From the wraparound nostalgia of youth and its rose-tinted memories arises a drive to recapture the essence of a moment; hence the return to a specific place might bring you closer to that time. And if not, then it necessitates another return, and another, until you retrace all the footsteps of the past, getting further away from it as you attempt to get closer. You never get it back, but it doesn’t stop you trying.
It’s a transient beginning, in a location where people come and go, a precursor for the future comings and goings of our protagonist, for there he is, in Bab Al-Hadid Square, a Moroccan teenager by the name of Hammad. It is 1955.
The tone is set by Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa’s lines “Memories are a betrayal of nature, Because the nature of Yesterday isn’t Nature. But there are no absolute beginnings, as Mohamed Berrada points out in “Like a Summer Never to Be Repeated, and his Hammad will bear witness to more beginnings over four decades in a city that both his preconceptions and nostalgic recollections will never comprehensively account for.
Berrada himself was a student in Cairo during the same period as his protagonist, but he doesn’t trust his memories to explicitly say “This is what happened. Memories are tricky beasts, and the reasons behind events become clearer, or murkier, with time.
Yet landing in Bab Al-Hadid circa 1955 is as good a time as any. It was the beginning of the Nasser era, imbued with optimism and a sense of Arab nationalism that was to color the many Arabs – Hammad amongst them – who were studying in Cairo at the time.
Eventually that dream would die, and in a dramatic shift the second part of “Like a Summer is a critique of the state of Arab intellectualism in the wake of that fallout. Arab thinkers emerging during that time were carriers of self-determination and unity. The behemoth had crumbled, where did that leave them?
The mix of fictional prose and non-fiction cultural and literary criticism coupled with the incise manner of that shift would have proven a stumbling block to the reader, but if you’re following Hammad and his musings throughout with any sort of empathy, you will share his laments over the state of Arab thought.
This “disjointed narrative, according to translator Christina Phillips, embodies “the loss of cohesion, the fragmentation of the grand Arab dream, and the dislocation between the past and the present in the mind of the author.
Regardless, an Arab observation of Egypt during any era is always something to look for. There is the advantage of having the crisper perspective of the newcomer, while maintaining the true understanding of the culture – the underlying language that formulates it – due to the plethora of similarities it shares with your own. And Egypt had the likes of Hammad in its clutches, with its leaders, singers and actresses.
It s the anecdotes, the myriad little things that paint a picture of Cairo during that time and later, which may not have been the same city that others remember, but a chaotic and surreal place that is still recognized today. And neither was it the city of the “chic movies that captured the young Hammad’s imagination and made him choose Cairo over Damascus.
There is the hilarity – and absurdity – of the decision by residents of the North African Student Lodge in Agouza caught in a rush of enthusiasm to pick up arms during the Tripartite Assault of 1956. After a day’s training and having been handed rifles, Hammad and co. are dispatched to patrol the Nile Corniche in Agouza, in order to protect the home “front.
Another interesting aspect springing from the anecdotes is the sexual mores in Cairo during an era that was, on the surface at least, extremely conservative. But while the majority of these fleeting encounters were paid for, in one instance there was a dalliance with a married woman who had also had a relationship with Hammad’s friend.
Hammad later looks back on these misadventures and evokes Sartre’s “Even in a purely physical relationship a deep love can exist. Berrada’s interesting take on lust, as a “longing to make sacrifices and to give, to understand the other person and fathom their desires, and to create relationships that transcended what seemed matter-of-fact and monotonous and smothered dreams, indicate that even the the most transient of encounters could have a long-lasting effect.
Though the novel eventually undergoes the thematic shift into a work of criticism, it still retains its autobiographical feel, and still reverts to anecdotal passages on Hammad’s (now Mohamed) return to Cairo and his search for old friends.
Berrada has plenty to say on the plight of Arab intellectuals and the changes in Arab culture and thought over four decades, and he uses Egypt as an example to highlight the persistent struggle of a detached intelligentsia against an overbearing and oppressive regime as well as its failure to connect with the wider populace.
He calls for the independence of the cultural sphere from the state, writing that though it is not a goal in itself, “it is urgently needed in order to stop the suffocation and stumbling, the throng to consumer culture, and the playing on emotions.
However, Berrada is not of the belief that Arab intellectuals have ‘sold out’ to the state and the temptation of petrodollars because hundreds of Arab intellectuals have been oppressed and murdered; yet their struggle was subsequently forgotten.
At 174 pages “Like a Summer Never to Be Repeated is far from a flimsy read because Berrada is adept at lacing even his most whimsical passages with a sense of pathos. This is because the story is being recounted at a time where the reader is aware that this era and all it encompassed has fizzled into broken shards of a once great ideal, for those who stridently believed in it.
Personally, the increasingly tangential critiques felt a bit dragged out and would sometimes disassociate the reader from the book but even that is a reflection of the state of the dreamers of the Arab world, alienated and still seeking to recapture an idealistic, nostalgia-filled time likely to never be repeated.
Like a Summer Never to Be RepeatedMohamed BerradaAmerican University in Cairo Press.Available now in local bookstores