Remembering Cairo

A young boy walks under a  giant flag carried by anti-military protesters in Tahrir Square in 2011. ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES A young boy is seen under a giant flag carried by protesters in Tahrir Square in 2011. ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

A young boy is seen under a giant flag carried by protesters in Tahrir Square in 2011. ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

[inset_left]The Sons of Adam

Alan Mackie

Muswell Press, 2012

pp. 404[/inset_left]There is a story from the Mubarak era about a Cairo shopkeeper who had a portrait of each of Gamal Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak decorating the wall of his shop. A passing tourist asked the shopkeeper about the portraits and he replied, “The first led the 1952 revolution, the second led Egypt in the 1973 war and the third—he is the father of Ala'a, my business partner.” This tale reveals as much about the Egyptian sense of humor as it does about the rising discontent that swept through Tahrir Square in early 2011; a movement that overthrew the Mubarak regime and is playing out in Egypt today.

Freelance journalist Alan Mackie’s The Sons of Adam began life as a journal, written on crowded Cairo buses, in the cafes of Alexandria, and over qat in Yemen. For decades, the idea of publishing the memoir lay dormant. It was only in 2011, spurred on by the turmoil overwhelming Tahrir Square, that Mackie returned to Egypt once more. As the revolution gained momentum, Mackie realized that he was uniquely placed to publish his memoir and place the characters he met in a broader historical context.

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Part travel memoir, part historical narrative and part political essay, the book explores overlapping themes that reflect the many years Mackie spent in Egypt and the crises that each generation has faced.

Beginning with a chance trip to Egypt in the 1960s, The Sons of Adam draws overarching comparisons between life in Egypt at various historical flashpoints—the October 1973 war, the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981, and finally the Tahrir Square revolution. Mackie draws these events together masterfully, infusing each with a sense of the people he lived amongst and their feelings about how they were impacted. The book spans many decades, and each section reveals as much about the experiences of Cairenes as it does about Mackie himself. His first experiences in the region were as a young traveler, and he later went as a financial journalist and correspondent; it is clear that Mackie’s decades living in and writing about Egypt and its people have been transformative.

The title of the book is taken from the Arabic saying “Kullina beni Adam”—we are all sons of Adam—and it is this view that Westerners and Arabs are more similar than they are different that underpins most of Mackie’s work. He is critical of the West’s portrayal of the Arab world and believes that his time in Cairo imbued him with a different way of understanding the West’s relationship with the Middle East. It is evident from the outset that Mackie feels a kinship with the many colorful characters he met and a profound and long-lasting connection with Egypt and with Arab culture.

The Sons of Adam begins with a broad socio-political account of the beginnings of the Arab uprising and the Tahrir Square revolution. While these events may already be familiar to many, Mackie’s vivid accounts and first-hand knowledge create depth and context. Even though he is a Westerner, he was considered an insider by many and the tension between these identities led to some fraught encounters.

The main arc of the book is the idea that the 1973 and 2011 generations have much in common with one another. Mackie observes that the motivations behind these movements are inherently similar. Yet even without this insight into the politics of Egypt, it provides an accessible portrayal of the Egyptian mindset and a way of comprehending the roots of the conflict that is still playing out.

The memoir truly comes to life in its warm and detailed depiction of Mackie’s immersion in Arabic life and culture. Here, his prose is energetic and evocative. He vividly recalls interactions with people and places—much of which is bittersweet, as the streetscapes have now changed beyond recognition. Here, Mackie allows the narrative to be drawn out by the people he lived amongst and their experiences. In this way, the reader comes to understand the ebb and flow of life for Cairenes and the underlying generational conflict.

Describing his immersion in life in Cairo, Mackie writes that “my heart was as open as the sky. I had nothing to hide, nothing to lose and I felt welcomed as one of their own. I realized then what had set me apart on that first day was not my white skin but a bundle of preconceptions I had taken with me.”

His descriptions of Alexandria are particularly poetic and it is clear that ideas of expatriate British novelist and travel writer, Lawrence Durrell, influenced both his experience and his writing. Mackie writes that Durrell’s of way of creating an “emotional landscape against which to explore relationships” was a particular inspiration.

Mackie’s memoir is likely to inspire wanderlust in the intrepid. His trip to Yemen is particularly awe inspiring, with its rich descriptions of storms long since passed. Describing a morning when he woke in house atop a two-hundred foot drop, he writes, "The mountains rose and fell like cadences in a wave that had been held there trembling. It was a morning on which the marrow of the earth was young.”

Mackie focusses on Cairo and his enduring fascination with its people, and yet you do not have to feel a particular affinity with Egypt to be absorbed by his story. The author’s ability to connect with people and link the experiences of different generations is what makes this book unique. Anyone who has travelled and experienced the awkwardness of complete language barriers, the honesty and hospitality of strangers, and a genuine immersion with another culture will feel at home here.

Although Mackie’s last visit was quite recent, the situation in Egypt is so fluid and volatile that much has already changed since the book’s publication only a few months ago. This transitional period would provide an ideal opportunity for Mackie to write further, and it would be interesting to see how he might interpret the latest events.


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