Review: Live from Cairo: A Novel

by Ian Bassingthwaigthe
Scribner, 2017

Live from Cairo offers a compelling cast of characters snared in a particular historic moment. Cinematic in scope and intensity, this novel explores a gray moral area where NGO staffers judge the merits of refugees seeking asylum. It opened my awareness to the magnitude of the contemporary refugee crisis. Bassingthwaigthe lived in Egypt as a Fulbright Scholar, and writes with vivid details of place and culture.

In the wake of Egyptian President Mubarak’s resignation, armed soldiers patrol Cairo’s streets to quell mass demonstrations and enforce curfew. “Protesters carried signs and rocks. Soldiers carried bigger guns and radios. Each radio could turn one soldier into a truckload.” Cairo has become a waypoint for refugees from Iraq, Somalia, Sudan who are seeking resettlement in more peaceful European or American locales. Migrants with temporary status exist in limbo as they petition the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for asylum.

Main characters Charlie (an American attorney processing asylum petitions at a NGO) and Hana (an Iraqi-American who works at the UNHCR) have mixed motivations, and get tangled in twists and turns of civil unrest and bureaucratic ineptitude. They advocate in particular for Iraqi-born Dalia, determined to reunite with her husband who has been granted a visa and lives in the States. I don't want to spoil the plot, which is well-wrought and timely.

Hana finds herself torn between upholding the stated protocol of the UNHCR, or following her instinct to grant a pass to each deserving refugee. In one of the major paradoxes of the novel—and of our times—there are so few official permits available for so many asylum seekers that only the most traumatized of the suffering stand a chance to receive passports to permanent sanctuary.

According to official UNHCR statistics (August, 2017) about 20 people are forcibly displaced every minute, worldwide. Currently, more than 65 million people are displaced, living in refugee camps or waypoints such as Cairo. Readers who want to dive behind the scenes of an incredibly complex situation will find much to love in Live from Cairo: A Novel.

Karen Lewis