The City Always Wins

The City Always Wins

by Omar Robert Hamilton


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Named as one of the Best Books of 2017 by The Boston Globe and The Arts Desk

We've been doing the same thing for hundreds of years. Marching, fighting, chanting, dying, changing, winning, losing . This time will be different. This time the future can still be made new.

The City Always Wins is a novel from the front line of a revolution. Deeply enmeshed in the 2011 uprising in Tahrir Square, Mariam and Khalil move through Cairo’s surging streets and roiling political underground, their lives burning with purpose, their city alive in open revolt, the world watching, listening, as they chart a course into an unknown future. They are—they believe—fighting a new kind of revolution; they are players in a new epic in the making.

But as regimes crumble and the country shatters into ideological extremes, Khalil and Mariam’s commitment—to the ideals of revolution and to one another—is put to the test.

From the highs of street battles against the police to the paralysis of authoritarianism, Omar Robert Hamilton’s bold debut cuts straight from the heart of one of the key chapters of the twenty-first century.Arrestingly visual, intensely lyrical, uncompromisingly political, and brutal in its poetry, The City Always Wins is a novel not just about Egypt’s revolution, but also about a global generation that tried to change the world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374123970
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 06/13/2017
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Omar Robert Hamilton is an award-winning filmmaker and writer. Based in Cairo and New York, he has written for The Guardian, the London Review of Books, and Guernica. He is cofounder of both Mosireen, a Cairo media collective formed in 2011, and the Palestine Festival of Literature. The City Always Wins is his debut novel.

Read an Excerpt

The City Always Wins

By Omar Robert Hamilton

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2017 Omar Robert Hamilton
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-71633-2


October 9, 2011

She stopped counting the dead an hour ago. These corridors are so compressed with bodies and rage and grief that something, surely, is going to explode. Everywhere are the cries of a new loss, a shouted question, a panicked face, a weeping phone call. They are dead, they are dead, they are all dead. The hospital's morgue is full. It was not built for this. There are twelve people locked in this infirmary with her. Eleven are dead. She can hear their parents through the thick metal door. We must bury them now! Tonight! Eleven inside, at least four still coming, ten in another room, who knows how many more still to come, how many still running from the army? The coroner is coming. Just another hour. Please wait. Eleven here and a woman sitting on the floor, clutching a man's limp fingers to her breast; her face runs with tears. His eyes are closed — her husband, her brother, her beloved — his clothes are ripped and bloodied from the serrated metal of the tank treads. His chest is covered with the embroidered face of Jesus. Eleven in here, in this room getting hotter with every minute, and how many more are coming? How long will the killing go on? How long will we be locked in this room whose air is thicker than any air ever breathed before, whose every atom is death? Blocks of ice are melting between the bodies of the fallen, vapors whispering off the flesh of the silenced. She breathes deeply. This room. This tiny room where every breath breathes in the dead. We will carry you forward. We will carry you in us. Breathe in. Nafas. Breathe in. Nafas. These molecules of scent rising from your bodies, your final offering to the upper world. I will breathe you in. I will carry you in me.

"We must bury them now." A man's voice. Mariam can hear shreds of the shouted argument slipping through the door. "Justice is for the next life. Leave justice to the Lord. We must bury them now."

Breathe in. Smell the fruit, sweat, dust of your brothers, sweet like blood, heavy with the coming rot. Soon the sun will come. Breathe in. We are together now. We will make them pay.

"But" — a younger voice, polite, frustrated — "if we have no autopsies, no proof, the army will deny everything." Mariam recognizes the voice as Alaa's, the first person she saw in the hospital, the curls of his hair framing his face as she had seen it on television. "We need the autopsies for justice."

Breathe in. Be strong. We will get justice. Be strong, be strong for this woman whose name you don't yet know, for her tears, for her beloved. Ask her her name, if she needs anything. She needs her husband to wake up. Leave her alone. Ice. We need more ice. Who knows how long we will have to keep the bodies from their burial. Breathe in. Breathe in the heavy air curling in your lungs, settling in their passageways, coating them forever with this night. These bodies will become what the mind cannot forget.

