The Next Chapter

Karim Alrawi on how the Arab Spring inspired his new novel

Karim Alrawi is from Egypt. When the uprisings happened in 2011, he knew he had to go there — and then write about what he experienced.

Karim Alrawi is a playwright who has also written two books for children. His debut novel, Book of Sands, is set in the Middle East during the Arab Spring and it goes behind the headlines to see how ordinary people live through political upheaval. This interview originally aired on November 23, 2015.


One of the things that struck me is how you can be in a place which seems to operate on several time levels simultaneously. You can be in a village where there is no running water, no electricity, and people will be using cell phones. You can be somewhere where there are no grocery stores, no modern amenities, yet people have television. The contrast is quite startling at times. Exploring that in the novel was something I was very keen to do. I wanted to argue that time, in terms of what we consider to be contemporary development and what we consider to be medieval, can coexist in the same place.


One of the problems is that really none of the protesters adequately thought through the question, what does anybody mean by the word "freedom"? It was a word I heard repeatedly in Tahrir Square. But I never felt it was sufficiently thought through as an objective. Therefore in the novel, I wanted to tease out the possible meanings of that term and what it could mean in a situation such as the uprisings in the Middle East. I don't think anybody's sufficiently analyzing what the world will look like if these uprisings are successful — what does it mean and what will the challenges be. I think it's a major shortcoming and I think that's why several of the uprisings that took place in 2011 had not yielded the results that people had hoped for.


Once I was there, I found myself in the same situation as the characters in my novel, which was almost wondering what I was doing there and what was going on and trying to get a sense of where this would all lead. There was a mixed set of feelings. On one hand, because of the numbers of people there, there was a euphoria you feel at times. But there is also a sense of confusion and uncertainty: How long can this go on for? What could the outcomes be? What if the government really does decide to use the military and start bombing people or bombing the square? That sense of confusion and uncertainty, mixed in with a great deal of optimism, was common to a lot of people in the square at the time. 

Karim Alrawi's comments have been edited and condensed.