Live from Cairo, by Ian Bassingthwaighte

There are some jobs I know I could never perform: therapist, dental hygienist, anything to do with child protective services. I’m not strong enough for those jobs. After reading Live from Cairo, by Ian Bassingthwaighte, I have to add another to the list. I will never be able to be one of the people who decides which refugees move on to a safe country and which have to stay behind. Live from Cairo tells the story of two people who try to help refugees as they get try to help one woman reunite with her husband at the same time as the 2011 Egyptian Revolution grows increasingly violent.

The rules regarding refugee resettlement are strict and arbitrary. Hana, an Iraqi American, learns this within days of her new job at the UN Refugee Agency. Her job is to read the testimonies of hundreds of refugees who’ve landed in Cairo from Iraqi, Lebanon, and other countries in turmoil and decide which ones should be forwarded for official consideration. The ones that make it to the top of the pile are heartbreaking cases in need of urgent help. Ideally, there would be room for everyone, but refugees aren’t welcome in a lot countries. Once the quota fills up, that’s it. Live from Cairo really kicks off when Hana interviews Dalia, an Iraqi refugee who’s husband is already living in Boston. When Dalia omits a critical part of her testimony, she is rejected for consideration by the arbitrary rules.

Dalia’s lawyer, Charlie, who has fallen deeply in love with her, does everything he can to keep her case alive. After Dalia receives her official rejection and her husband promises to come back from America so that they can be together, Charlie decides that the only way to get Dalia out of Egypt is to start breaking the rules. If they can forge a pass for her, with faked medical information that makes it look like Dalia will die if she doesn’t get medical treatment in the west, Charlie believes he can get her to America. From that point to the end of the novel, Charlie and his accomplices demonstrate in the least funny way possible that amateurs are terrible at committing crimes.

Live from Cairo is an overstuffed novel. In attempting to write about both the plight of an Iraqi refugee and the protests in Tahrir Square and the Egyptian Revolution, Bassingthwaighte overwrites long parts of this book. The best parts, I felt, where the sections tightly focused on Hana, Charlie, and Dahlia. The chapters that tell the backstory or side activities of Aos, Charlie’s translator, and Aos’ acquaintances or the ones about what Dalia’s husband is doing in Boston diffused much of the tension about whether Charlie et al. would succeed. I understand the temptation to provide context for a story, but in a book that treads the line between literary fiction and thriller, less is more. More is too much.

What I liked best about Live from Cairo was the way the characters—Hana, Charlie, Aos, Dalia—repeatedly face the choice of being brave and getting hurt or walking away and saving one’s skin. Dalia is quietly brave for her husband, but cannot face things that happened to her to save him and get herself out of Baghdad. Charlie is loudly, Quixotically brave, tilting at every windmill in sight in the hopes of making a difference. Hana and Aos have both run away in the past and torment themselves with the memories. With Dalia’s case and the Revolution, both have the chance to redeem themselves, at least in their own eyes. With a little more editing, these struggles would have shone all the brighter and Live from Cairo would be a truly outstanding book.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 11 July 2017.


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