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Life in the Broken Places
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October 18, 2011

Excerpt from The City Always Wins by Omar Robert Hamilton
Artwork by Ganzeer

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The elevator up to the office is a thrilling ride: the halting climb up to the tenth floor a repeated act of faith in a higher power. But the risk is worth it for the classical expanse of wooden floors and high ceilings and the late afternoon light streaming in from the balcony that looks out over the lower buildings of Downtown and onto the Nile and there, in the center of the landscape, the ever-smoldering ruins of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party headquarters, the sun setting perfectly behind the charred concrete skeleton. Khalil loves that building, loves that it stands there every day as a testament to all that’s possible and all that’s impermanent to the tens of thousands of people who drive past it every day. A symbol in cinders of our victory, our antimonument to the future. A giant billboard stands tall amid the scorched ruins. Untouched by the flames, its meaningless electioneering slogan become flesh: For your children’s future. What poetry the city gives us. All around from this balcony Cairo sings out its history to him. The once-modern internationalism of the Nile Hilton, its wide and welcoming facade overlooking the shuttered gardens and their mysterious excavations; the muscular terra-cotta of the Egyptian Museum still standing firm despite the years of horror inside it, from the shadowy corruption and shameless thievery to the whippings and beatings dealt out by the occupying army. And then to the east.

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and the buildings surging inland, their modernist balconies and flat rooftops pushing toward the chorus of Talaat Harb Square and, his favorite, the great sloped mansard roof, the dramatic gradient of its gray tiling more appropriate for the rains of Köln than Cairo’s heat, but beautiful here in this city of infinite interminglings and unending metaphor. Cairo is jazz: all contrapuntal influences jostling for attention, occasionally brilliant solos standing high above the steady rhythm of the street. Forget New York, the whole history of the world can be seen from here, flows past us here, in the Nile streaming from its genesis north and out into the waters of empires and all the brutalities and beauties they bring, emerging riotous and discordant and defiant into something new and undefinable and uncontrollable. These streets laid out to echo the order and ratio and martial management of the modern city now molded by the tireless rhythms of salesmen and hawkers and car horns and gas peddlers all out in ownership of their city, mixing pasts with their present, birthing a new now of south and north, young and old, country and city all combining and coming out loud and brash and with a beauty incomprehensible. Yes, Cairo is jazz. Not lounge jazz, not the commodified lobby jazz that works to blanch history, but the heat of New Orleans and gristle of Chicago: the jazz that is beauty in the destruction of the past, the jazz of an unknown future, the jazz that promises freedom from the bad old times.

Yes, Khalil thinks, this will do.

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Cityalwayswins hamilton

The City Always Wins

MCD × FSG, 2017

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...

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