After a failed study mission in France, Abd al-Rahman returns home to Iraq to launch an existentialist movement akin to that of his hero. Convinced that it falls upon him to introduce his country’s intellectuals to Sartre’s thought, he feels especially qualified by his physical resemblance to the philosopher (except for the crossed eyes) and by his marriage to Germaine, who he claims is the great man’s cousin. Meanwhile, his wealth and family prestige guarantee him an idle life spent in drinking, debauchery, and frequenting a well-known nightclub. But is his suicide an act of philosophical despair, or a reaction to his friend’s affair with Germaine? A biographer chosen by his presumed friends narrates the story of a somewhat bewildered young man who—like other members of his generation—was searching for a meaning to his life. This parody of the abuses and extravagances of pseudo-philosophers in the Baghdad of the sixties throws into relief the Iraqi intellectual and cultural life of the time and the reversal of fortune of some of Iraq’s wealthy and powerful families.
“This is your last day. Be strong. Don’t hesitate. Cut and run. An exit with no return.” Idris Ali’s confessional novel opens with these words, spoken on an unbearably hot August afternoon in downtown Cairo, where the Nubian narrator has just decided, once and for all, to end his life. Delirious and thirsty, he wanders around venting his resentments large and small, his sexual frustrations, and his sense of powerlessness in the face of unremitting injustice. He seeks to expunge his failed life in the Nile: the river that had been the life blood of his country for millennia, and that—with Egypt’s new dam—now drowns Nubia, flinging her dispossessed sons north and south into exile. Many years ago, the narrator was one of those sons, fleeing flood and famine only to arrive in Cairo, penniless and shoeless, in time to see it go up in flames, the old regime overthrown by “the men in tanks.” Poor is the story of a life of hardship, adversity, and emotional starvation. It is also the story of opportunities squandered and hopes traded away for nothing—of a life lived, at times, all too poorly.
Private Pleasures describes the three-day sex, drink, and drug binge of a thirty-something newsreader in the back streets and crumbling apartments of his native Giza, that pullulating mass of humanity that, like an ugly sister, sits opposite Cairo on the Nile’s west bank. Pursued by an unshakable sense of impending doom that is only partly attributable to fear of retribution at the hands of a sadistic police officer with whose wife he is conducting a frenzied affair, the narrator observes, with fascinated horror, his own stumbling progress through a world of menace and wonder inhabited by philosophical prostitutes, nightmarish butchers, serene Quran-readers, pious family members, religious con-men, autistic tissue-sellers, and others. Milleresque in its treatment of sex, the novel captures the essence of the phantasmagoric world of the Egyptian mega-city, disintegrating under the pressures of its home-grown horrors while pining for the sublime.
This multi-layered novel about the depths of human experience and the struggle between polarities, on the surface presents a love story of unrequited passion between Rama—the symbol of multiplicity and creativity—and Mikhail—the symbol of unity and constancy. Their story reflects the relationship not only between man and woman, Copt and Muslim, but also between Upper and Lower Egypt. Through a delicate grid of intertextual references and juxtaposed narratives, the dreams and hopes, fears and defeats of Rama and Mikhail move from the local to the global, corresponding to human dreams and anxieties everywhere. In this novel, Edwar al-Kharrat has created a unique form of narrative discourse in which he presents Egyptian realities and actualities of the 1960s and 1970s, with flashbacks to as early as the 1940s, in an aesthetic form that highlights historical moments while blending philosophical, mythical, and psychological perspectives in a literary parallel to the cinematic technique of montage. In their citation awarding al-Kharrat the Mahfouz Medal, the judges stated: “Rama and the Dragon is considered a breakthrough in the literary history of modern Arabic fiction.”
Suzie Mohamad Galal, born in the Egyptian city of Suez during the War of Attrition in the late 1960s, is a woman of inner conflicts, at once a fighter and a lover, who traverses the boundaries of ethnicity and religion. Her whole life is intricately tied to the wars and political events taking place in Egypt. But as she grapples with where to begin her story of personal and national crises, questions of narration arise: which metaphor best serves the layers of meaning she wants to communicate, and whose voice is telling the story anyway? Red Wine is both timely in its attention to the issues of state brutality, religious extremism, and gender, and timeless in the way it deals with the themes of coming of age, guilt, and sadness.
