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The City Always Wins

Cityalwayswins hamilton
Hardcover, MCD × FSG, 2017
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Omarroberthamilton samwaxman

Omar Robert Hamilton

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We've been doing the same thing for hundreds of years. Marching, fighting, chanting, dying, changing, winning, losing. This time will be different. This time the future can still be made new.

The City Always Wins is a novel from the front line of a revolution. Deeply enmeshed in the 2011 uprising in Tahrir Square, Mariam and Khalil move through Cairo’s surging streets and roiling political underground, their lives burning with purpose, their city alive in open revolt, the world watching, listening, as they chart a course into an unknown future. They are—they believe—fighting a new kind of revolution; they are players in a new epic in the making.

But as regimes crumble and the country shatters into ideological extremes, Khalil and Mariam’s commitment—to the ideals of revolution and to one another—is put to the test.

From the highs of street battles against the police to the paralysis of authoritarianism, Omar Robert Hamilton’s bold debut cuts straight from the heart of one of the key chapters of the twenty-first century.Arrestingly visual, intensely lyrical, uncompromisingly political, and brutal in its poetry, The City Always Wins is a novel not just about Egypt’s revolution, but also about a global generation that tried to change the world.

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An excerpt from The City Always Wins

November 19, 2011

6:09 p.m.

Mariam opens her backpack and quickly moves through the apartment: phone charger, water, two packs of cigarettes, two lighters, small notepad, antiseptic spray, pen, painkillers, toothbrush, spare underwear, socks, T-shirt, ID. Money, phone, keys in pockets.

She pulls out her phone and writes a tweet:

Everybody: go to Tahrir now. Tell everyone. The police attacked the “injured of the revolution” protest. Huge numbers are out.

“Ready?” Khalil asks.

“Yes,” she replies. “Let’s go.”

In four seconds she can pull the kufiyyeh up around her face, tie it around the back of her head, can become a boy. She practices once, in the bedroom mirror. He watches her hands, so deft in the knot.

He pulls her close to him and they stop for a moment before stepping out into it. It’s finally happening again. The streets are full. She kisses him, moves herself against him; the clamor of the riot rises up from the streets below.

“Don’t do anything stupid,” she says. “Or brave.”

“It’s not me I’m worried about.”

She pushes against him for a last moment and he is in their first night together and the echo of bullets ricocheting through the air and the blood rushing as his hands pulled her body against him—but the front door’s open, it’s time to go.

There are no cars on the street. The elegant boulevards of Downtown are all but deserted. What few people there are hurry toward Tahrir. In the square a police truck is on fire. Khalil and Mariam hurry through the crowd, toward the reverb of shotguns down Mohamed Mahmoud Street. Throughout the square the same words ring out, again and again:

Down, down with military rule!

Mariam cannot help but smile to herself.

Down, down with military rule!

It’s finally happening again.

Burning tires light the long and narrow dark of Mohamed Mahmoud Street. Silhouettes slip between the flames. The police form a dark line of men ahead. At the front, the conscripts. Behind them the officers wait darkly, their trucks and shotguns ready. Behind them both lies the Ministry of the Interior, still standing despite all those who gave their lives in January trying to take it. Motorcycle ambulances race the injured away from the front line. She squeezes Khalil’s hand and is gone. He pulls his phone out and sets it to record through the binaural microphones in his headphones. He stands to one side for a moment, watching the shape and rhythm of the battle.

 A hundred people make up the front line at any one time, informal ranks of stone throwers and shit talkers hurling everything they have at the cops. Behind them a middle section stretches down the street, the immediate backup, people taking a break from the rocks or gearing up the nerve for those final few steps into the firing line, people pushing up for a better view, the fire starters and gas catchers hurling the smoking canisters back where they came from. Behind them, where Mohamed Mahmoud Street flows out into Tahrir, are the spectators, the chanters, the drummers, doctors, quarriers, and hawkers.

