Hassan makes a living in his native Marrakesh as a comic writer and performer, through his satirical sketches critical of Morocco’s rulers. Yet when he is suddenly conscripted into a losing war in the Sahara, and drafted to a far-flung desert outpost, it seems that all is lost. Could his estranged father, close to power as the king’s private jester, have something to do with his sudden removal from the city? And will he ever see his beloved wife Zinab again? With flowing prose and black humor, Youssef Fadel subtly tells the story of 1980s Morocco.
In this prize-winning novel, Nahid is a woman determined to go on a journey of self discovery and understanding. As we accompany her in her sometimes delirious, sometimes lucid journey, we are given rare glimpses of the inner thoughts and feelings of a woman confronting questions of love and intimacy within and outside of marriage. It is a story of one woman’s quest for liberation, not from a repressive society or a male-dominated world—that is easy and has been done many times before—but from self-imposed taboos that inhibit a woman’s ability to find fulfillment and to confront the many imponderables surrounding sexuality, desire, and love. Stuck—by conscious choice to keep up the genteel appearances of her middle-class family—in a loveless marriage to Mustafa, the forty-something Nahid finds love and sex with novelist and journalist Omar—himself trapped in a loveless, but not sexless, marriage to Maggie. Although their love story is at the very heart of the novel, we are given broad glimpses of the larger picture of the world outside through Nahid’s work as an archaeologist and Omar’s as a journalist. The novel was well received by women readers, critics, and reviewers and by a majority of the male audience, while a vociferous minority of male critics felt scandalized by it, finding it unseemly that such issues should be raised by a woman. Now English readers can judge for themselves.
In a world with no meaning, meaning is an act . . . This is a story about building things up and knocking them down. Here are the campfire tales of Egypt’s dispossessed and disillusioned, the anti-Arabian Nights. Our narrator, a rural immigrant from the Bedouin villages of the Fayoum, an aspiring novelist and construction laborer of the lowest order, leads us down a fractured path of reminiscence in his quest for purpose and identity in a world where the old orders and traditions are powerless to help. Bawdy and wistful, tragicomic and bitter, his stories loop and repeat, crackling with the frictive energy of colliding worlds and linguistic registers. These are the tales of Cairo’s new Bedouin, men not settled by the state but permanently uprooted by it. Like their lives, their stories are dislocated and unplotted, mapping out their quest for meaning in the very act of placing brick on brick and word on word.
Taha Hussein (1889-1973), blind from early childhood, rose from humble beginnings to pursue a distinguished career in Egyptian public life (he was at one time Minister of Education). But he was most influential through his voluminous, varied, and controversial writings. He became known by the unofficial title ‘Dean of Arabic Letters,’ and the distinguished Egyptian critic Louis Awad described him as “the greatest single intellectual and cultural influence on the literature of his period.” Based on the true story of a friend of the author, this novel—unfolding between Cairo and Paris and through vivid personal correspondence—draws a picture of a powerful friendship and of a young man’s dilemma: the man of letters of the title finds himself split between—and in love with—two cultures essentially incompatible, East and West. In his desperate struggle to reconcile them his soul is estranged and he is thrown—or escapes—deeper into the backstreet abyss of First World War Paris. In the end it is perhaps the very impracticality of his own morality that destroys him.
Spring, 1990. After years of searching in vain, a stranger passes a scrap of paper to Zina. It’s from Aziz: the man who vanished the day after their wedding almost two decades ago. It propels Zina on a final quest for a secret desert jail in southern Morocco, where her husband crouches in despair, dreaming of his former life. Youssef Fadel pays powerful testament to a terrible period in Morocco’s history, known as ‘the Years of Cinders and Lead,’ and masterfully evokes the suffering inflicted on those who supported the failed coup against King Hassan II in 1972.
