Twin sisters Randa and Lamis live in the besieged Gaza Strip. Inseparable to the point that even their mother cannot tell them apart, they grow up surrounded by the random carnage that characterizes life under occupation. Randa, who wants to be a journalist, writes to record the devastation around her, taking pictures of martyred children. Meanwhile, their beloved neighbor Amna quietly converses with all those she has lost, as she plans the wedding of Lamis and her son Saleh. With their menfolk almost entirely absent, it is the women who take center stage in this poignant novel of resilience, determination, and living against the odds.
At the end of the fifteenth century, the keys to Granada, the last Muslim state in the Iberian Peninsula, have been handed over to the Christian king and queen. Abu Jaafar the bookbinder watches Christopher Columbus and his entourage in a triumphant parade of exotic plants, animals, and human captives from the Americas. But as Spain celebrates the acquisition of a new world, Muslims and Jews throughout the country are mourning the loss of an old one, and now face confiscations, forced conversions, and expulsions. As the new masters of Granada burn books, Abu Jaafar quietly moves his rich library out of town, while still preparing for the marriage of his granddaughter Saleema to his apprentice Saad. Radwa Ashour skillfully weaves a history of Granadan rule and the Andalusian Arab world into a novel that evokes cultural loss and the disappearance of a vanquished population.
An Arab tyrant once infamously declared, “I see heads that are ripe for plucking.” In Mahmoud Al-Wardani’s novel of tyranny and oppression, an impaled head seeks solace in narrating similar woes it sustained in previous incarnations. Beheadings, both literal and metaphorical—torture, murder, decapitation, brainwashing, losing one’s head—are the subject of the six stories that unfold. The narrative takes us from the most archetypal beheading in Arabo-Islamic history, that of al-Husayn, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, via a crime passionel, the torture of Communists in Nasser’s prisons, the meanderings of a Cairene teenager unwittingly caught in the bread riots of 1977, a body dismembered in the 1991 Gulf War, and a bloodless beheading on the eve of the new millennium, into a dystopic future where heads are periodically severed to undergo maintenance and downloading of programs.
Short story writing in Egypt was still in its infancy when Denys Johnson-Davies, described by Edward Said as “the leading Arabic–English translator of our time,” arrived in Cairo as a young man in the 1940s. Nevertheless, he was immediately impressed by such writing talents of the time as Mahmoud Teymour, Yahya Hakki, Yusuf Gohar, and the future Nobel literature laureate Naguib Mahfouz, and he set about translating their works for local English-language periodicals of the time. He continued to translate over the decades, and sixty years later he brings together this remarkable overview of the work of several generations of Egypt’s leading short story writers. This selection of some fifty stories represents not only a cross-section through time but also a spectrum of styles, and includes works by Teymour, Hakki, Gohar, and Mahfouz and later writers such as Mohamed El-Bisatie, Said el-Kafrawi, Bahaa Taher, and Radwa Ashour, as well as new young writers of today like Hamdy El-Gazzar, Mansoura Ez Eldin, and Youssef Rakha.
Winner of the 2012 Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, this novel is set in an idyllic Egyptian village from the time it was discovered by Muhammad Ali’s mission in the early nineteenth century to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, movingly intertwining events on the world scene with the life dramas of its protagonists. The story opens with the pivotal character, Mubarka al-Fuli, now a grandmother and matriarch, wanting to dictate a letter to God for her grandson to send to the Almighty by email. We are then ushered back in time to Mubarka’s fiery adolescence and her painfully aborted romance with Muntasir, son of the village’s deceased but legendary strongman. The shifting fortunes of the al-Deeb clan affect every aspect of its members’ lives, from their sexual vulnerabilities to the grief of loss, the uncertainties of a changing world, and the heartaches born of betrayal, and love unfulfilled.