A rock crashes into the tree above Khalil and cracks into his head, another grazes his shoulder and another bounces off the tarmac onto his shins, and he picks one up and hurls it back at the police. He can’t see where it lands. He pulls his hood up and slips into the crowd, into a unitary anonymity, and with each rock he slings out into the no-man’s-land he feels a growing potency as more and more bodies press up to the front. Each shot rings like a ripple through the crowd, each person who falls hurried quickly away to the doctors, each rock in the air an invisible fate, an invigorating fatalism.

 A siren sounds and a panic of blue light flashes through the darkness. A shotgun sounds. Two APCs charge forward, showering buckshot, and a gas canister lands at his feet and the poison takes hold in seconds and cramps at his stomach and burns his eyes and he runs in the stampede back to Tahrir, holding his breath until he’s doubled over, dry-retching, waiting for his stomach to unclench itself. Through the salty mucus filling his eyes he sees a boy in a hood, feels him rubbing his back, and it’s only when the breaths come again that he sees it’s Mariam.

“You okay?” she says.

“I’m good.”

She takes her bag off her back and pulls out half an onion, holds it under his nose.

“Does that work?” he asks.

“Try it.”

He breathes it in.

“Isn’t this an old Palestinian trick?” she asks.

“Is it?”

In the crowd behind her at least three people are splashing Pepsi into their eyes, desperate tsoothe the burning.

“I was doing the Pepsi thing before,” Khalil says. “This is better.”

A man with a large cardboard box on his head weaves through the crowd: “Gas masks! Ten pounds! Get your gas masks!”

“You’re good?” she says.

“Yes.”

“I’ve got to find my mother,” Mariam says, then squeezes his hand and is gone.

Khalil lights a cigarette. The gas has cleared and the crowd is flowing back down Mohamed Mahmoud Street for another round. His chest swells with a warrior pride.

Down, down with military rule!

A woman with a bottle of Pepsi held high looks for patients.

Khalil takes his phone out of his pocket, checks on the recording.

“Beautiful sight, no?” comes a voice from behind him. He turns to see Hafez. Even in the middle of a riot, Hafez is well dressed, a casual but decent jacket over a rugged dark shirt. He stands with an old Hasselblad camera slung over one shoulder and a standard digital around his neck.

“It’s good.”

“Only took the army nine months.”

The flames from the police truck lick high up into the air.

“You been here long?” Hafez asks.

“Couple hours.”

Hafez is watching the crowd pulse back and forth, studying its movements, alert, always, for the image.

A man’s body is carried among eight people. Field hospital, they shout. Where’s the field hospital? and two boys start running with them.

“You see how it started?” Khalil asks.

“I heard they came and the filth beat up the injured-of-the-revolution’s protest camp.”

 “That’s a dumb move.”

“Or a provocation.”

Every time he looks at Hafez he remembers January 28. Thrown together and inseparable since then. The day of days. The day we won. The day the police fled. The crucible in which new bonds, a new chemistry, was catalyzed. Khalil sees it still, always, a frozen moment in the sun, the sky a brilliant blue, the glinting metal falling like a mechanical animal homing in on them, the crowd parting and running and covering their eyes as it comes for them until from out of the sea of hesitation steps Hafez and it’s trapped under his foot, the hissing gas canister pouring its malice out into the world and then it’s up and in the air again and the crowd is back all around him and roaring in defiance as the last of the poison trails down toward its grave in the Nile and there’s Hafez with a wild pride in his eyes and a red welt of seared flesh across his hand and the crowd surging back toward the bridge.

“They’re hot!” he said in surprise, almost laughing, shaking his burned hand against the wind. We didn’t even know they were hot. January 28. Just a bunch of kids out on the street.

A man breaks out of the crowd. He has three tear gas canisters in his hand. “Photograph these!” he shouts at Hafez. “Photograph these, sir! It says Made in America, right? Nothing’s changed! Photograph these! Fuck Tantawi and fuck the army!”

Hafez takes a shot, says thank you, and the man moves on.

