Following the January 25 uprising in 2011, the book industry in Egypt witnessed an unprecedented boom and “revolution literature” pushed a lot of people back into reading. However, most of these publications were feeble documentations or haphazard speculations, and both kinds were boring for the average reader who had already lived through the 18 days and still had to live with the speculations of conspiracy theorists filling hundreds of newspaper pages with fantastical hypotheses on a daily basis. Then another type of revolution fiction started to prevail, offering a half-novel, half-memoir approach that came out half-boring.
But Ezzedine Choukri Fishere‘s Bab al-Khoroug (Exit Door), published in Arabic in 2012 by Dar al-Shorouk, offered a new take on revolution literature. It’s a purely fictional novel set in a semi-fictional revolution unfolding from Tahrir Square on January 25, 2011 and told through the eyes of a mundane official from the presidential palace, Aly Shoukry. He’s a translator who finds his way up the ladder to become presidential secretary of information during the Hosni Mubarak era.
The 500-page book is a long letter from Shoukry to his son Yehia, written in 2020 in 24 hours from the first officer’s cabin aboard a Chinese ship carrying 24 nuclear bombs meant for Israeli troops in eastern Sinai. They represent a potential nuclear war between Egypt and Israel that could destroy the entire region.
Sipping coffee while writing, Shoukry reminisces about the past nine years of the revolution. The Supreme Council of Armed Forces ruled, followed by a presidential council and a leftist coalition government, then the rule of democrats under the iron fist of Prime Minister Ezz Eddin Fekry, an American University in Cairo professor and academic who turned dictator and killed dissenters as part of a reform plan, only to find himself indicted by his own revolutionary courts.
A severe state of unrest then gave way to the first civilian-elected president, a naïve and inexperienced Muslim Brotherhood candidate who dragged the country into a fatal conflict with Israel after permanently opening the Gaza crossing, which indirectly allowed an attack on Ben Gurion Airport and gave Israel a way to occupy eastern Sinai. Then a coup in 2020 by Shoukry’s father in-law General al-Qattan, talks with the United States and Israel, and the looming fanatical nuclear attack.
Shoukry is a reflection of various segments of society: He’s a typical passive government employee at times, a fiery revolutionary at others. He mainly disagrees with all the rulers he’s worked under but most times he’s managed to convince himself it’s all for the best anyway. He desires freedom and desperately searches for stability, even at the cost of his own beliefs or the lives of those he cares about. He’s a patriotic citizen with a very low tolerance for change and minimal acceptance of the unknown.
“This is when I realized I was sick and tired of the revolution,” he says after another transitional government crumbles.
As a reader, you’re immediately caught up in this letter from 2020. The book wipes away boundaries between past, present and future and draws a hazy, sometimes unrecognizable line between reality and fiction. It is tied to the basics of the past yet weaves a different present and an astounding future using characters that readers could very well recognize from reality, despite their different names.
Using already existing conflicts, Choukri Fishere created a parallel universe in which a leftist government takes control while the Brotherhood shies away from power, and the democratic academic turns into a dictator and kills more than 100,000 left-wing opponents, Salafis and state officials in less than two years. The book opens up new possibilities to the reader, reproducing the Machiavellian politics and deals made behind closed doors that make yesterday’s enemy today’s ally and vice versa.
Bab al-Khoroug is a rollercoaster of convincing scenarios, recognizable characters, a frightening future and a familiar past, seen through the eyes of an official who has seen it all, witnessed atrocities and turned a blind eye, until assigned a task from hell that would swallow the country into a black hole.
Choukri Fishere’s concoction has all the ingredients necessary for a novel to succeed, but not necessarily in the right quantities. The elongated descriptions of political schemes being cooked or unrest prevailing in Egypt’s streets sometimes drag, especially when followed by tedious monologues by the protagonist reprimanding his passive self or howling at the consequences of his crippling silence in the face of injustice. But then Fishere hooks you again with another execution or another uprising or a war that is unbelievable yet strongly possible. It’s this element of possibility that keeps you absorbed in the twists and turns.
Choukri Fishere is an Egyptian novelist, an academic and a former diplomat who worked at the Egypt’s embassy in Tel Aviv and was counselor to Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, among other roles. Born in 1966, he studied political science at Cairo University before earning a Masters in international relations at the University of Ottawa and a PhD in Montreal.
Bab al-Khoroug is his sixth published novel: He published his first with Merit in 1995, Makhtal Fakhreddin (The Killing of Fakhreddin). His novels, unsurprisingly, tend toward the political and two, Khorfet al-Enaya al-Morakaza (Intensive Care Unit, 2006) and Enak Enda Jesr Brooklyn (Embrace at Brooklyn Bridge, 2011) were long-listed for the Arabic Booker Prize. Bab al-Khoroug was originally published in daily episodes in the privately owned Al-Tahrir newspaper.
The novelist and his protagonist share more than just a family name: Choukri Fishere, in his writings for the privately owned newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm, is an all-out opponent of the Brotherhood and their rule. His last article, published a few days ago, says Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is the sole candidate eligible for the position of president. Fisher says he’s tired of the state of instability, restlessness and horror Egyptians have been living since the ousting of former President Mohamed Morsi last year.
In an article published in March, “I am tired and can’t take it anymore,” he wrote an imaginary dialogue between a frustrated revolutionary citizen and a politician who is supposedly sympathetic, yet has opposing views: While the citizen sees that none of the revolution’s goals were reached and nothing else can be done, the politician pushes him to vote, work and keep production going. Choukri Fishere may simply be, like the protagonist of Bab al-Khoroug, a typical Egyptian citizen who wants stability, hates the Brotherhood and thinks leftists are too idealistic to succeed in real life.
Regardless, unlike most revolution related literature, Bab al-Khoroug offers an anarchic and exhilarating take on events. It’s an interesting though not unproblematic attempt to analyze the present and accept potential futures through fiction.