: “February 1: More Innocent Verdicts for Killing of Protesters by Police ... June 30: Zero Hour: Egypt Awaits her Fate.”

We are with Khalil, Mariam and other fast-footed young activists as they try to win the battle by showing what they see. They dodge tear gas and tanks; rush to track down, console, and film bereaved mothers and fathers; organise intervention teams after a surge of crowd attacks on women; frantically pursue jailed comrades from one police station to another; mourn, and document, the broken bodies in the morgues. Khalil is haunted by memories of a young woman doctor, who dies in his arms.

These are the urgent lives of people riding the chaos of the upheaval, revolutionary democrats caught between the army and the authorities on one hand, and the Muslim Brotherhood, on the other. “The Brotherhood wants elections. The army wants elections. America wants elections. So surely we shouldn’t?” Khalil asks himself.

The novel captures a time of hope, when mobile phones, cameras, social media and the internet fed a new sense of people power. It was before the authorities in Egypt and elsewhere began to tame the new media and its users, turning a vehicle for liberation into a new tool of state control.

At the very end of his acknowledgements, Hamilton movingly thanks “my wife, Yasmin El-Rifae, for the life that made writing possible, and to my mother, Ahdaf Soueif, for the life that made it necessary.” Yasmin is putting together a non-fiction book on the sexual assaults on women during the period, based on oral histories and her own experience. Soueif is a novelist and cultural commentator who was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. She took Hamilton on his first visit to Palestine in his late teens; for the last ten years, he has also run the Palestine Festival of Literature, which he co-founded.

The book is dedicated to his cousin, Alaa Abd El-Fattah, who is also referenced in the novel, with the words: “This would have been a better book if I’d been able to talk to you”. Born in 1981, Alaa has been imprisoned or charged under every Egyptian regime to rule in his lifetime, as he is currently.

“He’s got this tremendous combination, he is incredibly intelligent, he has cutting-edge political analysis, and he’s got a totally international outlook, a depth of world history I would not come close to if I spent my entire life reading,” Hamilton said. “He is a very dangerous combination, and he refuses to be silenced, and every time they let him come out he is just as vociferous and just as forceful he was before. He’s a symbol for them: as long as they can keep him, the most powerful they look.”

The Arab Spring began in Tunisia, and while the tourism industry took a huge hit after terror attacks there, it is now regarded as the most democratic country in the Arab world. But in Syria and Libya it helped precipitate destructive civil wars. In Egypt it led to political and economic turmoil ending in the rule of General Abdel Fattah Sisi, a former director of military intelligence.

Egyptian activists still look back on the few hours on 28 January 2011, when the police were ordered to retreat from the masses on Tahrir Square, as the moment of opportunity, when protestors critically failed to take charge of key institutions – government buildings, television headquarters – before the army moved in. “That’s something both I and the characters come back to often,” says Hamilton. “Maybe the end was in the beginning.”

Of his book, he says, “It just happened. I knew that it came from a place of responsibility. I knew a lot of about what had happened, I had a very detailed experience and I had been involved in all sorts of different parts of what had been going on in the revolution. I hope that it stands as a sort of record, and I think that was my main feeling when writing it. If it can stand as a record of what happened then I will be satisfied.”

• Omar Robert Hamilton appears with Aleš Šteger at the Book Festival on Friday at 3:30pm in the Writers’ Retreat