Cairo is gigantic, but still it brims over with humanity. Its population is at least 20 million and still growing. Satellite cities arise in the desert, the suburbs surround the Pyramids, informal settlements colonise Fatimid mausoleums.
The adrenal rush of development is paired with almost complete political stasis. The regime created by Nasser and the army in 1952 remains in place and the present president, Hosni Mubarak, is nearing 30 years in power. The sharp contrasts in a society undergoing both pulsating change but caged by a paranoid authoritarian state means that Cairo offers novelists both a vast canvas and a narrow range of plausible destinies: radicalisation or co-option, thwarted ambition at home or a lonely migration abroad, a life framed by fatalism or cynicism.
All of these options figure prominently in the best-known modern Cairo novel, Alaa Al Aswany's The Yacoubian Building. They are also the core dilemmas of Cairo Swan Song, in which Mekkawi Said has taken the life of a single character – Mustapha - as a device for telling the multiple stories of his fellow Cairenes, but in a more fragmented narrative and a bleaker tone.
Mustapha has tried and in his own terms failed as a leftist student activist, promising young poet, migrant worker, advertising creative, journalist and teacher. Educated, alienated, increasingly unstable, he has abandoned oppositional politics secular and religious, tired of the comforts of poetry and rejected the crassness of the private sector; but, like so many in Egypt, cannot bear to be away. His voice carries a bitterness born of exhaustion and wounded arrogance, while his actions are often cruel, mysognist and mean-minded.
Mustapha tells the stories of his friends and acquaintances. He listens to the dying movie impresario whose louche life has been reduced to nothing by the death of one son in war and the loss of the other to a pious Islam. Essam, a painter, seeks spiritual and marital escape, pursuing Sufism and Singaporean businesswomen; but both prove illusory. His on-off girl friend Zaynab, tired of his and Cairo's indifference, takes her chance and marries a Mexican. His closest comrades have become increasingly orthodox Muslims. Paradoxically, it is the foreigners that are staying in this world; above all his American girlfriend Marcia, with whom Mustapha begins to make a documentary about Cairo street kids.
Mustapha and his circle's lives are, perhaps, too carefully a crafted mosaic of Egypt's educated middle classes, and Cairo Swan Song offers little in the way of moral or emotional growth. However, given the city's political and social climate, that may be about right. Either way, it seems hard to argue with the air of desperation and resignation Said's characters and prose evoke.