What I didn’t tell the officer: a review of Randa Shaath’s The Sand Mountain

The officer takes a long look at the book he’s just taken from me, moments after stopping me near Qasr al-Nil Bridge on January 29, 2020. “The Sand Mountain? Hmmm … Is this a political novel, Mr. Shady?” 

I answer with a straight face: “It says ‘autobiography’ on the cover, sir. It’s a woman telling the story of her life.”

In a sarcastic tone laced with what he must have thought was extreme cleverness, he asks again: “And who is this Randa… what? Shaath! Who is this Randa Shaath whose life story you’re reading?” 

“A photojournalist,” I answer curtly, and he hands me back the book without much concern. 

Alright, so this was a bit of a reductive response, Mr. Young Officer, but I definitely didn’t wish to spend any more time with you trying to summarize Randa’s story. I finished the roughly 200-page book, which was recently released by Al-Karma Publishers, in just two days. I bought it with the curiosity of a mentally struggling reader, desperate for a break from political news, only to be taken on a psychologically challenging ride, one that rekindled many of my political sorrows. 

Do you know what a collage is, officer? It’s an art form that uses multiple shapes and textures to create a new hybrid work, and this is what Randa has done. She used many written and photographic images, varying fields of effect and a huge inventory of personal memories intertwined with an eventful history of the Arab world, to create a massive collage that embodies the rich life she’s led. 

Randa was Palestinian-Egyptian and spent most of her childhood in Egypt, but her existence was always rooted in the Palestinian diaspora. She starts her narrative in the 1960s at her mother’s family home, overlooking a sand mountain in the Alexandrian neighborhood of Mandara. Through the eyes of a four-year-old child, she recalls the details of their summer months there in the company of her grandmother Fatma, who is the heart of Randa’s story — where it starts and where it ends — and the person she dedicates the book to. Then she takes us to Garden City — where she lived with her parents in Cairo — and the beginnings of her discovery of the neighborhood that was her entry point to a city that never lacked for grand events. In a way, it was also her springboard to other, more distant cities, where even grander events transpired and somehow intersected with her life. She’d always come back to Garden City, however, and as the years passed it seemed as though she had become a pillar of that neighborhood, about which a friend had once incredulously asked her when she was young: “Oh, you live in Garden City? So you’re bourgeois!” At that moment, she writes, for the first time her wit came to her aid — “Yes, bourgeois with proletarian aspirations.” 

When she is six, Randa’s family moves to Beirut, and she comes back to Cairo in 1975, the year the Lebanese Civil War broke out. She is 12 then and has a small box of childhood souvenirs, many new memories, a brother, Ali — who is eight years younger — and a new reality shaped by her father joining the Palestine Liberation Organization. 

Just like you when you stopped me in the street, officer, what drew me most to Randa’s book is how she kept catching me off guard: how she leaps between stories and places and dates of significance. A chapter in Mandara followed by one in Garden City; a chapter in Beirut followed by another about her relationship with her mother; a vignette from a relative’s life, followed by a chapter about Randa’s first trip to Palestine; a chapter about the story of her paternal grandmother’s marriage, then another about her youngest brother, Rami, and onto a shorter one about a collection of plants that will accompany her for life. Do you remember what I told you about collaging? Selecting the small parts that make up the bigger whole is a tricky process if you don’t know how you will assemble them, and in this aspect, Sand Mountain was, to a great extent, successful. Perhaps it was Randa herself, or an editor; perhaps it was a friend or a professional — it doesn’t really matter. It is enough that when placed together, the small pieces serve the larger picture, illuminating the stories’ context and creating a logical history and reference to the feelings and actions they entail. Most importantly, they shrink the distance between the memoir’s author and its reader. 

I found some parts of the book online, previously published as blog posts and articles on Al-Shorouk, which confirmed my initial impression that the book had undergone a substantial editorial process. If it was not someone in Al-Karma — apparently one of the few publishing houses in Egypt that understands the importance of book editors — that arranged those fragments to create such a coherent work, I would not be surprised if it was done by Randa herself. After all, the book bears the mark of an exceptional visual artist and veteran storyteller, and its personal nature — as a record of a journey teeming with interlinked places, characters, feelings and events — suggests strong interventions by the author.  

