'Live from Cairo' vividly describes a world where refugees are case numbers

Ian Bassingthwaighte's debut novel centers on refugees and resettlement officers living in Cairo, as longtime Egyptian president Husni Mubarak steps down.

Live from Cairo By Ian Bassingthwaighte Scribner 336 pp.

It is Cairo in early 2011. Longtime president Hosni Mubarak has just stepped down. The armed forces are in control and are determined to bring back law and order. But protesters are not going to leave until their demands are met. Tahrir Square is a sea of hope and fear, joy and concern at the same time. 

Stuck in the midst of this chaotic scene are people who are also fighting their own personal battles. Ian Bassingthwaigthe’s debut novel, Live from Cairo, is a snippet of their lives. 

Dalia is an Iraqi refugee. She and her husband, Omran, left Iraq after Omran was tortured by the militia and she was beaten and raped. Omran, who used to work with Americans in Iraq, was able to get to the US. Now Hana is waiting in Cairo, hoping that her case is approved by the UNHCR so that she can join her husband in Boston. 

Hana is a resettlement officer at UNHCR in Cairo. She is an American with an Assyrian-Iraqi heritage. Her job is to decide which of the refugees, including Dalia, are eligible for resettlement.

Charlie is an American attorney in Cairo. He helps refugees prepare their cases for UNHCR. Dalia is one of his clients and he’s ready to go far to get her out of Cairo. 

And finally, Aos, an Egyptian translator, is Charlie’s colleague. During the day he works with refugees and at night he goes back to his political battle for a better Egypt. 

Bassingthwaigthe was a Fulbright grantee in Egypt in 2009. He worked there in a legal aid office that served refugees from Iraq, Sudan, and the Horn of Africa. He has met people like Dalia, Hana, Charlie, and Aos. That makes his characters believable.

“Live from Cairo” vividly describes how in a bureaucracy, refugees are case numbers, and their lives are reduced to a paragraph. In a bureaucracy, refugees can only wait until the day of their interview arrives. In a bureaucracy, refugees have one single chance to convince the UNHCR officer that they deserve to resettle in another country and live a normal life.

But Bassingthwaigthe, in all fairness, tells the other side of the story, too. Hana knows that UNHCR has a quota. Out of hundreds of thousands of resettlement petitions, only a fraction is approved. Therefore she needs to choose carefully, and that’s not easy. Each time she needs to decide, “a single-file queue, almost a million people long” appears in her mind. 

She’s constantly struggling to decide why one parson’s case should be put above others. That’s why she needs hard evidence. That’s why when she’s interviewing Dalia about her sufferings in Iraq, she asks: “Did you break any bones? Was your eyesight affected? Your memory?… Did you receive any threats before the kidnapping? Some warning? A letter of some kind?... Was the threat of rape just a threat, or...?” 

“Live from Cairo” is not about finding a culprit. The chaos is no one’s fault. Even the victims, including Dalia’s husband, Omran, don’t know who’s at fault: “Who was to blame? Americans, who cared not for people displaced by their wars? The Iraqi security forces, who couldn’t protect their own country? The militias, under the guise of God, who committed wickedness beyond understanding? No, Omran, couldn’t blame the wretched powers.... He could only blame himself for not begging Dalia to run away with him when they still had the chance.” 

Outside these personal struggles, Cairo is also in turmoil. The armed forces are getting more aggressive by day, and protesters more determined. The scene is best described when, during a clash between the Armed Forces and protesters on Tahrir Square, Charlie and Hana, the non-Egyptians, are cramped in a high building and are observing how the Egyptians, including Aos, are fighting the fight for their country.

Bassingthwaigthe knows Egypt. He understands Cairo. And that sets the bar for the reader too high to notice one single slip in the whole novel: When talking about a bombing of a church in Iraq on January 6, 2008, which is based on reality, Bassingthwaigthe calls the group behind the bombing ISIS. The Islamic State of Iraq and Sham, ISIS, didn’t exist as one united entity before 2013. The group responsible for 2008 attacks against churches In Iraq was not called ISIS, it was called the Islamic State of Iraq. But that’s just a needle in a haystack. 

“Live in Cairo” is a remarkable debut novel, written by a promising young writer who captures vivid details and writes masterfully.

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