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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


City of Love and Ashes

Yusuf Idris

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Title: City of Love and Ashes
Author: Yusuf Idris
Genre: Novel
Written: 1956 (Eng. 1999)
Length: 166 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: City of Love and Ashes - US
City of Love and Ashes - UK
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City of Love and Ashes - India
  • Arabic title: قصة حب
  • Translated by R.Neil Hewison

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Our Assessment:

B : odd mix of a novel, and parts a bit rough, but has its appeal

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       City of Love and Ashes is set in Cairo, in early 1952. As translator R.Neil Hewison explains in an introductory Note, the British had withdrawn from most of Egypt in 1947 but still controlled the Suez zone. An attack by British troops on 25 January 1952 on an Egyptian police station saw heavy Egyptian casualties; riots in Cairo the next day, 'Black Saturday', led to the fall of the administration under King Farouk -- and would, within six months, lead to the fall of the monarchy itself, with the 23 July Revolution. Idris' novel sticks to the early part of the year, but his readers clearly were aware of the looming radical transition to come.
       The main character in the novel is Hamza, a Fedayeen, dedicated to the struggle against the British, convinced: "no change is possible until the Battle of the Canal is resumed". Although from very humble circumstances -- his father is a railway worker --, he did well at school and became a chemist in a silk factory -- but couldn't stay away from political activism: "With his first salary he printed the union broadsheet", and he'd already had his run-ins with the authorities: "He had spent years being interned, watched, held, investigated". He's a recognized leader -- recognized by the authorities as well:

(E)very time a British government or high-ranking officer came to Egypt, he was arrested, and on every occasion of national or international importance he was detained in the police station for days that stretched into weeks
       As the government cracks down after Black Saturday he has no choice but to try to hide: "under the new state of affairs the room where he now lived was not safe at all". His lawyer friend Bedeir grudgingly takes him in, and he lays low in his apartment. When others in the group are rounded up, Hamza's last remaining activist contact is the teacher, Fawziya, whom he was just recently introduced to and who has presented herself as being completely devoted to the cause as well. When it is imperative to move the group's stash of dynamite, Fawziya steps up.
       Dedicated -- almost single-mindedly -- to the cause, Hamza is unsettled when he finds he has feelings that aren't strictly professionally revolutionary. Fawziya knocks him for a loop, and he's not sure how to deal with these new-found passions rising up in him. More or less kept out of the (political) action for now, with too much time on his hands, he finds himself constantly thinking about her. Eventually, the smitten Hamza confesses his feelings -- only to be completely and devastatingly shot down:
It's the height of degeneracy. You're betraying your position and my faith in you. You're finished. I have to talk to your colleagues. This is absolutely terrible.
       Up to this point -- and it's more or less exactly the midpoint of the novel -- City of Love and Ashes reads like an Arabic variation on the kind of fiction familiar from the Soviet sphere of the time, an earnest story of the revolutionary struggle, a pair of young idealists leading the way -- and understanding that the greater cause is more important than individual happiness. Written in 1956, it seems a perfect exemplar of Nasserism, a novel of the struggle against malign powers that must be toppled -- the foreign (British), above all, but also the authorities of the day -- while the revolutionary workers must put aside their individual (and more personal) aspirations for the time being. And when one shows weakness -- Hamza confessing his feelings -- the other reacts the only way possible, with the verbal equivalent of a resounding slap in the face.
       The English title of the novel suggests this is a novel of Cairo, a snapshot of the metropolis in these turbulent times -- and for the first half the novel can indeed easily be seen as one about the 'City of Love and Ashes'. But the Arabic title is far simpler: 'A Love Story' -- and that's what it turns out to be. Fawziya surprises -- not talking to Hamza's colleagues, for one thing. He finds -- after a brief, agonizing time -- that he's anything but finished: indeed, it's just the start.
       City of Love and Ashes doesn't then become entirely a sappy romance, but it at least shakes off (for some decent stretches, if not entirely) its Soviet-school dedicated-to-the-cause earnestness; where Idris had already explored Hamza's tortured feelings before the love-struck man dared express them, he now expands on the questions of romance as the pair comes together. If Hamza-as-revolutionary feels decidedly forced throughout -- circumstances mean that his activism comes across as very passive (for the most part, he's unable to act ...), and other than handling a weapon and the dynamite (but never utilizing them for their obvious purposes -- indeed, when he first meets Fawziya, Idris goes so far as to have him just have literally taken apart a pistol) -- Idris shows himself to be on much surer footing in his depiction of the love-affair.
       There's more pay-off to the build-up too -- and some excitement, as Bedeir is shaken up by the turn of events and throws Hamza on the street, and Hamza must then desperately search for a safe place to hide. (But now with a devoted woman at his side, surely all must go well ?) From whom Hamza finally gets help from -- and where he winds up -- to a run-in with the authorities when he ventures out to meet a contact, City of Love and Ashes ratchets up the suspense and excitement. Idris wraps his story up with cinematic flair -- and if cinematically it's all a bit larger (and more unbelievable) than life as well, it still makes a decent grand impression.
       It is all rather simple and rough and treacly. The most brutal police encounters are memories from years earlier, while there's little more than the smoke of Black Saturday to see here. There are moments of crisis -- between Hamza and Fawziya, Hamza and Bedeir -- but these are quickly righted and everyone's happy again, and pretty much everyone in the story is good and honest and sincere. It's all entirely too good to be true -- but, yes, Idris pulls and mixes enough together here that it works, on enough levels; City of Love and Ashes makes and leaves an impression.
       Translator Hewison notes how difficult it is to convey some of what Idris does in the use of language, notably how he: "switches effortlessly between a graceful and expressive classical Arabic in the author's voice and a vital and immediate colloquial when the characters speak for themselves", and he manages reasonably well in his rendering, but there's no question that some of this writing just feels very rough for contemporary readers. In part that goes beyond the stylistic -- it's that old-school earnestness that really jars nowadays (though, yeah, the stylistic quirks don't help). So, for example, Hamza declares:
I'm not a hero or anything, know what I mean ? I'm made of flesh and blood, and I have the same sexual and psychological problems as any other young man like me.
       With its lesson of balancing the personal and the political -- Hmaza and Fawziya find cringe-worthy strength in their continued dedication to the cause -- Idris' aspirations to present a 'meaningful' social-realist-type fiction comes dangerously to the fore again. The way he handles the personal is almost enough to overcome that, but not quite.
       City of Love and Ashes is an odd bit of work -- but not without its qualities, among them, a certain timelessness: published more than half a century before the Arab Spring, much of it feels almost contemporary, especially in its description of the Cairene atmosphere and attitudes against the imperialist influence and local authorities. Certainly flawed, in a number of ways, it remains an interesting and surprisingly memorable work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 18 February 2016

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City of Love and Ashes: Other books by Yusuf Idris under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Egyptian author Yusuf Idris (يوسف إدريس) lived 1927 to 1991.

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© 2016 the complete review

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