Both revolution and romance are at the heart of Return of the Spirit, first published in Arabic in 1933. The story of a patriotic young Egyptian and his extended family, ending with events surrounding the 1919 revolution—for al-Hakim, a literal awakening of the Egyptian spirit—Return of the Spirit with its strong expression of nationalist solidarity has particular resonance now. Admiration for the novel by the military entrepreneurs who replaced Egypt’s monarchy in 1952 temporarily dampened enthusiasm for it; but the 2011 Tahrir revolution has made it seem once again as fresh as today’s news.
This audacious novel opens with Ayn as she reflects on the act of writing and wonders if love alone is sufficient subject for a narrative. Haltingly at first, she weaves the tale of her love affair with Ali with witty asides about her own writing, and the limits and self-deceptions that are at the heart of all storytelling. As the story finds its way, through sea and desert, and the realms of mysticism and magic, we learn of a passionate, volatile relationship, one severely tested through countless separations, of Ayn’s relationships with other men, including her intense encounters with a Corsican ex-convict, and of her own desire to escape the confines of marriage, even to the man she loves. Disarmingly candid in the telling, So You May See leads us gently into a revolt, a fierce rebuttal of conventional romantic literature and an indictment of the sexual mores and unquestioned attitudes to marriage and relationships in contemporary Egypt.
Specters tells the story of Radwa and Shagar, two women born the same day. The narrative alternates between their childhoods, their days at work, their married and unmarried lives, and the two books they are writing, both called Specters. This lively metafictional novel is a mix of genres: part autobiography, part oral history, part documentary, part fiction. As the narrative moves back and forth between Radwa’s novel Specters and Shagar’s history Specters (about the massacre at Deir Yassin, a Palestinian Arab village near Jerusalem, in April 1948), Ashour unites the projects of history and literature and blurs the boundaries between the personal and the political in one compellingly readable meditation on contemporary life in a fractured world. Winner of the Cairo International Book Fair Prize
You are bored, bored, bored, stuck in a half-job, berated by your parents and unsure whether you should marry your cousin. You want to change. A chance encounter on Facebook leads you to Emmie and her underground world of strange fashion, drinking, dancing, sex, and drugs. You become an Emo and discover philosophical atheism and practical Satanism. Although Emmie’s rules include no sex and no love, you become addicted to her and the belief that she will be the one to change you. You fall in love. Your inability to disobey her leads you to embrace her creed. The efforts of your family to restore you to the fold fail, and your heroism leads her to succumb to you. One final act of ‘degeneracy’ too far leads you into the arms of the state’s torturers and to reaffirm society’s values, if with a greater sense of freedom and adventure. Status: Emo is a romp through the mind of the young Egypt. Written in 2010, it predicts revolt and hints at culture wars to come.
This collection of fourteen connected stories and a novella, From the Secret History of Numan Abdel Hafez, takes us deep into Upper Egypt and the village of Dayrut al-Sharif, in which Mohamed Mustagab was born. To depict a world renowned for its poverty, ignorance, vendettas, and implacable code of honor, Mustagab deploys the black humor and Swiftian sarcasm of the insider who knows his society only too well. When the stillness of a day’s end is shattered by a single gunshot, poignant beauty merges seamlessly into horror, and when a police officer seeking to unravel a murder finds himself with more body parts than he knows what to do with, violence tips as easily into farce. In counterpoint, the author’s often surrealist imagination explores the mysteries of a landscape where seductive women haunt dusty paths and a man may find himself crushed like a worm beneath another’s foot. Elsewhere, the horizons of ‘my village’ expand to include other countries (the author worked in the Arabian Peninsula for a number of years), where equally disastrous consequences follow on folly and self-delusion. Previously almost unknown in English, Mustagab’s voice is both original and disturbing.