As with his earlier works, Mohamed El-Bisatie’s novel is set in the Egyptian countryside, about which he writes with such understanding. Episodic in form, it deals with a family—Zaghloul the layabout father, Sakeena the long-suffering wife, and two young boys. The central theme of the book is hunger: the hunger of not knowing where one’s next meal is coming from, and the universal hunger for sex and love. Sakeena’s life revolves round trying to provide her family with the necessary daily loaves of bread that will stave off starvation. Labor-shy Zaghloul works on and off at one of the village’s cafés, but prefers to spend his time listening in on conversations about subjects such as politics, which he would have liked to know more about, if only he had been an educated man. He is also intrigued by the stories told by young university students about their sexual exploits. Eventually chance presents him with a new job: to keep company with an elderly and over-fat man and help him on and off the mule he has to use for getting about. After looking in turn at the lives of the husband and the wife, the novel finally focuses on their elder son, who, although lacking the advantages of any sort of education, nonetheless shows more initiative than his father, and discovers his own way of contributing to the family bread larder. Despite its bleak title, Hunger is told with a lightness of touch and the writer’s trademark wry humor.
The first narrative work of the well-known Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti is an autobiographical memoir about the ironies of homecoming. The bridge that Barghouti crosses as a young man leaving his country in 1966 to pursue university studies in Cairo is the same bridge that he uses to cross back in 1996 after thirty long years in the Diaspora. I Saw Ramallah is about home and homelessness. The harrowing experience of a Palestinian, denied the most elementary human rights in his occupied country and in exile alike, is transformed into a humanist work. Palestine has been appropriated, dispossessed, renamed, changed beyond recognition by the usurpers, yet from the heap of broken images and shattered homes, Barghouti repossesses his homeland. Awarded the 1997 Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature.
In 1996 Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti went back to his home for the first time since exile following the Six-Day War in 1967, and wrote a poignant and incisive account of the exile’s lot in the acclaimed memoir I Saw Ramallah. In 2003 he returned to Ramallah to introduce his Cairo-born son, Tamim Barghouti, to his Palestinian family. I Was Born There, I Was Born Here traces Barghouti’s own life in recent years and in the past—his early life in Palestine, his expulsion from Cairo and exile to Budapest, marriage and the birth of his son, Tamim, and then the young man’s own expulsion from Cairo—and tells the story of the Palestinian journey of father and son. Ranging freely back and forth in time, Barghouti weaves into his poetically crafted account sensitive evocations of Palestinian history and daily life. I Was Born There, I Was Born Here is destined, like its predecessor, to become a classic.
Here, for the first time, is a volume of short stories from this commercially and culturally vital and vibrant center of the Arab world. Life before oil in this region was harsh, and many of the stories in this collection—by both men and women from all corners of the country—tell of those times and the almost unbelievable changes that have come about in the space of two generations. Some tell of the struggles faced in the early days, while others bring the immediate past and the present together, revealing that the past, with all its difficulties and dangers, nonetheless possesses a certain nostalgia. Contributors: Abdul Hamid Ahmed, Roda al-Baluchi, Hareb al-Dhaheri, Nasser Al-Dhaheri, Maryam Jumaa Faraj, Jumaa al-Fairuz, Nasser Jubran, Saleh Karama, Lamees Faris al-Marzuqi, Mohamed al-Mazroui, Ebtisam Abdullah Al-Mu’alla, Ibrahim Mubarak, Mohamed al-Murr, Sheikha al-Nakhy, Mariam Al Saedi, Omniyat Salem, Salma Matar Seif, Ali Abdul Aziz al-Sharhan, Muhsin Soleiman, ‘A’ishaa al-Za‘aby.
Brought up in poverty in a remote part of an unstable Arab republic, the narrator studies Islamic law and Arabic and becomes a cleric and civil servant in the capital. At the age of almost 40 he accepts a position as imam of a mosque serving his compatriots in a richer and more cosmopolitan neighboring Arab country. His humdrum life changes when an educated and independent woman recruits him as consultant for a book on the great tenth-century Arab poet al- Mutanabbi. As their work together on his poetry leads to friendship and then love, the imam becomes embroiled in ideological conflict with activist Islamists at his mosque. Taken into protective custody after his enemies declare him apostate, and separated from the woman he loves, the imam chronicles how their relationship opened his eyes to a new world and taught him to overcome his old inhibitions. Judgment Day touches on debates within contemporary Islam and on the transformative and humanizing power of love between men and women.
