An interview with Jack Shenker on the topic of his first book, ‘The Egyptians: A Radical Story,’ published by Allen Lane / Penguin in January 2016, the Egyptian revolution, and journalism.
Atika Dawood, BA Arabic and Linguistics
Atika Dawood: I’ll start with a cliché, were you always interested in journalism?
Jack Shenker: “When I was little I actually wanted to be a detective. I would sit in the cellar with a map of Hackney and the Hackney Gazette to find cases to solve. I remember once the headline was something like ‘FOUR MURDERED’ and I ran to my mum saying ‘I’m going to find the murderer!’ and she told me to ‘leave it to the police, maybe start with something smaller.’ But I didn’t want to find Karen’s lost cat, I wanted the big cases. I was serious about my work(!)”
AD: What came after the detective dream?
JS: “I wanted to be Prime Minister. But I gave that up because I wanted to make a real change.”
AD: Politics is a medium to influence change, no?
JS: “Only if you fight for a different kind of politics once you’re in. That’s how I came to writing. Through writing you can explore issues you care about, you can think your ideas through and you can do this creatively. You can inspire people.”
AD: What was your journey into journalism?
JS: “I wrote for my university newspaper, like you. Actually I was nearly expelled from the school.”
AD: Do tell!
JS: “We ran a story about some alleged misconduct based on a leaked document. University administrators took legal action to stop the students’ union from distributing the paper and the editor and the writers were given a serious talking to.”
AD: That sounds very SOAS.
JS: “I then did a paid internship with the Guardian, and eventually started working for them”
AD: Why Egypt?
JS: “Good question. The normal thing to do would be to work on home news or become a subeditor on the foreign desk, but I wanted to be out in the world. I’ve always wanted to learn another language so I knew I wanted to go abroad, maybe China or South America. But I was interested in the Middle East and Arabic is definitely a new language, it ticked all the right boxes. Egypt appeared relatively stable in 2008 and no one was reporting much, so I filled the gap. Being in Cairo felt like being at the centre of the world: 25 million people honking, dancing, joking – and eventually, revolting”
AD: What made you write a book?
JS: “For me, journalism isn’t a career in and of itself. Although I enjoyed being a day to day correspondent, I never had much desire to ‘rise up the ladder’ in that context – I was always looking to try different things, different ways of writing. A book offered a canvas that was so much bigger than your normal 600-800 word news story, and that allows for a lot more nuance and subtlety.”
AD: Why did you publish it five years after the revolution?
JS: “I signed my book deal with Penguin in late 2011. They asked me when I could have the book completed by and I was tempted to say three months, but I pushed it to six months. Penguin said they’d give me 18 months and here I am, the broken shell of a man, with a caramel slice and a coffee, after the best part of half a decade of being hunched over a laptop”
AD: Bless you. How did it feel writing on something you’re connected to?
JS: “Paralysing. I think I could have written a book on any another subject much quicker, and found the process much easier. But Egypt’s revolution stretched the emotional spectrum: they gave me some of the happiest days of my life and some of the most despairing. It turned the wider world upside down and our own intimate worlds upside down, to the extent that it was difficult to differentiate between the two. It made you think, what can I change? Where can I find the imagination to see the world differently? The revolution was intoxicating, an important thing to experience. It was more than the 18 days in Tahrir Square”
AD: Book published, what’s next on your to-do list?
JS: “Learn Spanish and take LSD.”
AD: That sounds pretty intoxicating too.
JS: “Maybe not at the same time.”
Recipe for a Revolution: Molokheya
‘I have memories of stressed afternoons typing up articles while sipping lukewarm Molokheya. I don’t actually know what Molokheya is in English, I don’t think there’s a word for it. All recipes state ‘Molokheya’ without a translation.’
Preparation Time: 1 hour
1 pack of Molokheya
1 1/2 tablespoon crushed garlic
1 1/2 tablespoon ground coriander 3 tablespoons margarine or butter Salt to taste
1) Wash the chicken well and then boil until tender.
2) Strain and reserve 3-4 cups of chicken stock.
3) Cut the chicken into 4 pieces.
4) In a frying pan, add 2 tablespoons of margarine or butter and fry the chicken pieces
5) Pour the reserved stock into a saucepan and bring to the boil over a high heat.
6) Add 1 teaspoon of coriander and 1/2 tablespoon of garlic.
7) Reduce the heat, add the Molokheya and bring to the boil once without covering the pan.
8) While the Molokheya is boiling, heat 1 tablespoon margarine or butter in a separate frying pan, then add 1 teaspoon coriander, 1 tablespoon garlic and stir until golden brown.
9) Immediately pour this mixture onto the Molokheya in the saucepan. Don’t stir.
10) Stir the Molokheya just before serving.
11) Serve in a bowl with chicken and rice on the side.