Novelist says Egypt in decay but not dead yet
Gulf Times August 2008
Cairo - reuters:Egyptian writer Ezzedine Choukri-Fishere says his latest novel is not so gloomy in its portrayal of what he calls “Egypt’s decay”.
The protagonists can see light from where they are stuck under the rubble. They just don’t know how to dig their way out.
In The Intensive Care Unit, four characters — a security officer, a journalist, a female Islamist lawyer and a Christian lawyer — are trapped under the Egyptian consulate in Sudan after a suicide bombing. Each tells in a separate monologue how he or she came to be there.
They speak of hopelessness, emptiness and inner conflicts that made them sometimes betray long-held principles, not necessarily for gain, but because of a lost desire to change the status quo in a society where special interests prevail.
“This is my take on things. There is decay. Things are falling apart, but it’s not the end,” said Choukri-Fishere, a career diplomat and a political analyst who has published two other novels. He was speaking to Reuters in Cairo yesterday.
“There are cracks in the rubble and I can see the light from underneath, and I know we can get out. I just don’t see how. ... Things are falling apart but we are not pronounced dead yet.”
His views may surprise outsiders who have watched the Egyptian economy expand at its fastest rate in decades over the past four years. Many Egyptians, however, seem to agree.
Many say they feel left out of the boom; prices have risen faster than their wages, garbage piles up on the streets and poor public services make their lives hard.
For the intelligentsia, complaints range from the declining role of Egypt in Middle East politics to the growing powers of security agencies in public life.
In the novel, which has been widely reviewed and praised in Egypt, each character has a turning point where his decline begins.
For intelligence officer Ahmed Kamal, it was while he was a young army officer and disputes between commanders prevented Egypt from building on the early military gains in the 1973 war against Israel.
“Everything lost its meaning. I stopped caring. I lost my capacity for emotion, to be sad or happy. My heart exploded inside me, then the dust settled and it was over,” he says.
The four characters are linked together in a strong, page-turning plot that reveals intimate knowledge of Egyptian politics, media and diplomatic service. The four are also partly responsible for their downfall, Choukri-Fishere said.
“If you take the explosion scene ... each of them contributed. The woman carried instructions (for the bomber). The journalist had a picture of the guy. The security officer who had advance information and the lawyer who is friends with all those people,” he said.
“They are victims of this collapse but they are also responsible for it.”
Choukri-Fishere, 42, said creative writing has made him “more humane and less successful” in his diplomatic career.
“If you are smart ... and without this critical eye that the writer provides, all that remains is practical sense and this can take you far in your career,” he said. “But from a human point of view it might be questionable, because practical reasoning and politics can make morality disappear.”
Asked whether he feared his views would anger the government, he shrugged: “There is a degree of tolerance for deviation from the party line. But still, the novel is outspoken and critical. So be it.”
The Intensive Care Unit was published by Dar Sharqiyat and is available in Egypt.
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