After ne’er-do-wells spread rumors about a widowed mother’s weak moral character among the people of a slum on the outskirts of Tunis that festers with migrants who have come to the metropolis from the heartland in search of a better life, her twenty-year-old son takes matters into his own hands and commits an unspeakable crime. An imaginative and disturbing novel told from the alternating viewpoints of this unrepentant sociopath, as he sits and fumes on death row but willingly guides us through his juvenile exploits and twisted memories, and his murdered mother, who calmly gives an account of her interrupted life from beyond the grave, A Tunisian Tale introduces the narrative talents of Hassouna Mosbahi to an English-language audience for the first time, as he confronts both taboos of Tunisian society and the boundaries of conventional storytelling.
When he first showed up at Captain Ali’s run-down boxing club, Saed was mocked for his bourgeois manners then humiliated in the ring. After barely a year of training, he has been consumed by the world of boxing and tipped for greatness. As his star rises, Saed is faced with the challenger he came for, but at what cost? Maan Abu Taleb’s debut novel is one of heady victories and crushing defeats. Driven by direct, lean prose, All the Battles is a compelling story of class, identity, and personal transformation.
Absent tells the story of Dalal, a young Iraqi woman living with the childless aunt and uncle who raised her. Dalal and her neighbors try to maintain normal lives, despite the crippling effect of bombings and international sanctions resulting from the first Gulf War. By turns affectionate, wry, and darkly comic, Absent paints a moving portrait of people struggling to get by in impossible circumstances. Upstairs, the fortune-teller Umm Mazin offers her customers cures for their physical and romantic ailments; below, Saad the hairdresser attends to a dwindling number of female customers; and on the second floor, the nurse Ilham dreams of her long-lost French mother to escape the grim realities she sees in the children’s ward at the hospital. With memories of happier times during the “Days of Plenty” of her childhood, Dalal falls in love for the first time against a background of surprise arrests, personal betrayals, and a crumbling social fabric that turns neighbors into informants. Tightly crafted and skillfully told, Absent is a haunting portrait of life under sanctions, the fragile emotional ties between individuals, and, ultimately, the resilience of the human spirit.
A Tuareg youth ventures into trackless desert on a life-threatening quest to find the father he remembers only as a shadow from his childhood, but the spirit world frustrates and tests his resolve. For a time, he is rewarded with the Eden of a lost oasis, but eventually, as new settlers crowd in, its destiny mimics the rise of human civilization. Over the sands and the years, the hero is pursued by a lover who matures into a sibyl-like priestess. The Libyan Tuareg author Ibrahim al-Koni, who has earned a reputation as a major figure in Arabic literature with his many novels and collections of short stories, has used Tuareg folklore about Anubis, the ancient Egyptian god of the underworld, to craft a novel that is both a lyrical evocation of the desert’s beauty and a chilling narrative in which thirst, incest, patricide, animal metamorphosis, and human sacrifice are more than plot devices. The novel concludes with Tuareg sayings collected by the author in his search for the historical Anubis from matriarchs and sages during trips to Tuareg encampments, and from inscriptions in the ancient Tifinagh script in caves and on tattered manuscripts. In this novel, fantastic mythology becomes universal, specific, and modern.
When an ill-fated, young prostitute and her lover are killed in a gruesome double murder, seasoned investigator Detective Hanash is called in. The case draws him and his team into the poverty of Casablanca’s slums, blighted by criminality, religious extremism, and despair. Hanash’s years on the job have made him intimately familiar with the city’s seedy underbelly, but this time he harbors a personal connection to one of the victims, one he must conceal at all costs.
In Egypt a new era has dawned, but the dawn has taken an ominous turn. President Gamal Abdel Nasser has just proclaimed the first in a series of nationalization decrees, the stock exchange has shut down, and its parking attendant, Sayyid, is staring at penury. Across the street, the office of the Ministry’s Supervisory Board of Administrative Organization is engulfed in an eerie silence, and the narrator, one of the two remaining fulltime occupants of that nearly defunct government office, has fallen desperately in love with the other, Doha—forceful, erudite, and, a complete enigma, with a spiritual bond to the Egyptian goddess Aset. In this sophisticated, richly textured novel the author explores such themes as apathy and despair, courage and self-sacrifice, ambition and temptation, disillusionment and political faith, and, above all, commitment and betrayal.