"What right do you have to say the word justice? What justice? What justice? There can never be justice, don't talk to me of justice, don't insult me with words. My son is dead. My son is dead inside and we talk of justice? What justice for the poor? For the weak? For the Copts? There can never be justice. What justice? How will you get justice? The priest says we must bury them now, now before the dawn. Forget about justice. Forget about autopsies. We must bury our children."

"Please. Let's be calm." Another voice, a woman's, low, with great authority: "My brother's inside next to your son, sir. These are their friends. They trusted them. They made the revolution together. We should listen to them."

"And we see now what your revolution brings us."

The march was to Maspero. To the state television and radio building. The army opened fire. No hesitation. They crushed people under their tanks. How many dead are there in rooms throughout this hospital? How long until they come for us here? Outside the gates a crowd waits nervously. Will the army come to seize the bodies filled with military steel and dispose of the evidence? Mariam ran from the bullets and hid in a building and carried a young man's bleeding body into the back of a car and pressed on his wound with her shirt and told him it would be okay and brought him here, to the Coptic Hospital, and then a doctor took him and left her dazed in the fluorescent corridor.

"Mariam," a voice said. A doctor. A friend of her mother's. "Are you okay? Yes? Come with me. The morgue is full. We're using a ward. I need someone in there. To keep people out. Can I ask you for that?"

They paused before the infirmary. There would be no stepping back through this door. There would be no unseeing. She turned the handle.

The woman with her beloved's hand to her chest has not moved. Mariam pulls her phone out of her pocket. Flat. Where is Khalil now? She left him. They carried the injured man together, put him in the car. Go, Khalil said. There's no room. I'll find you later. She turned back and saw him, his white T-shirt brown with drying blood, heading back into the field hospital. Where is he now? Is he outside somewhere, among the families of the dead? Go find a charger, some water. Go get this woman some water. Ask her if she needs anything. No, no one can give her what she needs.

Outside, the woman's low voice, again, its authority heavy with belonging and loss and patience, is slowly turning the families. Yes. Yes. We must fight. We will have justice. Grief by grief the voices join together into a shield of shared purpose. There will be no swift burial of bodies and truths. There will be autopsies. There will be evidence. There will be justice.

Mariam steps out into the corridor. The world is calmer now. The sun is rising. She looks for Alaa but can't see him. The floors are lined with people sitting against the two walls, waiting, still, for the coroner or the attack or whatever's coming next. She walks down the center of the corridor, looking for water. The air is thinner, she feels it moving against her cheeks, her lungs reach for it greedily but she tries to keep her breaths shallow. Out of respect.

In the hospital courtyard a young woman wearing a black hoodie sits with an open plastic bag full of water bottles.

"Could I get one?" Mariam asks.

"Yes, of course," she says, handing her one.

Mariam sits down on a low, dusty wall. An older woman wrapped in black sits in stillness. "You're good kids," she says in an almost silence, almost to herself. "My son ... maybe you know my son? His name is Ayman. He's ..." Mariam waits, doesn't say anything.

He is inside. She knows. Ayman is inside, under the ice. Again and again they've come for us. Once a month, every month with clubs and masks and guns and boots and bullets, again and again and again and for what? Mariam moves closer to the woman, gently placing her hand on her shoulder as new tears swell. "My son ... he ... he said he came alive in Tahrir."


