Sunday, 24 January 2016

A Parade of Presidents by Alexander Murray

Egypt's Thousand Days of Revolution

January 25th is the anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution during the ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011, so it seems the perfect day to blog about a book telling the inside story of a sequence of revolutions and a ‘Parade of Presidents’.

Since his first visit to Egypt in 1981, Alexander Murray has been spending a lot of time in the country. He was there when Sadat was publicly gunned down; he witnessed the demonstrations in Tahrir Square, the election and arrest of President Mursi and the rise and rise of General - now President - Sisi. Throughout this time he has taken daily photographs and kept a journal recording the lives of ordinary Egyptians trying to live and work through these turbulent events. The book reveals intense beauty and extreme poverty.  If you want an insight into what it is like to live in a country torn apart by political and religious extremes, then this is a must-read. It’s written as extracts from Alexander’s journal accompanied by lots of photographs, so it’s also an easy read.

Recent events, including the bombing of a Russian passenger jet from Sharm al Sheikh, make this a very contemporary book. My own time spent in the Middle East made it of particular interest to me.  I worked in English broadcasting under tight censorship, so the criminalisation of journalists trying to report the truth came as no surprise.  Truth is the first casualty of conflict. Alexander Murray risks his own freedom of movement in this account of what it feels like to walk the streets of Cairo and Alexandria under a series of repressive regimes. It's a brave book.  I asked Alexander about the process of writing it.


Q. 1. What is it about Egypt that you love so much?

It's a place of miracles - the great Nile bringing its life-giving force to a desert land, the vision behind the creation of the temples and pyramids, the indomitability of its inhabitants under all kinds of oppression - whether it be the sun or political regimes of different colours throughout the millennia.  It's also the place that first inspired me to travel as a young man and experience, for myself, things that seemed so impossibly out of reach when I was a teenager. I became a man in getting there and being there - you don't forget such things.
Tahrir Square, Cairo

Q.2.  What gave you the idea of writing a book about your Egyptian experiences?

I've always kept a journal when I've travelled and it was no different when chance or synchronicity took me back to Cairo regularly, starting not long after the 25th January 2011 revolution. A good friend commented that my writing seemed to 'catch fire' when I was there and this coupled with the fact that my visits coincided with nearly all the pivotal moments in the country's recent history plus the fact that I had taken street-level photographs every day made me think that there was something unique and worth sharing.

Q.3.  Tell me about the process of turning your journals into a book.

It was more challenging than I thought!  The raw material tends to flow easily in my experience; the preparation for publication bringing all aspects of the writer's craft to bear is harder . . . but essential!  First of all, I wanted to check that the quality of the writing was of a professional and publishable standard so I worked with a literary editor to give me straight feedback on the manuscript.  I have remained extremely faithful to the original entries but many needed polishing to ensure consistency of tone and clarity of meaning. The tooth-comb revision necessary to make the whole read smoothly was painstaking and time consuming but what joy when I could read whole passages without finding anything that jarred, like a word repeated too soon after its previous use.

I found my best editing environment was a bookshop-cafe around the block from where I live.  The owner was delighted to know why I was spending so many hours at one of his tables (I bought a very credible amount of coffees and sandwiches to justify my presence!) and he introduced me to other published writers who gave me encouragement throughout, often stopping at my table and putting a hand on my shoulder.

As I followed the indie route, I also had to set myself up as a publisher under the local tax regime and then recruit a team of book designers, proof readers, photo editors and illustrators.  I worked with them virtually using time differences to keep the production preparation rolling. One of the biggest challenges was to pick up my energy when sometimes things went into a lull. I set myself deadlines and the most useful thing of all that I did was to declare to all my friends and colleagues that I was going to publish a book. Having gone public there was no way I was going to fail!


Q.4.  Given the political situation in Egypt and the imprisoning of journalists and bloggers throughout the Middle East at the moment, did you feel that you were taking a big risk to publish this book now?