A doctor in a white coat is picking her way through the crowd, a black gas mask raised over her face. An old man sits on the ground with his head in his hands. “Are you okay, sir?” she asks. He nods, puts his hand up to her, and she helps him stand and steady himself and head back to the battle.

“Fucking Tantawi,” Hafez says, shaking his head. “What do they think they’re doing?”

 “They don’t know what they’re doing.”

“No? They come beat up a bunch of invalids live on TV by accident?”

“That was the cops.”

“You think the police do anything without an okay from the top?” Hafez says

“Police and the army aren’t necessarily friends.”

“Right now, they’re friends,” Hafez says.

“They were humiliated,” Khalil says. “Maybe they want revenge and Tantawi can’t control them.”

“There’s an election in five days,” Hafez says. The police truck blazes in front of them. Three news cameras record the hungry flames. “It’s no accident. They left that behind for us to burn.”

“But the army wants the elections,” Khalil says. “They don’t want this.”

“Nor do the Brotherhood,” Hafez says. “That’s why they’re not out here.”

A roar of triumph echoes out from the front line. Hundreds of people are streaming into the street and Khalil follows, excited about getting back into the fight, about getting home and listening to his new recordings, about stripping the gas-sodden clothes off and falling, alive, into bed with Mariam, about posting the next podcast to Facebook and watching the downloads spike, about the stories they’ll tell for years to come.


November 19, 2011

8:47 p.m.

“What’d you need?” Mariam asks as she slips under the rope separating the field hospital from the street. She’d spotted her mother from afar, her gray hair tied back tight, the headlamp, the rapid movements.

“Betadine, cotton wool, gauze,” her mother says without looking up from her patient’s buckshot back.

Mariam knows her way around the supplies and quickly places each item carefully next to her mother.

“Dress it?” Mariam says.

“Yes.”

They work quickly together. Mariam loves watching her mother work. When she was young Mariam had a vision of herself as an emergency room doctor, quick and clear in command, calm under pressure, compassionate with her patients, an example to her colleagues and immaculate in scrubs.

“You okay?” her mother asks.

“Fine.”

“And Khalil?”

“Everyone’s fine.”

“Good … You’ll be all right, son,” Nadia says to the teenage boy, gritting his teeth against the hot metal in his body. “There’s nothing serious, thank God. We’ll clean you up and you’ll be just fine.”

“Thank you,” the boy mutters through clenched teeth.

Mariam’s phone buzzes:

Have the supplies, where should we meet?

Ten minutes later she meets the old friend of her parents by the Borsa. He smiles as he sees her, opens the trunk of his car.

“Pretty much everything on the list,” he says.

“Great,” she says, counting the boxes quickly. “Thanks.”

“I’ll be back with more tomorrow. Be careful.”

They can’t get the car to the field clinic but she can’t carry all the boxes alone. Four teenage boys sit smoking in a street café. “Hey,” Mariam says. The boys look up at her. “Yeah, you guys,” she says. “Come help me carry this stuff to the revolution.”

They jump to attention, grab two boxes each, and follow behind her, through the crowd to the field hospital.

Her phone vibrates—

Rosa: Any injured take them to Qasr al-Aini Hospital and call me. Some doctors there we can trust.

Every thirty seconds a new motorcycle ambulance arrives carrying another young body riddled with bleeding buckshot.

“Excuse me, miss,” a deep, formal voice says from above her.

“Yes,” Mariam says, without looking up.

“Would you please wear this?”

She snaps her eyes up. Wear this? What the fuck does this asshole have the nerve to try? Wear this? If there’s a fucking cap or headscarf in his hand, I’m going to—

He’s holding out a white helmet.

“Please,” he says. “We bought helmets for the doctors. You have to stay safe. We need you.”


November 20, 2011

2:19 a.m.

