Initially, the cover image of a sad woman in her 20s with runny mascara staring diabolically into her own reflection seems to signal an engaging thriller, in which the numbers 1919 turn out to be a secret code to unravel a mystery or solve a crime.
But after the first 50 pages of “1919,” Ahmed Mourad’s newly published novel, you realize that none of this is right. “1919” is an account of SaadZaghloul’s revolution against British colonization and Sultan Fouad that is cleverly tied into a love story reflecting the many-layered Egyptian society of the time.
Ahmed Abdel Hay Kira was a medical student and the backbone of the Black Hand (Al-Yad al-Sawda’a), an underground resistance group that assassinated several British politicians during the occupation.
“I tried to find out where he lived but failed. I was told that he lived in three different apartments, each in a different neighborhood, and he never slept in one for more than one night,” wrote the late novelist Yahya Haqqi in a 1964 article in the literary magazine Al-Majalla.
Kira is one of the protagonists that Mourad takes from history for “1919,” but the historical novel starts in the previous century, with the 1879-1882 Orabi Revolt that gave way to the British occupation. The instability of the country then and the ensuing British bombardment and invasion took its toll on the Egyptian people, and created fertile soil for activists like Ahmed Kira to rise up in support of Zaghloul and find sanctuary in his Beit al-Omma (The Nation’s Home) in the Cairo district of Sayeda Zeinab.
The semi-fictional Kira sees Nazly for the first time at Beit al-Omma. The pretty young governor’s daughter is on the porch with activist Safeya Zaghloul following the protests that coincided with the arrest of the latter’s husband.
A romance starts as Kira begins recruiting potential activists for the Black Hand. He meets Abdel Qader al-Gen, son of Shehata al-Gen, the fettewah of Sayeda Zeinab’s Nasreya district. The fettewah (bully) was a common position that evolved during the 14th and 15th centuries among poor Egyptians, whereby a strongman assumed responsibility for the protection of a neighborhood in return of a monthly royalty — an informal occupation that the weak mamluks ruling Egypt gave life to.
Kira’s complicated love story with Nazly develops against the backdrop of his formation of the Black Hand with Gen, a young female Upper Egyptian teacher called Dawlat and an old railroad worker called Eshaq. They gather in the basement of downtown Cairo’s Café Riche, where assassinations were planned and political pamphlets secretly printed.
A second love story emerges in a skillfully woven drama built around Warda, an Armenian beauty who fate throws into the hands of a prostitute-turned-madam called Bomba and a pimp called Salama, after her parents die from a respiratory infection known as the Spanish flu. Dawlat, meanwhile, falls dangerously in love with Gen, while her brother Yassin is forcefully dragged from his village to build the Suez Canal and kill Turks in favor of the British.
Mourad has no doubt surprised his wide fan base with this multi-protagonist novel. It contrasts sharply with his previous books, in which solo characters fight demons, like Yehia in “Al-Feel al-Azraq” (The Blue Elephant, 2012), the corruption fighter Taha al-Zahar in “Diamond Dust” (2010), and Ahmed Kamal, the young photographer who goes after a serial killer to avenge his friends in “Vertigo” (2007).
Mourad’s meticulous research and his clever use of historical fragments have always been a major factor in his success. In “The Blue Elephant,” for example, Yehia travels between the 2000s and an old, colorful 17th-century Cairo that is based on the work of Abdel Rahman al-Gabarty, a Somali-Egyptian scholar and historian writing in the early 1800s. But with “1919,” Mourad decided to give history a wider look by basing the entire novel in a different era and populating it with real historical characters. And it is almost shocking to read a book by Mourad that does not involve solving a mystery or breaking a curse.
As yet only existing in Arabic, “1919” has overlaps in subject matter with Alaa al-Aswany’s “Omaret Yaacoubian” (“The Yacoubian Building,” 2002) and “Nadi al-Sayarat” (The Automobile Club, 2013), novels that revive a cosmopolitan Cairo in which characters from various social circles meet and their destinies intertwine. Like Aswany, Mourad flirts with Naguib Mahfouz’s writing style by mixing a vulgar colloquial with wonderfully poetic formal Arabic. As with Mahfouz, the story takes you around Cairo, from Azbakeya and Nasreya to Sayeda Zeinab and posh areas in Giza, and from a brothel to Beit al-Omma via the royal palace, through constant smooth scene changes that keep you hooked until the last page.
Through intricate descriptions of the planning, the firearms, the bombs and their components, the costumes used for disguises, and a dodgy meeting in Maadi’s petrified forest, a clear portrait emerges of a secret life of a secret group. Despite a relentless feeling that I was watching a black-and-white movie, and a nagging part of me that was still expecting a crime or a demon to take sudden control of the events, I couldn’t put the book down.
“1919” effectively draws parallels between a past era — an amputated revolution whose heroes are either imprisoned, exiled or killed in cold blood — and now. Villains successfully smear the reputations of noble men who have fought for freedom and justice, friends turn against each other, the hero finds himself alone and alienated, and the masses are happy with a fake victory, refusing to believe that they could have decided their own destiny.
In real life, Kira was eventually found stabbed to death near Istanbul’s old wall.
Haqqi, the last person to have seen him before his death, wrote that in a meeting in Istanbul he once offered to buy Kira a new pair of shoes, but the offer was turned down.
“I don’t want anyone to know my shoe size,” he reportedly said.
A 1956 article in Al-Tahrir magazine states that three British intelligence officers were behind the assassination. They apparently bragged about leaving his body to rot and by picked at by vultures before Turkish police found it days later. Kira was buried in the Armenian cemetery that later became Taksim Square.
Please read an alternative review of “1919” here.