Friday, March 14, 2014

On writing the next big thing: Torn between 19th century Cairo, Paris, and Atlanta

For the few past months, I have been pondering over a new adventure novel set against the backdrop of a major historical event—an all-time favorite writing gimmick. Though I am a voracious reader of history, be it a book, article, or just a worn out paper clipping, it has been a while since the last book capable of triggering my creative muse. So eager to find a respectable history book, carrying the promise of intrigue and rich dramatic premise I began the hunt for my next great read.
Though I’m a digger for all history, I’m particularly fond of Post-bellum U.S., Post-1848 Europe, and 19th century Egypt. As an Egyptian, now particularly writhing uneasily by what’s going on in my country, I started looking up books talking about things all the way back, hoping to find the roots of the dilemma we are living nowadays and discerning out what had messed things up in the first place. Of course, I couldn’t go 7,000 years back, so with the formation of modern Egypt in the early 19th century, I started my journey in history.
Book after book, I slowly digested the dynamics that enabled an Albanian officer, Mohammed Ali, of the Ottoman army, and later Wali (governor) of Egypt, to transform the almost 300-years stagnant country, into the world’s sixth strongest power, and one of the leading economies (imagine a 1999 South-Korea strong economy); conquering land three times its size (invading Arabian Peninsula, Sudan, Syria, even plunging deep into Anatolia, and threatening Constantinople itself, twice)—all that in the matter of thirty years. However, that meteoric rise came to a sudden standstill upon breaching the balance of world powers set at the time by mighty Britain. Fearful of a sudden collapse of the Ottoman Empire and a compensatory expansion of the Russian Empire, Britain curbed the ambitions of the greedy Albanian and quickly disciplined him back to his boundaries. After another thirty years, his grandson, Khedive Ismail, exhibits similar grandiose scheme; however, this time, he takes permission from the current world powers, Britain, and France, and this time expands southwards, into Sudan, Uganda, Ethiopia, and Somalia, all the way down to the Equatorial lakes.
Muhammed Ali, Wali of Egypt
Coats of Arms of Egyptian Khedivial state

Khedive Ismail

Following that episode of military expansion, in addition to the Suez Canal opening, and the lavish reconstruction schemes (Khedive Ismail commissioned Baron Haussmann to renovate the Cairene Downtown like its Parisian counterpart), came the scare of the huge debts and their incredible interest rates. Virtually, Egypt became the first bankrupt country in the world. To ensure prompt payment, the debtor states, Britain and France installed two ministers in the Egyptian cabinet to supervise spending. Shortly after, an army-backed revolution erupts in 1882. The new Khedive, Tawfiq (son of Ismail) seeks the intervention of foreign powers; the British come for help… and occupy Egypt for the next seventy-four years.
So enticed by that captivating history, I embarked on sketching my new novel (in Arabic), crafting a storyline running in the tumultuous years between 1805 and 1885, and weaving-in characters deeply entrenched in local and religious backgrounds, standing fiercely in front of the incredible pace of Europeanizing and militarization of the almost dormant, mostly-conservative nation. Then, I started writing right away, filling 105 pages in under twenty-two days… before coming to a halting stop.
It was October, last year, and things had turned pretty ugly here in Egypt. I grew increasingly depressed, and abruptly lost all appetite for writing. Dwindling in productivity, I sought refuge in reading once more; this time, to a place half the way across the globe.
Back in 2011, I had written an Erast-Fandorin style novel, Spy Hunt in Dixie, a detective-espionage adventure following the tracks of a soldier dispatched from the blazing battlefield of the French Intervention in Mexico into the ongoing American Civil War in Louisiana. The soldier stumbles upon a grand Confederate secret, and is hunted all the way back to the Mexican playfield, and from there, the chase goes to his home in Africa.
General W. T. Sherman
Reading about that period of history had appealed greatly to my taste, so once again, I venture upon reading a couple more interesting books about the American Civil War; this time focusing upon the dark days of the Atlanta Campaign, and the following ruthless March to the sea, by the controversial General William Tecumseh Sherman.
Distracted by a completely new idea and setting, I embarked upon yet another new novel, this time in English. I wrote fifty-five pages, before stopping prematurely for the second time. This time, by the untimely announcement of the opening of the “ABNA” (Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award) contest by Amazon. Encouraged (and rather forced) by my wife, I decide to submit my second novel, Respublic Amerike, to the contest. Three thousand words short, and in need for a captivating pitch for the submission process, I spent the following two months adding, editing, and toning my second novel, in addition to writing and rewriting a gazillion times an incredibly illusive pitch.
After fifty-six days of boring mind tolling, I was mentally spent: unwilling and unable to resume writing my novel.
I strayed around looking for more reading, convincing myself that I could look for another world event to weave in, to enrich the novel’s timeline and to spice things up, for myself and for my prospective readers.
After spending numerous hours nitpicking here, and there, I finally settled upon A People’s History of the World: From Stone Age to the New Millennium, a socialist take on world history by Chris Harman, a British journalist and activist, and a member of the British Socialist Workers Party. Taking with a pinch of salt, I ventured into the intriguing, concise history of the work; however, heading directly to Part Six: The world turned upside down, the part covering world events starting the American Revolution. I quickly skimmed through, reaching the much-coveted 1848 European revolutions; slowing down, I hunted for a particular contemporary world event, to serve my current novel… and lo and behold, there it was, the world’s richest event lying there, at the 11th chapter, detailing that astonishing event of 1870-71.
A lot of people must immediately think I mean the Franco-Prussian war, and the humiliating French defeat. Well, not exactly. The richly dramatic episode that I mean was the ensuing crescendo of climactic events. It starts with the excoriatingly choking Prussian siege of Paris, the fall of the second empire, and the subsequent formation of the Third Republic. The French resistance fails after four months of defiance, bravery, and escalating jingoism, all along consuming a horde of horses, many of the fury tenants of the Paris zoo,  tons of cats and a quite a handful of rats! Accepting a humiliating armistice deal, the French let Prussians annex Alsace and northern Lorraine, as well acquiesce to let the invading army march into Paris. Chaos ensues, and the indignant National Guard (civilians militarized during the war) stages a coup d’état against the “frail, treacherous” government. The Prime Minister, the notorious historian and statesman, Adolphe Thiers, and all the members of the government withdraw immediately to Versailles; next day, March 18th, 1871, La Commune de Paris is proclaimed; a communist utopia that lasts for seventy days.
Adolphe Thiers