Rania commands the room, her hands full of papers and phones; she shouts out instructions over the television blaring in the corner: “Gas masks! Tell them to buy gas masks and food. Bananas, biscuits, cheese sandwiches. Nothing greasy. And gas masks! Everything goes to Omar Makram Mosque—that’s the distribution point now. And juice! Juice in small cartons. Got it? Keep people’s blood sugar up. How many cameras do we have down there? We need to be putting videos out already! We need a list of people with cameras, editors. We need videos out tonight!” She is the center of a web of information relaying out and across Downtown.

The dining table at the center of the Chaos office is crowded with laptops busy with news, videos, photographs, tweets, and press alerts. Mariam’s friend Ashraf the Enormous is rigging up cable extensions while Hafez threads USB wires from a massive hard drive up to the waiting computers above. Rosa is fixing a bulletin board to the wall for new information: camerapeople, editors, medical runs, food buying, food distribution, media contacts. The Chaos office has become a cerebral cortex at the center of the information war.

In the corner the television has state TV on loop.

We can assure our fellow citizens that tear gas would only ever be used in circumstances of national security.

“Have we sent out the shotgun video to the press list yet!?”

“Make sure it goes to domestic and foreign.”

“How many languages can we get it into?”

And there is not an atom of truth to the malicious rumors of live ammunition.

“Did Nancy ever buy that night-vision camera?”

“Who’s putting together the list of hospitals we trust?”

“Where are those instructions about how to make a catapult?”

Do not believe unverified rumors. Do not rely on foreign-owned media for your information.

“Will someone turn that shit off!” Hafez shouts from underneath the dining table. “Hey, Khalil! I have a great interview for you.” Hafez has his two cameras out on the table. “I talked to a doctor about the effects of the tear gas. Here.” He hands Khalil an SD card.

Beware of troublemakers. Beware of infiltrators. Beware of those who would bring Egypt to her knees.


November 20, 2011

7:45 a.m.

Khalil quickly cuts the gas testimony with street battle sounds and interviews—

In all my years as an emergency physician I have never seen reactions like this. The government is using an experimental new gas. Possibly a nerve gas. People are dying of asphyxiation.

Next is news in brief about the protests to come and the supplies needed for Tahrir. He finishes quickly, exports, and sets it to upload.

Within minutes the hashtag #egywarcrimes is born; by midnight half the nonstate TV show hosts in the country are talking about it and grilling the military spokesmen; by morning a dozen foreign news websites are quoting the doctor; by the next evening emails have arrived from NGOs and activist organizations and academics asking if samples of the new gas can be smuggled out for testing, and by the day after a U.S. State Department spokesman denies any security assistance funds to the Egyptian government were ever used for the purchase of tear gas.


November 21, 2011

2:36 a.m.

Her hands are cut from the rocks. The sky is filled with jagged fists of paving stone crashing around their heads. When the rock hits her she thinks that she’s been slapped and spins toward the men, but when the pain focuses on her cheekbone she understands and stumbles to the side of the road behind a tree. A burning tire illuminates enormous words flickering on the wall behind her: WE’LL GET THEM JUSTICE, OR WE’LL DIE LIKE THEM.

Her phone buzzes:

Mama: It’s time for you to call your father

She has a flash of anger. This is not a time for phone calls. She is angry but she is cold and she wants to stay here near the danger. She wants to stay on the front line. It can’t just be poor boys who keep dying.

She collects herself. People are depending on you. The field hospitals need supplies. The hospitals need medicine. Time to call your father.

She drops the rock in her hand, walks away from the front line, the headlights of the motorcycle ambulances carving a path through the forest of human silhouettes, racing new injuries to the field hospitals.

She turns into the McDonald’s alleyway and dials her father. They used to work together, her parents. Used to do real work, used to hold a whole hospital together between them. The best public cancer unit in Egypt, they said. He was, maybe still is, the best administrator in the country. But it went to his head—as it always does—and he left it, left them, for the blue glass and creamy marble of a private hospital out in the desert.

“Hi,” she says. “It’s Mariam.”

“I know my own daughter’s number,” her father says.

“We need help. With supplies.”

“For this chaos you’re causing?”

