New Yorker writer Wendell Steavenson watched the start of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution on television. But she found it hard to be so removed: She had spent more than 10 years reporting from the Middle East and felt “a great tug in my gut” to return.
Within four days, she had persuaded her editors to send her there. She entered the chaos and stayed, off and on, for more than two years, until Mohammed Morsi’s ouster in 2013.
In “Circling the Square: Stories From the Egyptian Revolution,” Steavenson weaves together a mosaic portrait that tightly focuses on the people, rather than the politics, of the revolution. Steavenson takes readers by the hand for an “in-the-moment” account of daily life amid uncertainty.
She arrives in Cairo and almost immediately goes to Tahrir Square, where thousands of people gathered for 18 straight days. She lingers there, describing everything: citizens, soldiers, tanks, picnic tables, the nearby buildings. My view of the famous square has never been sharper.
If you want political analysis and deep historical context, there are plenty of other books from which to choose. Steavenson does what New Yorker writers (think Susan Orlean and Janet Malcolm) tend to do best: portraiture.
We meet some characters just once, such as the mother of a martyr and a nurse attending to an orphan boy. Others have recurring roles, most prominently Hassan, Steavenson’s young interpreter, whose biggest dream is to flee Egypt.
Transitions to democracy are rarely smooth, and Egypt’s transition has been no exception. Yet Steavenson hardly acknowledges the revolution’s violence and brutality.
Only late in the book does she refer to the 800 people who died in the initial Tahrir Square takeover. She makes passing references to the Zamalek football match that killed 74 and the Maspero media building clash where two dozen people died.
Although assaults on women in the square were rampant, Steavenson mentions them in just one line in a litany of lesser problems such as muggings, carjackings and new taxes on alcohol.
Even if readers were already aware of the violence, the brief and delayed reference gives the impression that Steavenson is minimizing the gravity.
For those of us who live in a democracy, the disorder that led to it is often quickly forgotten. Steavenson’s insider view freezes a modern-day revolutionary moment and is a sharp reminder of how people cope with a new way of living.
Rachael Hanel lives near Mankato and is the author of “We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter.”