Spring by Leila Rafei: On the periphery of revolution

Spring: An enchanting looking-glass into those engulfed by Egypt's 2011 revolution
5 min read
11 May, 2021
Book Club: Leila Rafei's debut novel Spring is a stunning work that exemplifies the kind of stories we need to read and write about in the Arab world.
What would you do if you were suddenly within a revolution? [Blackstone Publishing]
The novel is set in Egypt during the Arab Spring revolution, one of the most important events in recent Arab history.

Part of a series of uprisings in the Arab world, the people of Egypt, particularly the youth of the country, took to the streets in protest against oppressive governmental practices that had led to issues like food-price inflation, low wages, corruption and high rates of unemployment.

Rafei takes an unconventional approach in telling this story –rather than situating the narrative in the midst of the protests and uprising, which would have predictably contributed to a tight plot full of twists, the author zooms out the lens and locates three characters who are at the periphery of the Arab Spring; characters whose lives are affected by the revolution, but who are bystanders to the change that is sweeping the country.

The result is a story that allows the characters to guide you and show you their inner worlds and the ways the revolution seeps into the lives of every denizen, regardless of where they stand.

Rafei's clever approach in choosing the perspectives offered by the protagonists Sami, Suad and Jamila creates a narrative that is deeply personal, sometimes political, but not politicised.

The vantage point offered by these characters makes it personal, rather than political. The narrative does not serve any singular political motivation, it serves the characters and their stories.

The result is a story that allows the characters to guide you and show you their inner worlds and the ways the revolution seeps into the lives of every denizen, regardless of where they stand

Each of these characters, and those attached to them, stand on different points of the political spectrum: Suad is a traditional matriarch who supports the current establishment, Sami, her only son and a university student, is indifferent and spends most of the novel tense over the heavy secret he's keeping from his mother, whereas Jamila, a Sudanese refugee, is trying to get her documents in order and is focused on her dream of acquiring safety and shelter.

Rose, Sami's American girlfriend, is a "woke" Westerner who thinks she understands Egypt, but not enough to realise the risks and repercussions facing Sami if their relationship is revealed.

The only character who is an active participant in the revolution is Ayah, Suad's daughter and Sami's sister, who seems to be running a campaign against the government via the help of social media.

However, Ayah remains quite distant throughout the course of novel, making brief appearances that supplement our understanding of Suad's character and the way social media contributed to the revolution. Social media and its influence on society is a very subtle theme in the novel.

In Spring, Rafei cleverly constructs a narrative that is grounded in Egyptian culture and society, revealing the complex dynamics between a mother and her only son, a maid and the people she works for, an American and her Egyptian boyfriend, and the generational differences in approaching politics and religion.

Each of these relationships is slowly fracturing or impacted as a result of the events of the Arab Spring.

The author zooms out the lens and locates three characters who are at the periphery of the Arab Spring; characters whose lives are affected by the revolution, but who are bystanders to the change that is sweeping the country

In this character driven novel, Suad and Jamila's perspectives tend to stand out in contrast to Sami's. They're both complex women belonging to very different class of struggles in Egypt, yet related in the distress brought to them by men.

Suad's character is particularly fascinating – she's a middle-aged woman who seems to only be able to control the lemon grove that she carefully tends to and weeds on a daily basis.

She's a devout Muslim, afraid that her son Sami has strayed off the right path, while she has almost given up on her adulterous absentee husband, she holds on to her own secrets, and her faith.

She's attached to her copy of the Quran, revealed in this beautiful passage, "She'd watched her little-girl hands grow into womanhood around it as the book seemed to shrink. What was once a supernaturally massive behemoth, too heavy to lift with one hand, had now lightened from the wear of its frayed and over-flipped pages. What once seemed like a universe of words, of stories, of meanings she didn't understand, was now as familiar as an old friend."

Read more: Egypt buries a decade of hope and tyranny

Suad, over the course of the novel, unravels in her position as an older woman who is at the mercy of her circumstances, doing whatever she can to hold on to her dignity and beliefs.

She appears as the kind of aunt or matriarch we all think we know, but don't realise that they're as complex as any other person.

Read also: A family portrait of Egypt's
revolutionary struggle

Jamila's harrowing story is slowly revealed in the novel as she continues to strive to access papers that she needs in her journey as a refugee looking for settlement.

She works as a maid for Sami and Rose, who secretly live together against the approval of Sami's religion and culture – Jamila holds a kind of power over the couple due to her knowledge of their secrets.

Jamila's perspective as an outsider adds an important dimension to the story that reveals the imbalances and privileges that plague the society.

Spring is gripping, grounded and absolutely breathtaking. Leila Rafei had written a novel in which the characters wake up one day to a world that has changed around them drastically and suddenly. And it is within its pages that they try to regain their footing and make sense of the new reality that they must navigate in order to find their way.

Sumaiyya Naseem is a Bookstagrammer and freelance writer and editor who specialises in Middle Eastern and Muslim stories. In 2019 she joined the Reading Women Podcast as a guest contributor to talk about South Asian and Middle Eastern narratives.

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