A young Egyptian woman recounts her personal and political coming of age in this brilliant debut novel.
Cairo, 1984. A blisteringly hot summer. A young girl in a sprawling family house. Her days pass quietly: listening to a mother’s phone conversations, looking at the Nile from a bedroom window, watching the three state-sanctioned TV stations with the volume off, daydreaming about other lives. Underlying this claustrophobic routine is mystery and loss. Relatives mutter darkly about the newly-appointed President Mubarak. Everyone talks with melancholy about the past. People disappear overnight. Her own father has left, too—why, or to where, no one will say.
We meet her across three decades, from youth to adulthood: As a six-year old absorbing the world around her, filled with questions she can’t ask; as a college student and aspiring filmmaker pre-occupied with love, language, and the repression that surrounds her; and then later, in the turbulent aftermath of Mubarak’s overthrow, as a writer exploring her own past. Reunited with her father, she wonders about the silences that have marked and shaped her life.
At once a mapping of a city in transformation and a story about the shifting realities and fates of a single Egyptian family, Yasmine El Rashidi’s Chronicle of a Last Summer traces the fine line between survival and complicity, exploring the conscience of a generation raised in silence.
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.70(d)|
About the Author
Yasmine El Rashidi is an Egyptian writer. She is a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books, and an editor of the Middle East arts and culture quarterly Bidoun. She lives in Cairo, where she is currently translating the works of Egyptian novelist Khairallah Ali.
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
Copyright © 2016 Yasmine El Rashidi
The house was blistering. Mama had drawn in and closed the wooden shutters hours earlier. Damp towels lay rolled on windowsills. The heat still seeped in. She now sat at one corner of the sofa, gray phone receiver in one hand pressed to her ear, plant mister in the other. She sprayed her face at intervals. Mama had always said the heat never bothered her. It was how she was made. That summer had been different. I sat at her feet staring at the muted TV screen, getting up and flipping between channels. Channel One. Channel Two. The third channel stopped its broadcast at one p.m. There were only two programs for children. I flipped hoping I might find something. In the corner of the room was Granny’s old metal fan. It clicked and whirred, drowning out Mama's English-laced Arabic. I could make out none of the conversation, except to take note when she switched to French. It was the single language she spoke that I still didn't know. She seemed to use it more often that summer.
I had no way of measuring time, but we sat like that for hours. Ossi appeared now and then at the doorway and meowed. Mama ignored him. He was gray with long hair. Mama had said it was a bad idea to have a Persian. If one were to have a cat, it ought to be a local, a baladi. Baba said let the girl have what she wants. He brought him home in the palm of his hand one day. The day I turned five. I wanted to call him Fluffy. Mama said Fluffy was not a proper name. She called him Osama. Baba never touched him again. He was allergic, even though his hands were huge. He would put me onto his palm and lift me into the air. I would sit perched like that as he watched TV. I missed Baba's hands, especially his giant fingers. He would make a hook out of them and pretend he was hooking my neck like a fish, pulling me close to kiss him. I loved the way Baba smelled. You could smell him everywhere in the house, especially on the sofa. Even when he went on trips his smell would still be there. It had gone away this time. I was waiting for him to come back. Every day after school I would get out my class notebook and turn back the pages to the one with the green star in the corner for the day he left. I would flip to the next page. Then the next page. I counted until I reached fourteen. I kept counting until the page we used in school that day. Fifty-seven. I couldn't tell how many extra days it had been.
It was July, but I was still in school. My cousins had four months of summer holiday. Sometimes five. We only had one. It was the English school. In Arabic school there was no homework. The teachers didn't make enough money to correct it. I wanted to be in Arabic school like my cousins. It wasn't fair. Mama shook her head. Four months of summer would make of me a listless child. Too much holiday was bad for character, Mama said. Poor posture was also a sign of it. That summer it had become a concern. Mama finished her phone call and told me to walk across the room with a book on my head. She made me do this each afternoon. I made it like a game. I especially liked when the book began to slip. It tilted to the right, and I felt it. I bent my knees. It was as if I were going to jump, take off, but I slid back up, pushing my right shoulder. It slipped back into place. It only ever slid to the right. The next time it fell. It was an old book with a thick blue cover. It said SUEZ. It hit the parquet floor with a thud. I glanced back at Mama nervously. I saw she wasn't watching.