“Us causing! Do you see guns in our hands?”

“You’re being manipulated by the Brotherhood. They want to disgrace the army. You’re disgracing all of Egypt in front of the world!”

“The Brotherhood has nothing to do with this. They’re with the army now.”

“Doesn’t mean they’re not playing you. They’re using you to force the elections before anyone else is ready.”

“Please. We can talk about this another time.”

“Listen to me, Mariam. This is what they do. They always sell you out in the end. Ask your mother.”

So where are you, Father? With your years of experience. Why are you not out here helping us outplay them?

“If you were here you’d see there’s no way anyone’s controlling what’s going on out here. We’re winning. We just need supplies.”

He’s silent for a long time.

She lights a cigarette.

“The usual stuff?” he says. “Same as in the Eighteen Days?”

“Yes. But we need things for the gas.” She pulls a list from her pocket. “Naphcon, Prisoline, Prefrin, Ventolin inhalers, masks. And the Eighteen Days stuff, too. You have that list still?”

“It won’t be hard to find. I hardly have any messages from my daughter.”

She doesn’t say anything. This isn’t the time for family drama.


November 21, 2011

1:12 p.m.

Khalil and Hafez stand a few streets over from the battle, a quick break for a coffee and a cigarette. Umm Ayman is on the television in the corner, she is speaking in the camera. The qahwa falls silent as her words fill the alleyway:

Record the blood of the martyr. They shot him with bullets and ran him over. Go, Tantawi, and see. See. He says they’re not shooting anyone. Go. See. See what is being done to the young of Egypt. What’s being done to the youth. Those thrown in garbage piles. Our youth were shot and thrown in the garbage. But every one of them in Tahrir there is Ayman. Every one of them in Tahrir is Ayman. And Ayman’s blood will not be lost as long as they are in Tahrir. As long as they hold their ground. I will say Ayman’s blood is lost when they leave. If they kneel before them and leave, then my son Ayman’s blood is gone. As long as they remain firm, my son is alive. My son’s blood will not go willingly. Every one of them is Ayman. Each and every one of them is Ayman. Every girl among them is Ayman. Every boy is Ayman. They’ve all become Ayman. All those in Tahrir are now Ayman. And they will avenge his death. They’ll not leave until the whole state is torn down and built back up again. They’ll not leave until every policeman and soldier who fired on their own people are tried and jailed. I swear they will get him justice. And God will not let this pass.


November 21, 2011

7:49 p.m.

A young man lies semiconscious on the ground, leg elevated, trousers sodden with blood. Mariam’s mother is before him, tying the wound tight.

“Femoral artery,” Nadia says as Mariam kneels next to her.

“I can take it,” Mariam says.

“It’s okay.”

“Mama—you have a lot of patients. I’ve got this.”

Nadia pauses, and Mariam takes over the tourniquet. Femoral means he’s lost a lot of blood.

“Just try and be calm,” Nadia says softly to the boy. “You’re brave, son. You’re really brave. This is one of my best nurses.” She strokes his forehead and turns quietly to the next case. Mariam pulls the improvised lever out of the bandage, ties it. The tourniquet can stop the bleeding but without an ambulance he’ll lose the leg.

The boy looks up at Mariam as she finishes the knot. “You’ll be fine,” Mariam says. “The ambulance is coming.”

“Where will it take me?” he says.

“To the hospital.”

“But the hospitals are Mubarak’s.”

“Not all of them.”

A motorcycle’s tires screech to a halt. Hey! someone shouts. We need help here! Two doctors carry in a new casualty, wheels burn, the bike speeds back to the front.

“Come with me to the hospital,” the boy says.

“I can’t.”

“It’s a good hospital? It’s with the revolution?”

“Yes. We need to stop the bleeding. They have better equipment.”

“You’ll visit me? To check they’ve done it right?”

She looks at his face for the first time and is struck by how pretty he is, his high cheekbones and delicate nose.

“I’ll try and find you in the morning.”

“Thank you.”


