Reading Egypt: “Father of Heliopolis”

“The Father of Heliopolis” is a non- fiction piece by the novelist Pauls Toutonghi about his visit to Egypt, with his father. I was so glad to read this piece because it gave all the pertinent information about the revolution in Egypt, without the impersonal tone of a news article.

They arrive in Egypt a mere two months after the revolution. The author walks us through the chaos of Egypt at the time. There are curfews & protests on every street, buildings in ruins, fear and uncertainty among the people about the future of Egypt and themselves, ‘‘Everyone has a “Plan B,”’ the consensus seemed to indicate. ‘A “Plan B” just in case.’ ‘Switzerland is nice, I’ve heard,’ said the woman to my left, a prominent Cairene gynecologist. ‘Or maybe Australia?’

But at heart this piece is about nostalgia. The Pauls’s father was born in Egypt but hasn’t been back for 65 years.

On the first day, before venturing into Egypt to begin their journey Pauls’s asks his father, ‘How do you feel?’  and his father replies, ‘I’m worried I won’t recognize anything.’ It reminded me of the way one would feel just before meeting a best friend from childhood. There is excitement but there is also fear. Doubts about how much this friend might have changed, how much you have changed over the years, will there still be that spark, that connection that made you best friends way back when.

They begin their journey with a visit to his father’s old school, where he tells the story of how he once stole cucumbers from the nuns’ garden, then the church where his grandfather sang in the choir. Then they set off on a search for their ancestral home which they find with difficulty because the neighborhood has changed so much. They find the place where the house used to be but discover that it has now been demolished to make way for new construction. His father however,  finds his connection because even though a lot has happened and many things have changed or are gone there is still the memory,  as the author puts it, “It’s gone, but now we’ve seen it, together. We’ve seen where it used to be. Now – now, I can offer this memory, to you”.

Father of Heliopolis is available on the Granta Magazine website.

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