It was a school night, but Mama had stopped paying attention to time. I stayed up late with her. I took out my sketchbook. I drew. Fish. The bottom of the sea. Myself swimming with them too. The teacher shook her head. She told me I had to watch myself, I was a dreamer. I turned to the TV. They were re playing pictures of starving children in Ethiopia. Every day we watched them. Mama had a friend from Ethiopia. She taught me how to count to ten in their language. Whenever she came for lunch she said a prayer before she ate. She said it was for the famine. She told me to look at the food on my plate and re member how lucky I was. With each bite I should remember Ethiopia. Maybe I should send my lunch to Ethiopia? Every time I see the starving children on TV, I say a prayer. I don't know what to say, but I put my head down like Kebbe and move my lips. I then say Allahu Akbar, like Grandmama does. I whisper so that Mama can't hear. There are also starving children in Cairo, but they never show them on TV. I see them in the streets on the way to school. They sell lemons at the traffic light. Three of them sleep in a cardboard box under the bridge next to our house. One of them has hair like mine. I know if I stand next to her, the top of our heads will meet. I want to talk to her, but when I smile and start to roll down the window one day, Mama tells me to look away. I'm not to encourage such behavior. I turn my head down. I look at her from the corner of one eye.
After the famine they replay the documentary about Sadat. They show him with his wife and children. They show him meeting important people. They show him at the parade where he was killed. I was three and three-quarters when they killed him. It was the day of Mama's birthday. We were watching TV. Mama put her hands to her mouth. Baba stood up. They gasped, then were silent, then Mama started saying an. I was too young to remember. Baba told me everything about Sadat. He did very good things and very bad things. Making peace with Israel was very bad, Baba said. He didn't like the Israelis. They were buggers. Mama grumbled that he shouldn't use the word again. They wouldn't tell me what buggers were, but I knew they were bad. Everyone we knew hated the Israelis, except for one of Baba's cousins. Baba raised his eyebrows at him and shook his head. He turned and looked into my eyes. He had signed his name to fight in the war. It was important to be loyal to my country.
Next they play the video of the new president, Mubarak. He was sitting next to Sadat when he was killed. They said it was a miracle he wasn't killed too. It was something from God so they made him president the next week. Now he was always opening a new factory. They show him cutting the ribbon and shaking people's hands. Baba said it was the making of a pharaoh. I got up and changed channels. Channel Two. The black and white film with Ismail Yaseen. It screened on Thursdays after school. They would play things in order and many times over. The TV was mostly boring but Mama only let me watch videotapes on weekends. She said only boring people got bored. I felt bored every day after school. I got up and put the last tape into the VCR. I hit rewind. It made a sound like an airplane passing. Mama tutted. When it finished rewinding it clicked three times. I pressed eject. It made a rumbling noise, then squeaked as it came out. I put it back in its case and onto the shelf next to the five VHS tapes Baba said were for me. There were other tapes on the higher shelf. They were adult. I went back to Mama's feet. She was on the phone changing languages between English and Arabic and French. I heard her say it was the only thing she had. I knew she was talking about the house. They can forget it. She switched to French and I heard her say Baba's name.
I bring out my writing notebook from school. We have to write a story from our day. I draw a blue frame around the page. In one corner I write the date. I count down four lines and write: I am sitting with
Mama waiting for the power to cut. At the bottom I draw a picture of Mama on the sofa. I draw a vase with sunflowers like in the films. I watch the flickering TV screen until the power cuts. We don't say anything when it happens. It cuts every evening, then there is silence. Even from the street all sound stops. We stay in the living room, not moving, until it comes on again. Some days Mama gets up and moves to the balcony. She takes the phone. The cord is so long it also reaches the bathroom. Usually she just stays on the sofa misting herself. The cuts last one hour. Some times two. Some days, in the winter, they skip a day. We all have power cuts. Only three of my friends at school don't have power cuts. Their fathers are important. One of my best friends has a grandfather who is important. He is dead now, but they are still important. They never have power cuts. Mama also says the Sadats never have them. They are related to us, but not close enough for our power cuts to stop too.