November 21, 2011

11:49 p.m.

“It’s a fucking generational war.” Malik shouts over the echoing reverb of shotguns and the clattering rain of a thousand rocks. “It’s all-out fucking war and if we don’t do something we’re gonna be down on our fucking knees until we’re fucking dead! ’Cos they’re not gonna let go of shit until they’re all dead! Here! Have some fucking elections, you wankers. There you go. Shut up now, aye? We’ve got no choice but to rip it from them, the old. It’s not about right or left anymore—they’re all the same. It’s about young versus old. They’d send us all off to war to die if they could, the bastards. Everyone under forty, off you go. Take your debt and your stupid student loans and your useless fucking university degrees and fuck off! It’s a war, man. Young against old. Whole fucking world over.”

Malik: another diaspora returnee. Back from Glasgow to build the new country. A lawyer, working on a police reform initiative. In a less intelligent person Malik’s voice and volume would be intensely annoying. Khalil keeps his eye on the mouth of Mohamed Mahmoud Street, for sirens, panic, for Mariam’s kufiyyeh.

His phone beeps with a Facebook message—

I’ve been following your posts. Am so impressed with the bravery and courage you’re all showing. Promise me you’ll stay safe.

Diane x

Khalil feels his back straighten with a virile pride; the whole world is watching. All your ex-girlfriends are watching.

Essential listening from @ChaosCairo. Huge pressure mounting on Egyptian Army and now toxic gas.

“You know what it’s like?” Malik is as unrelenting as the battle behind him. “The world they’ve so carefully fucking constructed? It’s like one of those humane fucking mousetraps. Here: have a little glimpse of some fucking cheddar in there and you’ll walk yourself right in because (a) why wouldn’t you? (b) you’re hungry, and (c) you’re a fucking mouse and then schloop, oh sorry, oh excuse me, the door seems to have closed behind you and now here you are humanely fucking fucked and left to enjoy the little crumb of cheddar they bought you with for the rest of your useless life.”

Hafez watches the crowd. Khalil flicks through his phone.

Incredible mismanagement from EgyArmy. Demand they cede power to civilian rule now!

The One silently listens to Malik’s rant. The One is an old-school European immigrant-drifter, has lived in the same Downtown apartment for decades, was married briefly to an Egyptian woman; a traveler from the times when you went somewhere and didn’t turn around and leave on the next budget flight out. Khalil can never remember if he’s Bulgarian or Hungarian and he can’t ask him again. No one even remembers why he’s called the One anymore.

Khalil sees Mariam walking over to them, pulling the kufiyyeh off from around her neck. She looks exhausted but invigorated.

“You okay?” Khalil asks.

“Yes,” Mariam says. “Hungry.”

“What’s happening with the new council?” Hafez asks.

“What council?” Malik butts in.

“A revolutionary council,” Mariam says.

“For the army to cede transitional power to,” Hafez takes over.

“Who’s in it?” Malik says.

“Martyrs’ family members. Lawyers. Religious figures. Academics. Legal experts. It’s not a bad list,” Hafez says.

“You think the army might go for it?”

“If they see this shit’s not going to end without a major concession, then maybe. Every minute of this makes them look weaker.”

Khalil’s phone vibrates—

Strength and solidarity from Athens to my Chaos Comrades! You are an inspiration to the world!

Malik leans forward. “They say they have planes ready at the airport for SCAF to escape.”

“Shut up.”

“Yep.”

“Well, what are we doing here then? We need to get back in there.”


November 22, 2011

3:34 a.m.

Khalil stands back from the front line. His shoulder aches from days of throwing rocks, but he is wide awake.

Hello mate. Jim from Huffpost. Thnx for interview tonight. Wondering if you know anyone in the Brotherhood I could talk to?

Under the yellow streetlights he sees Ashraf, Mariam’s friend from childhood who laughs loud enough to silence a room and has hands big enough to crush your skull and whose footsteps make glasses of water tremble and who is not, Mariam insists, a rival or a threat or interested or an ex or anything—but he has become her personal bodyguard.

