“Hello, dearly liberated from the streets of our revolution, today we’ve got news from the front lines, tunes from the underground, and every political beat you need to get through your week.”
So begins each podcast produced by Chaos, the media collective that is, in its way, a protagonist of The City Always Wins. Omar Robert Hamilton’s debut follows Egypt’s revolution as if in real time, chronicling the aftermath of the 2011 uprising in Tahrir Square through the experiences of Khalil, an Egyptian-Palestinian-American; Mariam, his Egyptian girlfriend; and their colleagues at Chaos, which they’ve founded in response to the state-controlled media. (It closely resembles the non-fictional Mosireen collective that Hamilton, a writer and filmmaker who “moved to Egypt looking for [his] Spanish Revolution,” helped found.)
The City Always Wins, though billed as a novel, reads more like an experiment in revolutionary reporting. To put it another way, Hamilton’s book is itself a version of the project its protagonists are engaged in. He puts immediacy front and center as he constructs a galvanizing record of what it felt like to be young and hopeful in a particular time and place. At the same time, The City Always Wins strives to tell a cohesive story—the goal, certainly at first, that inspires its characters, too. For many, to be young and hopeful in that time and place, as the denizens of Chaos know well, was to be concerned with mediating information, processing the raw material of the streets to create podcasts, videos, and tweets.
“@ChaosCairo,” a tweet proclaims early on, is “essential listening.” It will also be, by the end of the book, all but defunct, another victim of a struggle whose outcome failed to affirm the surging optimism of its early days. “We were naive, no doubt,” Hamilton has written of his own experience, “but the whole world was naive with us.” To recount those days in traditional novelistic form, Hamilton seems to be arguing in The City Always Wins, might be yet another act of naiveté; processing their complexity will require a new kind of storytelling.
The challenge he tackles is to simultaneously evoke the thrilling energy of optimism, and to impart, just as vividly, the confusion of its wreckage—to forego filtering the story through the disappointment of hindsight even as he also illustrates just how that disappointment gradually took hold. The book proceeds linearly, but the titles of its three parts signal that time does not bring anything like a steady forward march: First comes “Tomorrow,” then “Today,” and then, finally, “Yesterday.” The short subsections shift, sometimes bewilderingly, among first-, second-, and third-person (plural and singular) perspectives, between dialogue and stream of consciousness, between poetic evocation and prosaic fact. A page can look like a found poem of news reports, or a block of detailed description of a single moment. Text messages are right at home here; so are passages from the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm. You won’t find out much about Khalil and Mariam’s romantic life, but you will learn how their sleep patterns adjust to keep pace with their revolutionary activities.
The novel begins nine months after Mubarak’s fall; the army has taken over and the human costs of revolution are already apparent. Still, the young activist-producers working long nights in Chaos’s dilapidated Cairo office (“a cerebral cortex at the center of the information war”) remain indefatigably idealistic. “The revolution,” they believe, “is unstoppable.” Hamilton grounds the optimism of “Tomorrow” in his characters’ faith in the democratic power of technology. In one passage, Mariam reflects on the odds of the collective “us” against the counterrevolutionary “them”:
They can’t keep up with us, an army of Samsungs, Twitters, HTCs, emails, Facebook events, private groups, iPhones, phone calls, text messages all adjusting one another’s movements millions of times each second. An army of infinite mobility—impossible to outmaneuver.
Readers may initially be swayed by these zealous tropes, but before “Tomorrow” is through their sheer abundance starts to expose the precariousness of such willful faith. Hope begins to look like youthful hubris as the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood rises to power and the bullets keep coming. Information can indeed be outmaneuvered.
By “Today,” Hamilton has succeeded in sowing doubts about the efficacy of communication to change the course of history. The section picks up with Mohamed Morsi’s November 2012 power grab, some ten months after “Tomorrow” left off. Politically, Khalil knows, “this is the nightmare scenario.” Adding to his dismay is “the hectoring paternalism of the international commentariat,” which Hamilton himself lamented at the time, and which he compellingly condemns here by juxtaposing on-the-ground scenes with newspaper and magazine headlines. Egyptians are the “world’s best protesters,” declared a 2013 Time cover, and the “world’s worst democrats.” A reader immersed in Chaos’s inner circle can’t fail to see how misguided such pronouncements were, which doesn’t stop their proliferation. Winning the information war comes to feel more crucial—and more difficult—than ever. “How many last breaths will we auction off to the breathless internet?,” one member of the group wonders.
Throughout the novel, Hamilton has alluded to the moral questions this dilemma poses, but not until “Yesterday,” told entirely from Khalil’s perspective, do they come to a head. As Chaos splinters and the public appears to be falling in line behind a new president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, we get a riveting, and at times painful, rendering of one man’s attempt to make sense of what virtues remain in the act of documenting a losing battle. As an American, Khalil knows that he can leave Egypt at will, even as his friends and comrades get severely injured and face imprisonment in the name of the revolutionary struggle. “Maybe freedom is nothing more than the taste of guilt,” he concludes. Here, Hamilton is deftly implicating himself and the reader alike—how much does watching a revolution unfold, even for the sake of recording it, really achieve?
That urgent query animates The City Always Wins. Hamilton ventures a high-wire act in balancing his self-reflexive endeavor with the imperatives of a good novel—character development, narrative arc—and he doesn’t always pull it off. The novel’s deliberate disorientation can be vexing. The paradox of this book is that it communicates the realities of the revolution most clearly when it’s least self-conscious about the problem of communication—when Hamilton dwells, instead, in the uncertainty of the evolving moment; when screens fade into the background, and immersion in the scene takes over. His ability to transport readers there affirms that the engaged witness, while not all-powerful, is nonetheless essential. “What else do we have left to fight with?” Hamilton asked in a 2016 essay for The Guardian, looking back on the events of 2011. “That memory of possibility is all we have.”