The lights come on again. The TV flickers, then screams with sound. Mama sighs and shakes her head. I press mute. She gets up and comes back with a tray. I have the same dinner every night. Every night Mama tells me to chew slowly. I count. Twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two. Sometimes I reach thirty. Baba didn't mind how I ate. He liked food more than Mama. Once, after Baba left, Aunty came to the house and told Mama she had to make an effort with her food. That day Mama was crying. I gave her a tissue and stood next to her. She patted my head. She didn't seem to make an effort after that. Mama was thin. Nobody else we knew was thin like Mama. Except on TV, but only in American films. I take a bite of my grilled cheese sandwich.
After a while Dallas comes on Channel Two. It runs six nights a week, and everyone watches. I go to the kitchen balcony and watch people watching in the building next door. Everything is dark except the screens. I imagine myself in the flat with the three sisters. I wish I had sisters. I go inside. Mama asks me to turn up the volume. Her dinner tray is on her lap. I watch Mama chew. She chews slowly, like Nesma did. Mama said that Nesma dying was like losing a child. She was my aunt, but they said she was like my sister. She had Down syndrome. It was also about hormones, but not Baba's kind. That kind was only for men, to make them big. People told Mama they admired her. One lady said that anyone else would have hidden Nesma away. I imagined her in a cupboard. How would she eat? Some days after school I would sit in my cupboard imagining I was hidden away. I waited for them to find me. Baba did, but after he left nobody took notice. Mama did everything for Nesma. I heard her crying on the phone once because some one had made fun of Nesma at a restaurant. She said people think Nesma doesn't understand. I knew she understood. I wished I had known last summer would be our last holiday together. I came home from school one day, and at the gate I heard my name. I looked up. It was Nan a, Mama's friend, in the building across the street. She was on her balcony, waving. Come. Her building had an old glass elevator that rattled as it went up. You could see all the wires. They were black and greasy. I took the steps. I never remembered what floor they were on, but Abu Ali their neighbor had ran written on his door. Mama and Nana said this was terrible. Sometimes when I saw Abu Ali he would tell meAl Salam Alaykum. Mama told me I should never respond. Only nod your head. Since when do we say Al Salam Alaykum. If you answer, say Sabah
El Kheir. Grandmama was always reading an and saying Al Salam Alaykum. I told Mama. She said I was too young to understand. I reached Nana's floor. The door was open. She told me to come inside, then hugged me. Nana never hugged. Bad news. Nesma died and I would be staying the night. I screamed. I screamed so hard my voice stopped, like in the dream. I wanted to go home. She made me sit at the dining table and put a plate with rice and okra and escalope panee in front of me. She told me I had cried enough. Mama didn't let me eat escalope panee. I ate it quickly. I fell asleep that afternoon and woke up again after eighteen hours. Nana said she had never seen anyone sleep so long.
When Nana let me go home, there were many people in the house dressed in black. Mama had on a white scarf. A man was sitting cross-legged on Gran ny's armchair reciting ran. Mama never let anyone put feet on the furniture. Our house was Granny's house. Mama was born in it. It was two floors and like a castle. The garden was filled with trees. We had mangoes, figs, tangerines, sweet lemons. There was also a tree that grew from the seeds Mama threw out of the window when she was a little girl. Custard apple. We even had a coffee tree that Mama's friend brought us from Ethiopia. Under it was a wishing spot. Any wish you made would come true. Baba had built me a playhouse in the corner. It was wooden and painted red. The Nile was across the street. We could see it from the upstairs balcony. Mama said our house was plain but unique. Baba called it modern. People would take pictures. There were little windows at the top, near the roof, tiny, in threes, like secret rooms. There was a round window on one side, and a triangular window on the other. There was a secret box of treasures that Granny hid in the staircase when the house was being built. Granny lived downstairs with Nesma, and I would come home from school and find their floor full. People I knew. People I didn't know. We would have lunch in Granny's dining room, and Mama and Baba would come down too. Granny would sit at the end of the long table. She would ring her silver bell and Abdou would come in from the kitchen. Abdou was dark and from Sudan. He would go on holiday every summer and bring us back peanuts. Sometimes I would sit in the kitchen as he cooked. Abdou was always making maashi. He lined green peppers and zucchini on the counter and went through them, one by one. He held each vegetable like a tennis ball and with a knife made a circle on the top. With his special sharp-edged spoon he would scoop, bringing out the insides. It's all in the wrist. He taught me. Making dessert was the best. We picked mangoes from the garden that Abdou cut into pieces and put in the freezer. I licked the skins that were left. Abdou would tell me stories about Sudan. Once Egypt and Sudan were like one country. It was because of the English. They made some countries theirs. They divided other countries. Abdou didn't like the English or the Americans. He told me they were trouble. If there weren't any English or Americans the world would be a different place. He said they should mind their own business. When I asked Mama, she said I had to be careful what I said about the English and the Americans. Mama said that Abdou was the one who should mind his own business.