A barricade
 Fearful of a successful “Paris Rebellion”, which could consequently embolden the socialists at home, Otto von Bismarck orders the release of the tens of thousands of French prisoners of war. The Thiers government quickly re-organizes the army and mounts a thundering attack on the enervated city; tens of thousands of the rebellious soldiers are killed, while the remaining insurgents are shipped over to New Caledonia, the French colony in the South Pacific.
Woo-hoo, this really is rich history.
Sure, I had read many a times before about the series of events that befell France, especially Paris in the scathing months between September 1870 and June 1871. I had read aplenty about the European scene around the 1870, the setting-the-stage for the war, and how my all-time favorite diplomat, Otto von Bismarck (not any more), almost single-handedly united the German states into one empire: by brilliantly inciting the ill, old French Emperor into waging a war on the, comparatively smaller, seemingly weaker Kingdom of Prussia. I had read several times about the fantastic deployment of a utopic communist republic (it wasn’t: neither utopic, nor communist) by the disgruntled workers of Paris, and how it was temporary and dysfunctional, and that it automatically fell and that the Third Republic resumed promptly.
In the book, A People’s History of the World, this incident is quite expanded, and told in an emotionally dramatic tone; emphasizing the catastrophe that befell the utopic patriotic workers of Paris, and how climatic were the events, and how powerfully the whole incident changed the course of the world.
However, I just couldn’t take the book’s perspective for granted. After all, it was written by a socialist and published by a socialist organization; so, not altogether the most trustworthy of sources on a matter drumming the martyrdom of communists and socialist at the hands of the opportunistic bourgeois.
After finishing this captivating segment in Harman’s book, I began searching for a rather more impartial source examining this hot, controversial period of French history. In English, there was quite a few books written on the subject. After spending a couple of days looking up, reading descriptions and readers reviews of prospective books, I slowly compiled a list of four titles. However, The Fall of Paris: The Siege and the Commune 1870-71, by Sir Alistair Horne, a renowned British journalist and historian of Europe, quickly caught my attention; I promptly bought the 480-pages book and started my reading list with it. Thankfully I did.
The Fall of Paris is one of the best history book I’ve read in a very long time. I won’t review the book now and here, for it deserves quite a stand. May be, I will do after I’ve finished reading it the second time (yes, the tome is that good).
The weeklong reading of the scholarly, yet exquisitely-written, book unfurled in front of me the intricacies of one of the most compelling of events in world history. Not just pure, bland history, but gripping disclosure of the dynamics of power, concise explanation of then-contemporary philosophies, and lively portrayal of personalities, of heroes and villains alike, and above all politics.
On rereading the book (more slowly this time), I’m planning to pause after each main entry, and then to scour the internet for new sources on the most intriguing personalities and mini-events; all along, incorporating new elements, scenery, and plot into my current Civil War novel.
Every now and then, I’ll be writing a blog entry about some of the truly exciting personalities: a personal history, anecdotes and achievements, and especially emphasizing their role in the siege and Commune; as well as, how it affected their lives and what did they do afterwards (that is, if they made it at all).
Everyone is invited to join the ride and is welcome to enrich the text, whether with personal insight or with adding relevant historical remarks. Also, I’m open to suggestions regarding content, perspective, and style.

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