Yes. I was bolder than those around me, including my wife, but I still had cold-sweat, middle-of-the-night wake up moments. I'll always remember the night I sat on the edge of my bed in pitch darkness in Cairo listening to the 3 am call to prayer coming through our open bedroom window and wondering what the hell I was doing.  I resolved to do a final run through of the manuscript to check for words that were gratuitously harsh or overly assertive that perhaps would unnecessarily provoke the authorities. I spent the rest of the night lying awake in bed revising the text as if on a screen in my mind.  When light came I went straight to my local Cairo cafe and made the required amendments, careful to keep the thrust of the message intact.  It was clear that the push of a publication button could change not just my life but those of my nearest and dearest, and the fairness of that weighed heavily on me. On the other hand, during the church service we attended in Scotland to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary, one of the readings called for all of us to courageously speak up against oppression. At that moment, I knew the only route possible was publication.
Curfew - road-block

Q.5.  Why did you decide to ‘Indie’ publish in the end?  This is, after all, a very commercial book.

It was all about topicality of the subject and the foreseen long lead-times through a traditional publisher which, through consultation, seemed to be up to two years.  I wanted to strike while the iron was hot.  I must also say that the degree of self-direction and sense of hands-on creation of the indie route was very satisfying and empowering.

Q.6.   When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer?

Goodness, I can't remember if there was a moment as such but looking back I can trace an underlying, undeniable and on-going motivation.  I still have a school jotter containing compositions I wrote when I was nine.  I clearly remember writing one of them which involved the hero sacrificing himself to save a drowning child from a stormy sea.  The teacher gave it good marks but was concerned about the subject matter which disappointed me a little!  I won the Reid Prize for English in sixth year, due in large part to the creative writing component, and remember long days writing or composing stories in my head as I walked to work in my twenties. And then when I was forty-seven, on top of a very busy full time role as a director of a multinational company, I signed up for an Open University creative writing course that required twenty plus hours of writing per week for nine months. As Maslow wrote, 'what a man can be, he must be' and that seems to be the nature of my relationship with writing. I just wish I had self-directed myself or been encouraged more strongly by others to pursue writing as the main focus of my professional life a lot earlier, before spending five years studying law, for example!
Nile sunset


Q.7.  What kind of books do you like reading?

I love books of poetic prose - Laurie Lee is an early inspiration especially his tales of adventure and self discovery. I also love writers who paint landscapes as if before a canvas, which vividly evoke an era I can never know, like John Fowles in the opening of Daniel Martin.  Books that pivot on the subtlest expression of the deepest of emotions like those by Kazuo Isiguro and Imre Kertézs.  Finally, I love books that sweep through generations highlighting endurance, fortitude and unquenchable spirit. In short, books that touch, inspire and show a way forward. I'm all about adventure, freedom and possibilities and maybe it's not surprising that my reading choices revolve around these themes.

Egypt's Thousand Days of Revolution: A Parade of Presidents
by Alexander Murray

"Not a traditional guide, not a history, but something more pleasing: a journal which reminded me of the style of Stevenson's Travels with a Donkey in its keen observation, its search for understanding, and in the sense that part of the charm is in getting to know the author with all his humour and humanity. When I finished the book I felt as if I'd been there with him, and shared his hopes for the future of a country which could be hugely important in Africa and in the Middle East..."  Amazon Review

Some Reviews:-
"It's a heartbreaking tale, because we hear the stories from the local people Alexander constantly talks to, who are poor, oppressed and frightened, but still hopeful of a decent and fair government."

"Part travelogue, part journalistic endeavour, this should be on the shelf of anyone who wants to understand more about modern-day Egypt and Egyptians. The characters and the stories within these pages stay with you long after you've reluctantly closed the back cover." 







2 comments:

  1. What an amazing book.
    Alexander has far more courage than I.

    Thanks for a great review

    ReplyDelete
  2. Glad you liked it Al - yes, Alexander is a very brave man.

    ReplyDelete