Basrayatha is a literary tribute by author Mohammed Khudayyir to the city of his birth, Basra, on the Shatt al-Arab waterway in southern Iraq. Just as a city’s inhabitants differ from outsiders through their knowledge of its streets as well as its stories, so Khudayyir distinguishes between the real city of Basra and Basrayatha, the imagined city he has created through stories, experiences, and folklore. By turns a memoir, a travelogue, a love letter, and a meditation, Basrayatha summons up images of a city long gone. In loving detail, Khudayyir recounts his discovery of his city as a child, as well as past communal banquets, the public baths, the delights of the Muslim day of rest, the city’s flea markets and those who frequent them, a country bumpkin’s big day in the city, Hollywood films at the local cinema, daily life during the Iran–Iraq War, and the canals and rivers around Basra. Above all, however, the book illuminates the role of the storyteller in creating the cities we inhabit. Evoking the literary modernism of authors like Calvino and Borges, and tinged with nostalgia for a city now disappeared, Basrayatha is a masterful tribute to the power of memory and imagination.
“The millennial generation’s most celebrated literary achievement.”—Al-Ahram Weekly “The first glimmer of hope for a true fictional renaissance—an instantly rewarding read embraced by an unprecedented range of literary figures”—The Daily Star
“What is madness?” asks the narrator of Ahmed Alaidy’s jittery, funny, and angry novel. Assuring readers that they are about to find out, the narrator takes us on a journey through the insanity of present-day Cairo—in and out of minibuses, malls, and crash pads, navigating the city’s pinball machine of social life with tolerable efficiency. But lurking under the rocks in his grouchy, chain-smoking, pharmaceutically-oriented, twenty-something life are characters like his elusive psychiatrist uncle with a disturbing interest in phobias. And then there’s Abbas, the narrator’s best friend who surfaces at critical moments to drive our hero into uncontrollably multiplying difficulties. For instance, there’s the ticklish situation with the simultaneous blind-dates Abbas has set up for him on different levels of a coffee-shop in a Cairo mall with two girls both called Hind. With friends like Abbas, what paranoiac needs enemies?
As a fourteen-year-old, Nasir was entranced by his father’s gift of a camera, finding in it the means both to possess beauty and to assert himself. Now a hack working for state television, Nasir meets Fatin, an independent woman older than himself who has escaped a suffocating marriage and is secure in taking what she wants from life. An affair begins that quickly pulls Nasir into a whirlwind of incandescent erotic and emotional obsession. In a world of superficiality, materialism, violence, and sexual hysteria seen through the unforgiving lens of his camera, Nasir’s life is in limbo. A yearning for escape and a fear of loneliness propel him into a relationship in which he is at once enraptured and non-committal. The resolution of this volatile mix lies in a violent confrontation between repulsion and desire. Black Magic was awarded the prestigious Sawiris Foundation Prize in Egyptian Literature in 2006.
Cairo, Mother of the World, embraces millions—but some of her children make their home in the streets, junked up and living in the shadows of wealth and among the monuments that the tourists flock to see. Mustafa, a former student radical who never believed in the slogans, sets out to tell their story, but he has to rely on the help of his American girlfriend, Marcia, who he is not sure he can trust. Meanwhile, his former leftist friends are now all either capitalists or Islamists. Alienated from a corrupt and corrupting society, Mustafa watches as the Cairo he cherishes crumbles around him. The men and women of the city struggle to find lovers worthy of their love and causes worthy of their sacrifice in a country that no longer deserves their loyalty. The children of the streets wait for the adults to take notice. And the foreigners can always leave.