Yusuf Idris was undoubtedly one of Egypt’s most talented and versatile writers in the second half of the twentieth century. The first two novellas in this volume, Madam Vienna and The Secret of His Power, come from the peak period in his career, the late 1950s and early 1960s, while New York 80 belongs to his late period, the 1980s. Yet something holds these three works together, despite their different periods and their scattered settings: Vienna, an Egyptian Delta village, and New York. They all deal with a seminal theme in Arabic fiction since its nascent years and until today: the East–West encounter, often treated allegorically by Arab writers through a love story between an Arab man and a Western woman who stand for their respective cultures. In these three novellas, Idris harnesses his remarkable narrative skills to tell us some of the most memorable stories of the encounter in Arabic fiction.
Dublin is alien territory for young and impoverished Egyptian academic Moataz, who is preparing a PhD on Irish poet Seamus Heaney. Moataz has enough problems with his family’s high expectations and the unrequited, idealized love that he left behind in Cairo. Now he has to deal with cantankerous landlords, inscrutable local women, the Irish judiciary, haunted seminaries, and cold winter nights selling flowers on the banks of the Liffey to make ends meet. His own personal demons travel with him, especially the clash between his sexual desires and his reluctance to become emotionally entangled with anyone other than his version of the ideal woman. In his year away from home Moataz learns how diverse the world is, but returning to Cairo is a shock that tests his physical and mental strength. Only when he passes that test can he make a promising new start.
Although the Arabs of the Middle Ages gave the world one of the great classics of imaginative writing, The Arabian Nights, modern Arabic literature has its beginnings little more than half a century ago. From early experimentations with the novel and the short story in the 1930s and 1940s, through Naguib Mahfouz’s Nobel prize in 1988 and beyond, Arabic fiction writing is now very much alive and very well indeed. This new anthology of the range of Arabic fiction in English translation, compiled by the man described by Edward Said as “the leading Arabic–English translator of our time,” samples the novels and short stories of seventy nine writers from Morocco to Iraq, from the 1930s to the 2000s. Denys Johnson-Davies has himself produced more than twenty-five volumes of translation from modern Arabic literature, and has followed the progress of this movement from its earliest days when its foundations were laid down by such writers as Taha Hussein, Tewfik al-Hakim, Yahya Hakki, and others. He was the first to translate the writings of Naguib Mahfouz, and introduced the Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih to the world. The short stories and extracts from novels in this anthology range from the experimental to the masterful, from fantasy to social realism, and give the reader the broadest possible picture of the state of Arabic writing today.
Displaced by the sectarian violence in the city, Maha and her husband are taken in by a distant cousin, Youssef. As the growing turmoil around them seeps into their household, a rare argument breaks out between the elderly Youssef and his young guest. Born into sanctions and war, Maha knows nothing of Iraq’s good years that Youssef holds dear. Set over a single day, The Baghdad Eucharist is an intimate story of love, memory, and anguish in one Christian family.
Upon returning from a trip abroad, the author–narrator learns that his father has died during his absence. Crushed with grief and guilt, he begins a journey of discovery of self and existence. Beset by doubts and at times despair, he almost gives up, but then is granted the priceless gift of appearing before the mythical–mystical Diwan, the council that oversees all affairs of this world, keeping a record of everything that has ever happened or existed and righting wrongs past and present. With the guidance of the Great Master, the Prophet’s grandson al-Husayn, he is able to witness events of his father’s life, his own life, and that of his beleaguered country as he progresses through Sufi states and stations. Granted the ability to be in several places and various eras simultaneously, the narrator is able to bring together heroes and villains and great events and debacles in Egypt’s and all of Islam’s history. Alternating scenes depict the historical martyrdom of al-Husayn in Karbala, and a fantastical confrontation between two camps fighting over the soul of Egypt: in one camp we meet President Gamal Abdel Nasser, al-Husayn, the narrator’s own father, and a ragtag army of valiant but ill-equipped Egyptians in combat with one led by Jimmy Carter, Anwar Sadat, and Menachem Begin. This surrealist novel with political and mystical overtones and an edge of satire reveals one of Egypt’s greatest living writers at his finest.