In Egypt, Randa grows into a young woman and enrolls in the American University in Cairo, where she becomes involved with activist groups advocating for the rights of the Palestinian and Lebanese people. Then she travels to the United States for graduate studies. Alright, then, officer, I admit that something in your face got to me as you asked me all those questions; your features and your olive skin made you look familiar, like an old friend, which kept me from hating you, as one probably should in a situation like this. For the sake of that glimmer of humanity I caught in your eyes, I urge you to read the beautiful chapter Randa wrote about bidding farewell to Sheikh Imam before she left for the US. I definitely understand that Sheikh Imam — if you know him at all — evokes an entirely different meaning for you than that he evokes for people like Randa and me, but I believe that the delicacy with which this chapter was written transcends our differences, and so does the poignance that engulfs the second half of the book, with all the exquisite details Randa gathers in there, from multiple moments of loss to ceaseless bouts of longing.

These humanistic details that fill Randa’s book are mostly what drew me to it, and to her: scattered incidents from here and there, some of which I thought were superfluous in the beginning, as though she’d written them down when she’d first experienced them and could not bring herself to exclude them during the selection process.  But as I found most of these moments lingering in my head after I finished the book, I realized why they were necessary in the context of Randa’s life: each of them had shaped a considerable part of who she is, and including them allowed her to reveal more about herself to readers without the need to resort to direct exposition. So through her book — in which she shares the minute happenings of her daily life with us, just as she does the bigger events — she creates friendships with people she might never meet. 

I didn’t know Randa personally before reading Sand Mountain, but I now feel like I can pick her a birthday present she’d love, share a song with her she’d appreciate, take her to a place she’d enjoy. I feel close to her, now that she’s shown me her life’s photo album, with all the images in there that she’s recounted — from her family’s history and beyond — as well as the actual photographs that she’s accumulated across the years, displaying them with the same grace with which she captured them in the first place. 

Randa’s relationship with photography is featured heavily throughout the book. Her passion for the profession shines through when she describes herself: “I love walking and getting lost in streets I’m discovering for the first time, meeting people and listening to their stories — how they lived and overcame obstacles — often leaves me moved, and I always find in their words what corresponds with my life. Day-to-day details inspire me, I find in them magic and wisdom. Being a photographer is a great excuse to practice getting lost … In photography, I found a refuge that suits me, where I could express my feelings and my vision.” Yet we can tell it is more than a profession to her, even though she is a photographer who also teaches the craft and is also a leading photo editor: “In vain, I explain to my fellow editors that the image should not reflect what the text says; it should have its own independent effect — together, the image and the text give the news a third dimension. Our societies are still visually illiterate.” Objecting against the recurrent disregard for the principles of the profession, Randa eventually quits her job. 

The role photography played in the formation of Randa’s personality is evident in her knack for skilfully and meticulously describing places and scenes in writing. She fills the “frames” with movement and emotion, as though photography, to her, was a natural instinct long before it became a hobby and later a profession. “I hold the camera at a distance from my face; I refuse to block one inch of my view,” she writes about a visit to Jerusalem. 

Yes, officer, Randa has been to Jerusalem, Ramallah and Gaza — many times over — and she was present during key moments in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. She returned to Lebanon and lived in Algeria, and the struggles of all these countries have left their impact on her. In Sand Mountain, she recounts those experiences in an effortless use of language, and an honesty untainted by pretension. 

Not only does Randa tell stories about these countries — each of which is now witnessing political upheavals that are distressing their respective regimes — she also writes about the Egyptian Revolution, never attempting to hide her allegiance to it. She recounts how angry she was in January 2011 — “How could they start the Revolution without me?” — and shares much of what she’s witnessed on Cairo’s streets in the years that followed: “I am suddenly anxious about the phone in my hand. I forgot to delete Facebook, and I didn’t set up a passcode. Damn it. They arrest people now if they don’t like what’s on their timeline.” 

In the book, Randa doesn’t search for triumph or glory, she doesn’t theorize the battles she fought or analyze the positions she adopted; she only tells the story of a girl and a family: the former has grown up, while life has done what it does with the latter. She wrote about what she lived, I read about home and pain and absence and joy and longing and love. She wrote about her dreams and disappointments, I read about my dreams and disappointments. She wrote about her people, I remembered mine.

I think you understand now, officer, why I could not have said more to you about Sand Mountain that day you randomly stopped me in downtown Cairo, only a few yards away from Tahrir Square, questioned me and looked through my phone for no reason. At first, you wondered why I didn’t have Facebook, then you searched WhatsApp for the words “Sisi” and “revolution,” before asking about my involvement in January 25 and what I used to chant back then. You insisted on looking me in the eye as I pretended that I didn’t remember, as though asserting your power before my fear; your victory against my defeat. Alright, then, officer; history is etched within people, and the streets retain their memory, no matter how they change. And some books hold much, much more than they let on.

Shady Zalat 

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