Every once in a while a book comes along that touches you deeply. Farag is such a book. I was hesitant on Goodreads to give it a four star rating, “really liked it” or a five star rating, “it’s amazing”. Because I can’t really say it is amazing. I really really liked it. But it deserves a five rather than a four, but I can’t treat it like a book where I’d say, ‘oh wow, man, that was such a read, I’m thrilled!’ kind of thing. It’s subtle. It’s simple and it can seem like any story of a family in Egypt living in the 50s, 60s, 70s and up to our present time. But it’s more than that.
The author always brings in a part of him/herself into their writings. Radwa Ashour often mentions that, and she always brings parts of herself into her writings, even when they seem purely fictional, though Ashour’s writings are never purely fictional. How much is fictional, how much is autobiographical and how much of this happened to people she knew very well is not important. If you know anything about this era, you will be able to pick out the bits and pieces you know to be close to home.
What I love about this book is that it lingers with me. I didn’t read it in one shot which is nice because that way I kind of lived with it for a while. I read a third of it on the plane to the US – a long flight – a third on my way back three weeks later, and a third three weeks after that. I felt like Nada’s life story was close to me and I was following her life and that of her family as if I was visiting her while she was a child and growing up, and then I went to visit her later when she was going through her own youth and raising the boys and then afterwards when they had grown up and graduated from college, all the while the social and political events surrounding her and them provided the context to the story.
What moved me was a nostalgia to that era of student movements, to the story of Arwa, Siham, Hazem.. her father’s imprisonment, her own, Foucault, Durkheim, her visit to the prison that reminded me of Robben Island in South Africa, where the guides who take you around, are among the ones who were imprisoned, the faith these people had, their disillusionment.. When I first graduated and started working, I was a part of those stories.. I knew the people who had participated in the movements, who had been friends with Arwa, who had gone through the tribulations and turbulences of that era, I read the philosophical, psychological and historical theories related to that. My feelings while reading the book was a nostalgia to those post college days when I was learning so much about my country through personal experiences that you never learn in books or in college or at school, and a nostalgia to have been a part of that movement, a part of that conscience or consciousness that has almost totally evaporated now.
Radwa Ashour’s writings are not just works of prose. They’re not just novels and articles and stories. They are ‘living’ writings.. they pulsate while you’re reading, you feel with the characters, the events, the descriptions of the surroundings and you live with them. Long after the book is finished, you find yourself thinking of what you’ve read, you turn and see one of the characters walking in the distance, you hear a conversation, you sense a pang in your heart when you remember a certain something that happened. You even sense feelings of pain, of regret, of happiness.. but most importantly, a feeling of being energized, a rendering of faith and of hope for change that could still happen if we really worked hard for it; if we really believed in it. I was sitting there in the train with Nada in that final chapter and I could see her life passing before her eyes. I felt I was there with her, like an alter self.. I’m not really. My life is nothing like Nada’s, but I sometimes wish it had been similar. I often wonder what my life would have been like if I had been a part of that era. Through Nada’s personal experience, I get a glimpse of that and through Radwa Ashour’s beautiful style I become almost a part of it.