Review: Cigarette Number Seven – Donia Kamal

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Set largely within the 18 days of protests that led to the collapse of the Mubarak government in Egypt, Donia Kamal’s Cigarette Number Seven (American University in Cairo Press, translated from Arabic by Nariman Youssef) is not a tale of glorious revolution, but a depiction of a life in which Tahrir Square is only one of many competing priorities. The book traces snippets of Nadia’s life, from her childhood with her grandparents to her relationships with the men in her life, including her father. At the time of the 2011 revolution, Nadia’s father is aging and unwell, but no less enthusiastic about change than he was when he took her to protests as a child.

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There is a sense that Nadia has not entirely inherited her father’s passion for civil disobedience, as it is he who is focused on the television throughout the protests, including during the violent clashes between protesters and Mubarak supporters, while she moves between the Square, her father’s apartment and her own. Her friends, on the other hand, appear to remain on the ground throughout the demonstrations.

 

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This gives the reader multiple perspectives on the events in Tahrir and demonstrates that not all revolutionaries march with unfailing conviction and indefatigable passion. It also, however, draws something away from the power of what was achieved in Tahrir Square, which would perhaps be more important to emphasise for a reading public outside of the Middle East, whose experience of the Arab Spring was farther removed.

One way in which the novel does capture the immediacy of the revolution is through the close up on a three-week period of Nadia’s life, when other experiences over extended periods of time are presented in snapshots. The brief chapter structure of the novel provides a sense of time as a regular construct, passing in a linear fashion; however, as the story progresses it becomes increasingly apparent that this is not the case, with multiple stories overlapping in time. This creates something of a jumbled narrative at times, but this jumble also likely reflects Nadia’s emotional state as she navigates through the various experiences and expectations that make up her life.

 
 
 
 
 
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There is something deeply personal about the accounts of Nadia’s life as a young, modern Egyptian woman. The reader is able to observe her in her apartment, cooking specific ingredients to form a meal for a guest that may not come, or assisting her father to find a place to sit down when taking part in the march becomes too much for him. These are intimate moments that place her firmly within a generation that is coming into its own. She protects the old ways by caring for her father and using the recipes she has been taught, while also living independently and choosing her own path in love and life. This struggle to come into her own also parallels the revolution taking place in her country, as the protest in Tahrir Square brings Egypt into its own.

 

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Although the book is not long, there is a lot to appreciate in Cigarette Number Seven. With its distance from Tahrir Square, much of the narrative could have taken place anywhere, but small details highlight smells, sights and tastes of Cairo in a way that layers the story with a uniquely Egyptian essence. For those interested in the exploration of love and family more than bloody revolution, Cigarette Number Seven is one for you.

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Thanks to the American University in Cairo Press for providing a complimentary copy of Cigarette Number Seven for review.

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