October 18, 2011

The elevator up to the office is a thrilling ride: the halting climb up to the tenth floor a repeated act of faith in a higher power. But the risk is worth it for the classical expanse of wooden floors and high ceilings and the late afternoon light streaming in from the balcony that looks out over the lower buildings of Downtown and onto the Nile and there, in the center of the landscape, the ever-smoldering ruins of Mubarak's National Democratic Party headquarters, the sun setting perfectly behind the charred concrete skeleton. Khalil loves that building, loves that it stands there every day as a testament to all that's possible and all that's impermanent to the tens of thousands of people who drive past it every day. A symbol in cinders of our victory, our antimonument to the future. A giant billboard stands tall amid the scorched ruins. Untouched by the flames, its meaningless electioneering slogan become flesh: For your children's future. What poetry the city gives us. All around from this balcony Cairo sings out its history to him. The once-modern internationalism of the Nile Hilton, its wide and welcoming facade overlooking the shuttered gardens and their mysterious excavations; the muscular terra-cotta of the Egyptian Museum still standing firm despite the years of horror inside it, from the shadowy corruption and shameless thievery to the whippings and beatings dealt out by the occupying army. And then to the east and the buildings surging inland, their modernist balconies and flat rooftops pushing toward the chorus of Talaat Harb Square and, his favorite, the great sloped mansard roof, the dramatic gradient of its gray tiling more appropriate for the rains of Köln than Cairo's heat, but beautiful here in this city of infinite interminglings and unending metaphor. Cairo is jazz: all contrapuntal influences jostling for attention, occasionally brilliant solos standing high above the steady rhythm of the street. Forget New York, the whole history of the world can be seen from here, flows past us here, in the Nile streaming from its genesis north and out into the waters of empires and all the brutalities and beauties they bring, emerging riotous and discordant and defiant into something new and undefinable and uncontrollable. These streets laid out to echo the order and ratio and martial management of the modern city now molded by the tireless rhythms of salesmen and hawkers and car horns and gas peddlers all out in ownership of their city, mixing pasts with their present, birthing a new now of south and north, young and old, country and city all combining and coming out loud and brash and with a beauty incomprehensible. Yes, Cairo is jazz. Not lounge jazz, not the commodified lobby jazz that works to blanch history, but the heat of New Orleans and gristle of Chicago: the jazz that is beauty in the destruction of the past, the jazz of an unknown future, the jazz that promises freedom from the bad old times.

Yes, Khalil thinks, this will do. All the work they've been doing from cafés and their homes and in Rosa's apartment can now coalesce here. Chaos: their magazine, website, podcast — this will be its new home. He turns and steps in from the balcony to see Rania kicking up bits of splintered floorboard, her short frame dressed in black, her hair cut to a stylish buzz on the sides, a spider tattoo illuminating her left shoulder.

"What are we doing here?" Rania's saying, her voice always louder than all others. "The cobwebs are older than the building! This floor is all ripped up. Did you go in the kitchen? It looks like a murder scene."

"Come on, Rania," Khalil says. "The ceilings are high, the elevator works, and the doorman's so old he doesn't care anymore. It's perfect."

"Did you see the bathroom?" she says. "It looks haunted. I'm all for industrial chic or whatever but this place is going to collapse on top of us. We don't have time for this. I don't know how to fix up apartments. I can barely work the kettle. I turn it on and sometimes it just sits there staring at me. We're in the middle of a media war. We need to keep working."

"But look at the balcony," Khalil replies. "Clean it up and the whole world'll be hanging out here."

"You don't want the whole world."

"We want enough of it."

"Well you'd better get ready to fight the rats because that's their balcony. Do you know what happens when you get a rat into a corner? Have you ever got a rat into a corner?"

Hafez is watching the exchange silently, leaning against the doorframe of the balcony, taking in the new view. As always, he is smartly dressed, his hair cut close, glasses fashionably thick-rimmed, a paperback squeezed into the outside pocket of a light jacket: Herodotus, Joyce, Gramsci, no big deal. Two years into a PhD in London, he's clearly fashioning himself in the Said model of the academic sophisticate.

"Shall we go finish this argument at the Greek Club?

There's a party tonight and I need to get warmed up."

"Fine," Rania says. "But just tell me how you think we're going to pay for such a big space?"

"We can crowdfund," Khalil says. "And then room rentals, a café. Rosa did the numbers."

Rosa is holding her phone's flashlight under the kitchen sink, the shaft of light shining unbroken through a gaping hole in the ceramic. "It looks like someone's been disposing of evidence in here."

"Great," Rania says. "Very comforting."