After Granny died, Abdou left. Mama closed downstairs and Nesma moved upstairs with us. Everyone stopped coming for lunch. I missed Abdou , but sometimes he came to visit. I would look out of the window after school and see him coming down the street. I would run down and wait for him in the garden. He brought me things. Once he had a bag of 'asalia. It was like sugar but yellow and healthy. An other time he had roasted watermelon seeds. He even bought me long stalks of sugarcane from the cart that passed through the streets. We ate them in the gar den. I waited to see what he would bring next. Then one day he stopped coming. I waited day after day at the window but never saw him again. No one went downstairs anymore. Mama said it depressed her. It was dark and smelled of Granny. I remember Granny's smell. Mama said her smell was musky amber. It was an ancient smell. She said Granny's smell and spirit were trapped downstairs. This meant ghosts. Or maybe the devil who was also a ghost. Mama was al ways talking about the devil. They also told us about the devil on TV. If we were naughty, the devil would become one with us. I was terrified of the devil and became scared of downstairs. When Nana took me home, we went in from the back door of the house. That was the door to Granny's floor. I hadn't been downstairs since she died. Mama was waiting for me. She told me to kiss everyone and go upstairs to my room. When the people left, I could come out again. It wasn't healthy for a little girl to be around so much black. I stayed there for three days. Ever since that day, whenever I come home from school, I am frightened to look up. I don't want to find Nana on her balcony.
I am also scared to look at people in black because it might make me sick, but then I peek.
Mama stopped talking about Nesma, but once on the phone I heard her say that she had a dream about her and woke up in tears. After a while she also stopped talking about Baba.
Reading Group Guide
In order to provide the most informed and thought-provoking questions possible, it is necessary to reveal important aspects of the plot of this novel—as well as the ending. If you have not finished reading CHRONICLE OF A LAST SUMMER, we respectfully suggest that you may want to wait before reviewing this guide.
1. What did you know about life in Cairo before reading Chronicle of a Last Summer? How did those impressions change or grow after your reading?
2. Why do you think the author chose to zero in on three different Cairo summers as the novel’s setting? How did this affect your impression of the narrator? What about your impressions of Cairo, and of Egypt’s political climate?
3. What surprised you about the narrator’s daily life in Egypt? What seemed normal or similar to your own life? What was radically different?
4. The house that the narrator grew up in exerts a heavy presence in the story. Why do you think this is? How are her feelings about the house different or the same as how you feel about the home you grew up in?
5. There are many colorful characters in Chronicle of a Last Summer: from family members such as the narrator’s reticent mother, mostly absent father, and rebellious cousin Dido, to tertiary characters such as the fruit seller who is snatched from the street and the housekeeper who is kept away by rebel activity in her neighborhood. Which character or characters most hooked your imagination and why?
6. Aside from her mother, the narrator’s closest relationship seems to be with her cousin Dido. How does her relationship with him differ from her relationship with her other family members? How does it change over the course of the story?
7. Why do you think the narrator chooses to pursue film in school? How does her choice of film subjects reflect or interact with Egypt’s political climate?
8. Over several years, the narrator’s grandmother painted a series of landscapes of the view from their balcony. Do you think there is any significance to this act? Why do you think the narrator’s mother is so captivated by them?
9. In the beginning, the narrator talks about a game she plays in the car on the way to school in which she tries to identify every object that stays the same or changes from day to day. How does this game represent the greater theme of constancy versus change in the novel? Why is this an important theme for Egypt as a whole?
10. Absence is an important aspect of the narrator’s life, and the novel as a whole. Baba’s absence, for example, is very prominent for much of the story. Who else is noticeably absent or made absent during the course of the story? How else does absence appear throughout the novel? And why do you think the author chose to emphasize it so?