American writer Ian Bassingthwaighte’s novel goes beyond the headlines.
War refugees, we’re told early on in Ian Bassingthwaighte’s eye-opening first novel, often suffer from an unusually high rate of arrhythmia. The reason: “The average heart, it seemed, was unable to normalize after the shock of learning what people could do.”
Among the factors that can trigger such cardiac irregularities are terrorist attacks, forced separations from immediate family and unshakable memories of abduction, torture and rape. Throw in sudden homelessness and poverty, and it’s amazing these people can function at all.
“Live from Cairo,” set in Egypt during the Arab Spring of 2011, makes vivid the limbo that refugees inhabit by focusing on one particular case.
The author of “Live from Cairo” will speak at 7 p.m. July 19 at Elliott Bay Book Co. (elliottbaybook.com or 206-624-6600.
34-year-old Dalia from Baghdad is unable to join her husband Omran in Boston where he works as a garage mechanic. A former translator for the U.S. military in Iraq, Omran was kidnapped by the Iraqi militia after the “American War” and grimly brutalized, leaving him blind in one eye.
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While Omran qualifies for U.S. refugee status, Dalia does not because they have no paperwork proving they’re married. She winds up in Cairo where her application to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is not going well, in part because she’s too ashamed to talk about the debasements she went through in Baghdad to save Omran.
Bassingthwaighte, an American writer who worked in a Cairo legal-aid office helping refugees during the period when the novel is set, sees Dalia’s case from several points of view. Young Iraqi-American woman Hana has personal family reasons for wanting to help refugees. But as a new UNHCR employee, she’s in no position to bend the rules for Dalia.
American lawyer Charlie, director of a shoestring nonprofit called the Refugee Relief Project, is less scrupulous. Half in love with Dalia, he’s willing to break the law to reunite her with Omran.
Charlie’s in-house translator, Egyptian native Aos, is the third key figure in the book. At the office, he’s a voice of caution and sanity, trying to keep Charlie from risking their whole mission for the sake of one refugee. But after hours, Aos heads to Tahrir Square, joining the mass protests pushing for freedom and democracy in Egypt.
Bassingthwaighte renders his characters and Cairo itself with a You-Are-Here intensity. He brilliantly conveys the fabric of Cairo’s varied neighborhoods, paying homage to Egyptian writers Naguib Mahfouz and Alaa Al Aswany while he’s at it. Coffee houses, watering holes, crowded street-markets, party boats on the Nile … they’re all here.
It’s not lost on any of the book’s characters that Dalia has fled Iraq only to find herself in another country on the brink. As for the protests themselves, Bassingthwaighte makes their localism clear. The Americans can, if they want to, circumnavigate them on foot or by taxi. Their chosen battle is with a bureaucracy that sets more store on procedure than fact: “The truth paled in comparison to the paper trail. With paper, you could prove anything.” For Aos, by contrast, full engagement is unavoidable.
Bassingthwaighte’s writing is rich and charged, if occasionally overly florid. The pacing is steady, the tension cumulative and the climactic scenes, including a huge confrontation on Tahrir Square, are galvanizing. “Live from Cairo” takes you beyond the headlines into a pulsing, hazard-strewn world.