“Khalil,” Ashraf says with a smile and an open paw.

“Hi,” Khalil says, and grips Ashraf’s hand with a manly but uncompetitive firmness. He’s not worried about Ashraf. He’s glad, in fact, that he watches out for Mariam.

“I’ll see you at home,” Mariam says. “We have to go to the morgue.”


November 22, 2011

4:28 a.m.

He’s there, as Mariam knew he would be. The color drained from his body, the tourniquet soaked in dry, blackened blood. And there’s the phone number, written in careful marker up his left forearm.

“Hello,” a harried voice answers. A baby is crying in the background.

“Hello, miss,” Mariam says, unsure how to carry on. “My name is Mariam.”

The boy doesn’t move and she doesn’t know his name. The boy doesn’t move. Of course he doesn’t move. He’s never going to move again. Did you tie the tourniquet tight enough? Should you have left your mother to her work? Did you cost him a crucial second? Did you take the reins before you were ready? His hand doesn’t move. His hand will never move again. Could one second, one breath more blood have made the difference?

“Yes?”

“This is your phone number?” Mariam stalls.

His body lies cold before her under the glare of the fluorescent light. His shirt is ripped, his slenderness exposed to the cold, to the aluminum fridges, the metal of the coroner’s table.

“What do you mean, is this is my phone number? You just called me, didn’t you?”

“You’re right. I did.”

There is no sheet to cover him with. There is nothing but dampness and mold and stained steel. The clerk does not enter. Nobody would have called the number.

“I’m calling you from the city morgue.”

“Oh God. What’s happened to him? Oh, God have mercy. What did they do to him?”

“Your son was brave.”

Nobody would have called her. He would have been buried in the desert with all the other nobodies. How many other mothers are out looking for their children still?

“Your son was brave. He’s a martyr now.”


November 22, 2011

4:59 a.m.

His hand lies cold on the chromium table. Mariam wants to reach out and hold it. She still doesn’t know his name. His hand is still, will be still forever. If I held it, nothing would happen. If I held it, maybe he wouldn’t be so alone. If I held it the coroner would walk in and there would be a scandal.

She keeps her hands by her side, waiting for the boy’s mother to arrive.

How many have we lost now? What does this do to us? How many times did we warn people? You could have done more. There is always something. Nothing is fixed. Nothing until death. We could have stopped this. We could have fought back harder, earlier. What if we hadn’t left the square the day Mubarak stepped down? If five minutes had been different. If one word had been spoken different. We should have been different—because you only know one way. You with your trucks of malnourished men plucked from the countryside to throw rocks at their own people in strange cities and stand as cannon fodder for the officers and their shotguns and their body armor. This is what you have? This is the miserable power you want to cling to? Your slave army to work your factories and fields on conscription, your pasta production and air-conditioning units and men’s clubs and salmon-pink walls? This is what you’ll go to war against your own people for?

She picks up the boy’s cold hand and holds it gently in hers, she hears the rain of bullets and the echo of death and remembers Khalil, that first night, hiding off Tahrir as the army’s metal ricocheted across Downtown. Months ago now. April eighth. They ran and hid and stopped in the dark of the stairwell and she pulled at his shirt and ran her hands over his body. “Are you shot?” she kept saying. “Are you shot? Are you shot?” As she checked his trousers for the wet warmth of blood: “Are you shot? Are you shot?” And then his hands were on her and he wasn’t shot and his hands were in her hair and on her back and neither of them were bleeding and neither of them were dead.


November 22, 2011

5:21 a.m.

The mother will need help. And how many more mothers, too? How many bodies are waiting inside the aluminum fridges for their uncles to wash them? She wants to open a door but she’s afraid. What if each fridge has five bodies stuffed inside it? What if they are rotting unrefrigerated? She does not move from next to the boy, his body turning yellow under the cold strip light. She strokes the top of his hand and sees now Verena clasping her husband’s hand to her chest in the morgue after Maspero, tastes the last breaths of the dead coating her throat, lying deep in her lungs. The end comes so quickly.