Like a Summer Never to Be Repeated is a fascinating and highly experimental story based loosely around the author’s own experiences in Egypt as a Moroccan student and visiting intellectual. In Cairo the narrator, Hammad, takes us on a deeply personal journey of discovery from the heady days of the 1950s and 1960s, with all the optimism and excitement surrounding Moroccan independence, Suez, and Abdel Nasser, up to the 1990s and the time of writing, revealing an individual intensely concerned with Arab life and culture. Meanwhile, his regular visits to Cairo allow us to watch a culture in transition over four decades. Exploring themes of change, the role of culture in society, memory, and writing, in a text that combines narrative fiction with literary criticism, philosophical musings, and quotation, Like a Summer Never to Be Repeated is among the most innovative works of modern Arabic literature and a testimony to Mohammed Berrada’s position as a leading pioneer.
Riyadh is a city of masks, a city “like a pressure cooker that’s about to explode,” a city that sleeps on a pile of words that no one dares utter. Saudi society has split into two camps, one adopting the slogan that God is strict in punishment, the other that God is merciful and forgiving. In the background the media trumpets that everything is perfect. Saudi writer Fahd al-Atiq explores this world through the character of Khaled, whose dysfunctional life, humdrum but rich in memories and introspection, bridges the gap between the old impoverished world of Najd and the consumerism of the years after the various oil booms, symbolized in this novel by the family’s move from the lively back streets of the old city to an isolated dream villa in the new suburbs, where their dreams are never quite fulfilled and their lives remain permanently ‘on hold.’
After ten years in Paris, Galal returns to Cairo, where he finds a society in transformation. Egypt is Galal’s home, but he feels he no longer belongs there. He is caught between his two identities: his Jewish mother’s family are cosmopolitan business people, while his father’s family are rural farmers from the Delta. Kamal Ruhayyim paints an uncompromising portrait of an older generation dictating how their children live and love. Menorahs and Minarets is the concluding part of Ruhayyim’s compelling trilogy.
Captain Murad is busy planning for the Afterlife. He dreams of a grand, sunlit mausoleum on the banks of the Nile. To realize his pharaonic folly, the retired captain kindles an unlikely romance between Hazem, a feckless architect longing for immortality, and Asma, an impoverished single mother who strives for a better life for her children. As Murad’s tomb rises on the riverbank, so Hazem and Asma fall in love. A contemporary Egyptian romance of rare grace and wit, played out by characters trapped in their attitudes toward class and gender.
In Riyadh, against the events of the second Gulf War and Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, we learn the story of Munira—with the gorgeous eyes—and the unspeakable tragedy she suffers as her male nemesis wreaks revenge for an insult to his character and manhood. It is also the tale of many other women of Saudi Arabia who pass through the remand center where Munira works, victims and perpetrators of crimes, characters pained and tormented, trapped in cocoons of silence and fear. Munira records their stories on pieces of paper that she folds up and places in the mysterious bottle given to her long ago by her grandmother, a repository for the stories of the dead, that they might live again. This controversial novel looks at many of the issues that characterize the lives of women in modern Saudi society, including magic and envy, honor and revenge, and the strict moral code that dictates male–female interaction.
Set in the sleepy Egyptian village of Muntaha during the late 1940s, this novel paints a vibrant portrait of rural life in Egypt that is both moving and memorable. Between the turbulent events of 1948 and the final years of the British presence in Egypt, the village’s inhabitants find themselves caught up against their will in the swirl of larger world events, although their daily lives, concerns, and beliefs are grounded in the timeless nature of a rural past. Hala El Badry’s masterful narrative depicts, in intimate detail, her characters’ relationships not only to each other but to the natural environment that surrounds them: from fishing on the Nile and cotton and corn harvests, to donkeys and sparrows gone tipsy on overripe fruit. The trials and fortunes of Taha Musaylihi, the mayor of Muntaha, together with those of his extended family, form the backbone of this tale of real life in the guise of fiction. Confronted with the fear and injustices born of war and foreign occupation, as well as the insecurity of their dependency on Nature and her forces, Taha joins the village farmers in valiant defiance of their British occupiers.
