Reviewed by Ines Hanna
1919 is a thought-provoking, fast-paced, information-packed historical fiction set to the actual events of a significant era in Egypt’s history. Author Ahmed Mourad has created a rich and intriguing world in his new novel, 1919, a vivid recounting of the Egyptian uprising against Britain’s occupation of Egypt through the lives of a diverse cast of characters that include famous and obscure historical figures as well as fictional characters.
The novel opens with the story of Ward, an Armenian refugee from the Turkish genocide whose parents manage to escape to Egypt before succumbing to the Spanish Flu, leaving the teenaged Ward to fend for herself among the predators of Cairo’s underworld. Next, we are introduced to Ahmed Kira, by day a laboratory assistant and by night an assassin with the notorious Black Hand network, who poses as an elegant pimp to lure British Occupation officers to their deaths. Abdel-Kader “el Ginn” (“the demon”) is a thug who does a lucrative trade supplying British soldiers with alcohol, cigarettes and cocaine, until his own father is brutally murdered by the British and he becomes consumed with the desire for revenge at any cost. From the back-streets and alleys, we move to the palaces of Egypt’s aristocracy, where the future Queen Nazli is still a young and naive girl experiencing her first love, and where the feminist icon Safeya Zaghloul, Saad Zaghloul’s influential wife, is leading the protests against the British who have exiled her husband. Under Mourad’s skillful hands, all the characters emerge as flawed but deeply sympathetic, keeping the reader hooked and interested in their fates.
Mourad has already earned a strong reputation for producing suspenseful page-turners, and this one is no different, though it offers so much more than a fascinating read. In preparing to write 1919, Mourad immersed himself for a full year in the world of early 20th century Egypt, reading memoirs by artists, journalists and politicians from that era, listening to radio and television interviews from the 1950’s and 60’s of influential individuals whose careers had flourished decades before, watching films from the earliest days of Egyptian cinema, and pouring over letters and official documents nearly a century old. Like an orphan tracing his roots, Egyptian readers will be struck by how little has really changed, and how profoundly our past has shaped our present struggles, as individuals and as a nation.