Trying to evade intelligence agencies out to assassinate him, the Cerebellum, an Egyptian scientist with a past association with the Iraqi nuclear program, rents a room on the roof of a brothel in a Cairo slum. His interaction with the other residents is limited; instead he spends most of his time in the virtual world, where he has a love affair with candygirl, a gorgeous avatar. On the other side of the planet, an ex-NSA agent has joined a secret organization whose mission is to assassinate Iraqi scientists. He does not allow his doubts about the legality—or the ethics—of his mission to interfere with his work. He chases his victim relentlessly, but when his top-of-the-line equipment fails to locate the Cerebellum in Cairo’s slums, he takes the chase to the virtual world.
Hind, newly arrived in New York with her eight-year-old son, several suitcases of unfinished manuscripts, and hardly any English, finds a room in a Brooklyn teeming with people like her who dream of becoming writers. As she discovers the various corners of her new home, they conjure up parallel memories from her childhood and her small Bedouin village in the Nile Delta: Emilia who sells used shoes at the flea market smells like Zeinab, the old woman who worked for Hind’s grandfather; the reflection of her own body as she dances tango awakens the awkwardness of her relationship to that body across the years; the story of Lilette, the Egyptian bourgeoise who has lost her memory, prompts Hind to safeguard her own. Through this kaleidoscopic spectrum of disadvantaged characters we encounter unique but familiar life histories in this award-winning and intensely moving novel of displacement and exile.
A chance encounter on a plane throws together Doha, a fashion designer unhappily married to a leading figure in the Mubarak regime, and Ashraf, an academic and leading dissident. The story of their relationship and Doha’s self-discovery runs alongside a young Egyptian’s search for the mother he never knew, and these intersecting narratives unfold against the background of political protests that culminate in the overthrow of the regime. A moving and at times humorous story, Butterfly Wings is an extended allegory of Egypt’s modern experience of authoritarian rule and explores the fractures and challenges of a society at the moment of revolutionary transformation. Mohamed Salmawy’s almost prophetic novel was first published in Arabic immediately prior to the events of 25 January 2011, and has been celebrated as ‘the novel that predicted the Revolution.’ First published in Arabic in 2011 by al-Dar al-Misriya al-Libnaniya as Ajnihat al-farasha.
Being plucked from a Baghdad café and deposited in a cell block for political prisoners is a wakeup call for Aziz, the novel’s hero and narrator, a young man who has been living on automatic pilot—as if he were a guest visiting his own life—and he is finally forced to come to terms with the flawed world we inhabit and shape. Although never charged with any offense, he must adjust to a lengthy stay in prison, where he is befriended by Salam the yard boss, Mun‘im an idealistic university student with a beautiful sister named Salwa, Yusuf an idealist dispatched to the ‘Swamp,’ Salman an anarchist schoolteacher, and Mustafa an aged farmer who dreams of an alternative society. While these imprisoned revolutionaries teach Aziz to dream that an ideal city with his name on it may lie just over the horizon, the police supervisor encourages him to think of a simple crime to which he can confess so he can be charged and eventually released. Based on the author’s own incarceration in Iraq, Cell Block Five is a clear-headed, good-humored tribute to the prison’s men—both the inmates and the guards—and an indictment of man’s gratuitous inhumanity to man, pointing out that the transition from abused to abuser, tortured to torturer, can be an easy one. Written in 1971 and published outside Iraq in 1972, Cell Block Five—the first Iraqi prison novel—was later made into a feature film in Syria. Drawing the reader subtly into the political section of an Iraqi prison, this compelling story easily transcends cultural boundaries.
In a desperate attempt to save his mother and two sisters from famine and disease, a young man leaves his native village in Sudan and sets out alone to seek work in the city. This is the beginning of Hamza’s long journey. Hunger and destitution lead him ever farther from his home: first from Sudan to Egypt, where the lack of work forces him to join a band of smugglers, and finally from Egypt to Europe—Italy, France, Holland—where he experiences first-hand the harsh world of migrant laborers and the bitter realities of life as an illegal immigrant. Tarek Eltayeb’s first novel offers an uncompromising depiction of poverty in both the developed and the developing world. With its simple yet elegant style, Cities without Palms tells of a tragic human life punctuated by moments of true joy.