We could have done more. We could always have done more. We should have made people listen sooner. We were too slow and now they’ve made their deal with the Brotherhood and all we have is rocks. The Brotherhood keeps the peace and the army keeps their bank accounts. The elections are upon us, the trap is set. They think elections can end the revolution? They think that’s all it takes. Khalil is thinking about voting. How can he even think about it? What is he thinking? What are we supposed to do—pack up in the morgue and quietly file into the polling station? That’s what this is for? That’s what this death is for? To be forgotten with a ballot?


November 22, 2011

5:44 a.m.

Once, deep inside the fluorescence of a government building—it must have been the Mogamma3—standing in the eternal queue, she broke down in tears. Mariam remembers it perfectly. The cruelty of it. The bureaucratic disdain for our precious breaths vanishing into our eternal, untouchable wake; seconds gifted to us by millions of unrepeatable accidents and divine chemical coincidences burning up before her eyes, evaporating off her body, out of all their souls into the earthly certainty of state bureaucracy. She clutched at her chest and ran out into the waiting winter. How short life is. Life is to be lived and death is to be feared and hated and remembered and resisted every day. There is only now, there is not even tomorrow. A life that others will talk about when it leaves us. That’s the goal. A life that conquers death with memory. She does not know the boy’s name.

Her phone vibrates:

Hello. My son is missing. I was given your number. I think the army has him. I was told you can help.

She pulls a pen and battered notepad out of her back pocket and adds the new phone number to her list for the morning.


Oct 11 %281%29

October 18, 2011

Excerpt from The City Always Wins by Omar Robert Hamilton

Artwork by Ganzeer

  • “From the chaos and torment of a revolution and the perpetual struggle with despotism, Omar Robert Hamilton has drawn a novel of great emotional and intellectual power. The City Always Wins is a rare fiction that reminds us, with its wisdom about violence and inequality, grief and loss, how politics is for many today a way to live—and die.”

    Pankaj Mishra, author of Age of Anger
  • "Explosive . . . The City Always Wins powerfully transmits the hope and despair of Egypt’s Tahrir Square generation, and the bravery and willingness of its members to keep fighting in the face of insurmountable obstacles. Mr. Hamilton plunges us into an important moment in recent history and makes us think about it anew. While the novel’s political message is clear, its tone is never hectoring, and its journalistic attention to detail never didactic . . . one of the defining novels of the Arab Spring."

    Toby Lichtig, Wall Street Journal
  • “Fucking incredible, and this is without hyperbole. Hamilton has created both an unsparing psychological portrait of a generation—a generation that could just about see a new world through the tear gas—and a poetic, searing depiction of a revolution betrayed.”

    Molly Crabapple
  • "Forceful, astonishing writing and a piercing insider's look at Egypt's failed revolution."

    Library Journal
  • "Omar Robert Hamilton's The City Always Wins is a vivid, powerful portrait of Egypt's failed revolution in 2011. Through the eyes of Mariam and Khalil, two young people fighting at the front lines of the revolution in the streets of Cairo and its political underground, The City Always Wins is an urgent and relevant work that captures the realities of class friction, war, torture, and dictatorships."

    Jarry Lee, Buzzfeed
  • “Few writers could capture the frenetic speed of an internet-fueled uprising alongside the time-stopping corporeal reality of bullet-ridden bodies, all while never losing sight of the love that powered Egypt’s revolutionary moment. Omar Robert Hamilton can do all that and more. Crossing borders and generations, he brings us into the movement’s effervescent hope and its crushing heartbreak, probing timeless questions about what the living owe to the dead. Unbearable. Unmissable. A dazzling debut.”

    Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine and This Changes Everything
  • “Omar Hamilton brings vividly to life the failed revolution of 2011 on the streets of Cairo, in all its youthful bravery and naive utopianism.”

    J. M. Coetzee