Lifestyle & Culture

Weekend Reading: Chronicle of a Last Summer

Cairo, with its blistering summer heat, is the setting for this novel by Egyptian writer Yasmine El Rashidi. Actually, the setting is one house in Cairo, a three-generation family home. Revolution comes, revolution fails, revolution comes again, but the family remains quietly the same. Until it doesn’t. Published this summer by Tim Duggan Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, this political coming-of-age book can be purchased at local booksellers or here or here

OURS WASN’T a culture used to change. Permanency was valued. We lived in the same places we were born in. We mar­ried and moved around the corner. A job was held forChronicle3web decades. The less change, the less movement, the better. It was a view to stability, rather than the op­pression I had internalized it to be. Everyone we knew preserved lives as they were, over generations. Sofas stayed covered in plastic, glass cabinets with prolifer­ating displays were not to be touched, every gift, every token, every ticket, stuffed somewhere, or in a drawer. Most people’s homes were like time capsules, offering panoramic views of every year until the present one. The narrative of Granny’s floor had begun in 1940 and ended three days after she died, in 1983. The piles of hoarded newspapers and magazines spanned those years. The gadgets, gifts, flyers, phone books, post­cards. Her letters were stored in shoe boxes and tied with ribbon. The last one dated December 31, 1981. It was postmarked Lalibela. Inside was a string of brass beads. It was signed, Devotedly yours. The letter before that was locally stamped, from the brother of Sadat, offering greetings for the Eid. A few days before came a government notice about tax. Mama had asked me to keep certain things, even though she knew we might never look at them again and until that moment we had no sense they had even existed. I put what I could in boxes, covered the furniture in sheets, bubble-wrapped paintings, glasswear, porcelain, china, and silver. Boxes and boxes of letters, postcards, photo­graphs, film reels, negatives, crochet thread, stamps, brooches. Suit

Yasmine El Rashidi credit Brigitte Lacombe

Author Yasmine El Rashidi. / Photo by Brigitte Lacombe.

cases of clothes, Granny’s, folded and put away. Everything was moved to the basement. I kept a single photograph from Granny’s collection, framed it, and had it hung on a wall by the entrance. It is of downstairs, one day when Granny was still alive. It looks like it might be winter, judging from the dress, although the house is always cold. Granny is sitting in a corner, Nesma by her feet, both of them drowned out by the deep cocoa tones of the furniture and curtains and paintings and the great grandfather clock looming nearby. A blanket covers Granny’s lap. A furry shawl is flung over Nesma’s shoulders. A seven-layered chandelier cuts across one side of the frame. Granny’s lips are a deep pink, jumping out amid somber tones. I kept that, and as well a series of Granny’s paintings, miniature, Polaroid-size oils of the view from the main terrace, painted on November 28 of each year since the house was built. They hung on the largest wall in the sitting room, off-center, to the right. The palette changed very slightly on each canvas, from greens and earth tones to scales, eventu­ally, of sepia, rust, and grays. Four of the years were missing. Mama didn’t know why. The gaps of those years were left as spaces on the wall that themselves had become tinted with time. It was the single wall I didn’t paint white. Once I moved downstairs Mama would come down often and look at the paintings. She would sit with her coffee cup on the rocking chair facing them and tell me that it was like watching a film. The stories would come flooding back, filling her, occupying her mind’s eye.

—Yasmine El Rashidi

Reprinted from Chronicle of a Last Summer: A Novel of Egypt. Copyright © 2016 by Yasmine El Rashidi. Published by Tim Duggan Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

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