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Egypt's Repressive Government Frames Yasmine El Rashidi's First Novel

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The novelist Yasmine El Rashidi has a memory of her childhood. It's a memory of things not said. She grew up in a house in Cairo, Egypt - the house where her mother had been born. She says that even close family members held back a lot.

YASMINE EL RASHIDI: There were certain things that we weren't to talk about. There were these certain silences that were immense. And at moments, they consumed and sort of swallowed everything. And when you're told to be silent and when you're told to swallow certain thoughts or certain parts of who you are, it slowly, I think, eats away at everything.

INSKEEP: This experience in Egypt may be a little familiar to people like me who grew up in the American Midwest. But in addition to cultural restraints, Yasmine El Rashidi grew up under a repressive government. And that experience informs her new novel, "Chronicle Of A Last Summer." It is the story of an Egyptian woman as she grows up before Egypt's 2011 revolution, which overthrew President Hosni Mubarak. The novel also explores what life is like for her afterward. When the story begins, the narrator is a young girl. Her father has gone away, but nobody, not even her mother, is willing to tell her where.

RASHIDI: And this girl is quite aware of that. She can see it in how people respond to her or her mother's body language or how someone turns their head the other way when she asks a question. It's the silence that extends from the family and across all spheres of life and politics.

INSKEEP: I'd like you to read a little bit of this book, if you wouldn't mind - a paragraph in which the narrator describes being very young. She seems to be aware that people are taken away by the police from time to time.

RASHIDI: Sure. (Reading) Every time I see a policeman going into a building, I think maybe they will take someone away. In class, I write a story called "The Disappearing People." I write about the people they take away. It happens only at night. My teacher gives me zero out of 10 and says I shouldn't be writing such things at my age. At home, I cry to Mama and show her the story. She reads it and sits without saying a word on my bed. I think she is angry. It scares me when Mama is angry. Sometimes she shouts when she is angry, and sometimes she is just quiet. The quiet angry is much worse.

INSKEEP: Where is her father when this moment takes place?

RASHIDI: The father left on this trip, or what she thought was a trip. And no one will speak about it. And later on, we learn that he encountered problems with the government. And the only thing he could do was flee the country.

And that's something that I think - certainly, if you grew up as part of my generation, it was a familiar story - the father that was absent. And there were rumors around why. And people really only spoke about things in murmurs. In some cases, they were people who were sincerely corrupt. In other cases, they were people who simply weren't walking the line with the government. And so they were innocent. But they would never be able to get out of the problems that were created for them. And so the only thing they could do is leave.

INSKEEP: That's a story of Hosni Mubarak's time before the uprising, the revolution, the counter-revolution, if you want to call it that. Is it different at all now?

RASHIDI: Very sadly, no. We go back to everything changes and nothing changes at all. It's a really sensitive and fraught moment. And if your politics are not aligned with the larger interests of the state, it's not a pleasant moment to be here.

INSKEEP: You refer in a passage to what I think of as layers of memory in the same location. A narrator goes to a street corner, remembers seeing something awful on that street corner and also remembers what other people in earlier times have seen on the same street corner. What happened there?

RASHIDI: There's this street, Mohamed Mahmoud Street, which is in downtown Cairo. It's off Tahrir Square, where the protests were. And it's a street that is so loaded historically. It houses what was The American University in Cairo. And, you know, the revolution of '52 - there were soldiers and army tanks paraded down that street. And then later on, it was a street where some of the most vehement clashes took place between the people during the revolution of 2011 and the army. It's just this very, very loaded and fraught marker of these cycles of history. It's something that anyone who's lived in the city their whole life - there are these street corners that carry all these decades of memory.

INSKEEP: You know, when I've been in Cairo, I've had this feeling of being inside this enormous machine that has been running for thousands and thousands of years. Sometimes halfway breaking down, moving very slowly, but it just runs. How does it affect your way of thinking when any street could have so many layers of memory on it?

RASHIDI: You know, last summer, I was walking along the Nile. And I was with a friend sort of taking in - it was this beautiful day. The Nile was glistening. There were sailboats in the water. And the city felt like it was at its best. And we crossed this one, long stretch of pavement. And when we got to the end of it, my friend and I - almost at the same time, we looked back and realized what had happened on that same stretch of pavement a few years ago - these horrible, horrible clashes and this violence against Coptic protesters.

INSKEEP: Christian protesters, right?

RASHIDI: They were stampeded. There were these army tanks that had run over them. And I had been witness to the whole thing. But I walked that stretch of pavement, and it was really only when I got to the end of it that it sort of came back to me again.

And I think what we do is we're forced to survive. Survival becomes this way of moving on. And I think we've all had these moments where we feel completely paralyzed by these histories. And the only thing you can do is try to find a way of moving forward into the every day.

INSKEEP: Yasmine El Rashidi, thank you very much.

RASHIDI: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: She's the author of "Chronicle Of A Last Summer." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.