This collection of short stories, both poignant and skillfully crafted, bring to life the tragic demise of traditional Nubian life and culture. If the earlier dams that were built across the Nile during the first half of the twentieth century caused increasing numbers of the men-folk to migrate north to Cairo and Alexandria to work as servants, waiters, and doormen, the completion of the High Dam in 1964 sounded the death knell. While the temples of Abu Simbel were meticulously relocated at great expense, the drowning of the ancient heartland of the Nubian people along the banks of the Nile went largely unnoticed. Haggag Oddoul’s work, as well as documenting the personal tragedy of individuals caught up in massive social transformation, also casts a nostalgic light on the heritage and way of life of the Nubians: their rhythmic dancing, their beautiful women, the lively humor of their elders, and the enormous centrality of their traditions and the spirits with which they shared the environment. Two stories in this collection, ‘’Zeinab Uburty’’ and ‘’Nights of Musk,’’ offer a bucolic and dream-like insight into the world that has disappeared for ever under the water behind the dam. Meanwhile, two other stories, ‘’Adila, Grandmother’’ and ‘’The River People,’’ document the departure of the men, while the women are left behind to go fallow, and the second and third generations born in the cities of the north have only their grandmother’s tales and her pigeon Arabic to remind them of their heritage.
Set in the author’s own Nile-side neighborhood of Warraq, Aslan’s second novel, the first to be translated and published in English, chronicles the daily rhythm of life of rural migrants to Cairo and their complex webs of familial and neighborly relations over half a century. It opens with the mysterious disappearance of the tiny grandmother, Hanem, who is over 100 years old and is last seen by her daughter-in-law Dalal. Dalal does not have the heart to tell Hanem that her grown children Nargis and Abdel Reheem have both been dead for some time. Her grandson Mr. Abdalla, who has children of his own and not a few flecks of gray in his hair, reluctantly sets out for their home village to search for her, embarking on a bittersweet odyssey into his family’s past and a confrontation with his own aging. In an elliptical narrative, Aslan limns a series of vignettes that mimic the workings of memory, moving backward and forward in time and held together by a series of recurrent figures and images. There is Abdalla’s father, the tragic al-Bahey Uthman; his quirky and earthy uncle Abdel Reheem; and his sweet mother, Nargis, who dies with her simplest desires unfulfilled. Aslan’s moving portrait of the quotidian dramas that constitute the lives of ordinary Egyptians is untainted by populist pretensions or belittling romanticism, and full of the humor and heartbreaking pathos that have become trademarks of the author’s style.
In the once beautiful city of Aleppo, one Syrian family descends into tragedy and ruin. Irrepressible Sawsan flirts with militias, the ruling party, and finally religion, seeking but never finding salvation. She and her siblings and mother are slowly choked in violence and decay, as their lives are plundered by a brutal regime. Set between the 1960s and 2000s, No Knives in the Kitchens of this City unravels the systems of fear and control under Assad. With eloquence and startling honesty, it speaks of the persecution of a whole society.
This sweeping novel depicts the intertwined lives of an assortment of Egyptians—Muslims and Copts, northerners and southerners, men and women—as they begin to settle in Egypt’s great second city, and explores how the Second World War, starting in supposedly faraway Europe, comes crashing down on them, affecting their lives in fateful ways. Central to the novel is the story of a striking friendship between Sheikh Magd al-Din, a devout Muslim with peasant roots in northern Egypt, and Dimyan, a Copt with roots in southern Egypt, in their journey of survival and self-discovery. Woven around this narrative are the stories of other characters, in the city, in the villages, or in the faraway desert, closer to the fields of combat. And then there is the story of Alexandria itself, as written by history, as experienced by its denizens, and as touched by the war. Throughout, the author captures the cadences of everyday life in the Alexandria of the early 1940s, and boldly explores the often delicate question of religious differences in depth and on more than one level. No One Sleeps in Alexandria adds an authentically Egyptian vision of Alexandria to the many literary—but mainly Western—Alexandrias we know already: it may be the same space in which Cavafy, Forster, and Durrell move but it is certainly not the same world.