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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Cairo Swan Song

Mekkawi Said

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To purchase Cairo Swan Song

Title: Cairo Swan Song
Author: Mekkawi Said
Genre: Novel
Written: 2006 (Eng. 2009)
Length: 283 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: Cairo Swan Song - US
Cairo Swan Song - UK
Cairo Swan Song - Canada
  • Arabic title: تغريدة البجعة
  • Translated by Adam Talib

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Our Assessment:

B : interesting insights into contemporary Cairo, but too unfocused

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Cairo Swan Song is narrated by Mustafa, a young man who has seen and done a bit of everything; indeed, one of the problems with the novel is how much he's experienced and seen and yet how little effect that seems to have had on him: he remains throughout something of a chameleon, adapting to the circumstances (though often standing in opposition to them rather than blending in).
       He warns early on:

     I've never done the right thing in my entire life, wasting every chance I've had to change my fate. I always cling, stubbornly and idiotically, to schemes that are guaranteed failures and wastes of time, and frivolous, and thoughtless and crazy.
       But, in fact, he doesn't seem to cling to many plans: from early attempts at writing poetry to a successful but brief career in advertising to living in the United States for a while to working in the Gulf States and as a teacher, he never seems to stick with anything. And some of the things, like his underreported-on America-stay, seem to exist only so Said can have him comment on contemporary America.
       Mustafa always seems to have enough money, and has always lived fairly comfortably (and, especially during his student days, rather dissolutely), even though his family doesn't seem particularly privileged. A great blow came to him with the loss of his one great love, Hind, and that contributed to his unsettled mind and behavior. At times he sees a psychiatrist, too -- though he also notes:
     Schizophrenia struck my society before it struck me, Doctor. I'm just a symptom.
       Yes, it is that kind of novel -- though Said stuffs so much in it that every symptom and disease of contemporary Egyptian society seems covered, and Mustafa is far from the only symptom on display.
       Much of the novel centers on Mustafa's relationship with an American student, Marcia, and a film she wants to make, about glue-sniffing Cairo street-children. He's ambivalent about his relationship, and especially about the project. He befriends -- to some extent -- some of the roving gangs of children and describes their anarchic activity, fascinated by it yet also made aware of his status as an outsider among them.
       There are other women in Mustafa's life, too -- though none can replace Hind -- and there are also male friends who go their different ways in search of love and fulfillment, including abroad. The canvas is too broad -- and stretched too broad --, as the story ranges from Mustafa's friendship with a once highly respected film director (whose fundamentalist son disapproves of how his father came to fame and fortune) to friends taking up with foreigners in places ranging from Singapore to Mexico.
       There's a great deal packed into the story, but much flies by almost incidentally, from Mustafa's mention of his time -- "four unreal years" -- in Dubai, "a fantasy city straight out of a video game", to his incarceration as a supposed student activist to the almost casual observation of how Egypt has changed in recent years due to one particular conservative outside influence:
Once the Wahhabi invasion of Egypt -- waged by teachers, doctors, white collars, and even some blue collars who'd worked for long stretches in Saudi Arabia -- was complete, a lot of things about Egyptian life changed.
       Cairo Swan Song aims to be comprehensive, but touches on far too much only on the surface; Mustafa conveys his and his society's schizophrenia convincingly, but it remains a blurred picture. The novel's structure, shuttling back and forth between stories and individuals, works for the most part, but in the unequal time and treatment given to individual characters and plotlines causes some confusion: often the more interesting observations and incidents are buried among more longwinded descriptions of rather boring excesses.
       A reasonably interesting depiction of contemporary Cairo, but also rather messy and largely underdeveloped.

- M.A.Orthofer, 27 December 2009

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Cairo Swan Song: Mekkawi Said: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Egyptian author Mekkawi Said (مكاوي سعيد) was born in 1955.

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© 2009 the complete review

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