Khaled transcribes testimonies at the Palace of Confessions, a shadowy state-run agency situated in a respectable Cairo suburb. There he encounters Mustafa Ismail: a university professor turned master thief, who breaks into the homes of the great and the good and then blackmails them into silence. Mustafa has dedicated his existence to the perfection of his trade and authored The Book of Safety, the ultimate guide to successful thievery. With cool and incisive prose, Yasser Abdel Hafez follows Khaled into obsession with this mysterious book and its author.
Even as a young man, Hamid Farsi is acclaimed as a master of the art of calligraphy. But as time goes by, he sees that weakness in the Arabic language and its script limit its uses in the modern world. In a secret society, he works out schemes for radical reform, never guessing what risks he is running. His beautiful wife, Nura, is ignorant of the great plans on her husband’s mind. She knows only his cold avaricious side. No wonder she feels flattered by the attentions of his amusing, lively young apprentice. And so begins a passionate love story—the love of a Muslim woman and a Christian man.
Sonallah Ibrahim Translated byMary St. Germain Charlene Constable Afterword byRoger Allen
Sonallah Ibrahim has been called the Egyptian Kafka. And no wonder: this wry tale revolves around its narrator’s attempts to petition successfully the elusive “Committee.” Consequences for his actions range from the absurd to the hideous. In Kafkaesque fashion—an intriguingly symbolic and minimalist style—Ibrahim offers an unbroken first-person narrative rendered in brief, crisp prose framed by a conspicuous absence of vivid imagery. Furthermore, the petitioner is a man without identity. The ideal antihero, he remains unnamed throughout the intricate plot, with a locale suggestive of 1970s Cairo. The Committee, first published in Arabic in 1981, sardonically pierces the inflammatory terrain between ordinary men, unbridled displays of power, and other broader concerns of the author’s native Egypt. The novel’s corrosive, shocking conclusion catapults satiric surrealism into a new realm.
Set in the ancient Upper Egyptian village of Karnak against the backdrop of the British campaigns in Sudan, the Second World War, and the war in Palestine, The Collar and the Bracelet is the stunning saga of the Bishari family—a family ripped apart by the violence of history, the dark conduits of human desire, and the rigid social conventions of village life. In a series of masterful narrative circles and repetitions, the novella traces the grim intrigues of Hazina al-Bishari and the inexorable destinies of her son, the exile and notorious bandit Mustafa, her daughter Fahima, tortured by guilt and secret passion, and the tragic doom of her beautiful granddaughter Nabawiya. Yahya Taher Abdullah’s haunting prose distills the rhythmic lyricism of the folk story and weaves it into a uniquely modernist narrative tapestry of love and revenge that beautifully captures the timeless pharaonic landscapes of Upper Egypt and the blind struggles of its inhabitants against poverty, exploitation, and time—themes that are echoed and amplified in the short stories included in this volume, which span the breadth of Abdullah’s tragically short career as one of Egypt’s most brilliant writers of modern fiction.
Taha Hussein Translated byE.H. Paxton Hilary Wayment Kenneth Cragg
For the first time, the three-part autobiography of one of modern Egypt’s greatest writers and thinkers is available in a single paperback volume. The first part, An Egyptian Childhood (1929), is full of the sounds and smells of rural Egypt. It tells of Hussein’s childhood and early education in a small village in Upper Egypt, as he learns not only to come to terms with his blindness but to excel in spite of it and win a place at the prestigious Azhar University in Cairo. The second part, The Stream of Days: A Student at the Azhar (1939), is an enthralling picture of student life in Egypt in the early 1900s, and the record of the growth of an unusually gifted personality. More than forty years later, Hussein published A Passage to France (1973), carrying the story on to his final attainment of a doctorate at the Sorbonne, a saga of perseverance in the face of daunting odds.