"Don't worry," Rosa says. "There's plenty of money out there. We'll work it out as we go."

"And if the numbers don't add up," Khalil says, "we'll get some Swedish aid money or something."

"Didn't we say no funding!?" Rania's voice rises, filling the enormous room. "My God, I take my eye off you for one second! Swedish aid money, he says! Swedish! First you make us take an apartment we can't afford that's ruled by an army of rats and has no plumbing! Then, once we've signed the contract and have bills coming out of our asses, you'll come sliding up to us with ambassador Bjorn or cultural attaché Helmut and a couple of application forms. You know what happens when you start taking funding?"

"Relax, I was joking."

"So ...," Hafez says. "Greek Club?"

"I have to work," Khalil says.

"On what?"


"Shit. Can't you finish it tomorrow?"

"It should have been finished days ago."

"You want to come with me out of Cairo tomorrow?"


"I got a tip. The army is loaning out conscripts to work some businessman's farm. Will try and go get some photos. Conscripts, man. It's damn slavery."

"Sure. If I finish the edit."

"Do it in the morning. We'll do the party tonight, work yourself up a nice creative hangover and I'll pick you up midday. Easy."

"All right, Hafez."

"All right yourself. You're making me feel bad."

Rania turns to survey the room again, flicks open the rusted circuit-breaker panel and two small spiders scurry out. "Well, there you go. I rest my case."


A whole universe can hinge on a glance, a cigarette, a joke.

He heard her voice first. "We're not going anywhere," she shouted.

"You've made your point." The officer's voice was loud, firm. "You've made your point and that's enough. Now, please ...," he said, and gestured to the streets leading back into Downtown. He wore sunglasses, of course, even though it was the dead of night. Fifteen commandos in balaclavas formed a semicircle behind him. But Mariam was unafraid: "We're not going anywhere until the revolution's demands are met!"

The officer's jaw clenched against the insubordination: "What," he said coldly, his look fixed on Mariam, "will make you go home?"

She didn't miss a beat: "The arrest of Ahmed Shafiq and all his ministers. That would be a start."

A commando flexed his shoulders, cricked his colossal neck. Someone else always runs first. If a herd of buffalo stands together, the herd is impenetrable. But the wolves skirt the edges. The crackle of tasers snapped through the air. The crowd split. The wolves gave chase.

The long yellow streetlights shaking in the running of the open street, the shouts of the scattering crowd, the men with guns and sticks: all were as nothing next to her hand rising and falling in a running fist next to him, and all he can see is the coming decision.

Whole futures are born in the touch of a hand. Whole worlds that could have been are destroyed.

And now she's here, living with him, in bed next to him, reading the news on her phone.

"You want breakfast?" he says.


"Want to learn to fry an egg?"

"Not today," she says.

"Surely everyone has to learn to cook one thing?"

"I can cook." She puts her phone down.

"What can you cook?"


"Toast is not cooking."

"It gets hot."

"Hot's not enough."

"Heat changes it. So that's cooking. And anyway, I can fry an egg."

"We'll make pasta one night."

"I hate pasta."

"You hate pasta?"

"You can't tell if you're buying from the army's factories."

Her phone buzzes and she picks it up again:

Rania: six active strikes right now. We should do a special strike edition next.

"Rania's talking about doing a strike episode."

"I thought we needed to get out of Cairo? Do the Liberation of Suez piece?"

"I know. But we could do that anytime. The strikes are now."

"Sure. I'm going to get us breakfast." He gets up, pulls his trousers on.

As he rides the elevator he thinks again of that moment, her hand, the two of them running, how they ducked into the dark doorway of a building hanging heavy with foliage. Khalil nodded at the ancient doorman. She kept her hand in his as they made their way up through the spiraling shadows of the staircase, a single shaft of yellow light cutting in through the dusty windows.

He stopped, turned back to her. "Your name is Mariam, right?"

Her hand slipped quickly out of his: "How'd you know that?"


Excerpted from The City Always Wins by Omar Robert Hamilton. Copyright © 2017 Omar Robert Hamilton. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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