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.
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.
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.
Yusuf Idris (1927–91), who belonged to the same generation of pioneering Egyptian writers as Naguib Mahfouz and Tawfiq al-Hakim, is widely celebrated as the father of the Arabic short story. He studied and practiced medicine, but his interests were in politics and the support of the nationalist struggle, and in writing—and his writing, whether in his regular newspaper columns or in his fiction, often reflected his political convictions. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature more than once, and when the prize went to Naguib Mahfouz in 1988, Idris felt that he had been passed over because of his outspoken views on Israel. In all, Yusuf Idris wrote some twelve collections of superbly crafted short stories, mainly about ordinary, poor people, many of which have been translated into English and are included, along with an extract from one of his novels, in this collection of the best of his work.
Casablanca. Othman, a handsome young Moroccan man, returns home to discover his elderly French wife, Sofia, brutally murdered in their bedroom. Highly educated but chronically unemployed, Othman had been in desperate straits before meeting Sofia, who pampered him with fancy cars, expensive clothes, an access to her mansion in the most exclusive neighborhood in Casablanca. But living with a woman more than forty years his senior was too much for Othman—before his wife’s murder he sought relief in a steamy affair with an attractive young aerobics instructor, Naeema. The Moroccan police quickly zero in on Othman as the prime suspect in his wife’s murder. But is he guilty? Did he kill his wife for the money and his lover? Or is he an innocent man, framed by circumstance—and an overzealous and brutal police force? Abdelilah Hamdouchi’s The Final bet is the first Arabic detective novel to be translated into English. With it, Hamdouchi joins the ranks of Yasmina Khadra and Henning Mankell, finally bringing the modern Arabic novel to the global stage of detective fiction.
When young and handsome Othman married Sofia—sophisticated, French, rich, and forty years his senior—he found his ticket out of a life of desperate poverty in the slums of Casablanca. But when Sofia is brutally murdered, the police quickly zero in on Othman as the prime suspect. With his mistress, the love of his life, waiting in the wings he certainly has motive. But is he guilty? Or has he been framed by an overzealous, corrupt police force?
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.
In The End of Spring, Sahar Khalifeh chronicles the struggle of the Palestinian people with a humane depiction of Palestinian resistance fighters during the 2002 siege of Yasir Arafat’s official headquarters. Khalifeh’s tender and moving portrayal of her protagonists delves into the inner consciences of the men and women and children who were involved in the actual resistance—or were simply caught in the middle. These characters come alive through Khalifeh’s use of Palestinian colloquial diction, as does the setting, through her measured attention to the details of the natural surroundings in which the characters live, fight, and die. The End of Spring is a riveting novel that captures the reader’s attention from beginning to end. It gives a heart and a face to the Palestinian struggle.
The importance of Tawfiq al-Hakim (1898–1987) to the emergence of a modern Arabic literature is second only to that of Naguib Mahfouz. If the latter put the novel among the genres of writing that are an accepted part of literary production in the Arab world today, Tawfiq al-Hakim is recognized as the undisputed creator of a literature of the theater. In this volume, Tawfiq al-Hakim’s fame as a playwright is given prominence. Of the more than seventy plays he wrote, The Sultan’s Dilemma, dealing with a historical subject in an appealingly light-hearted manner, is perhaps the best known; it appears in the extended edition of Norton’s World Masterpieces and was broadcast on the old Home Service of the BBC. The other full-length play included here, The Tree Climber, is one that reveals al-Hakim’s openness to outside influences—in this case, the absurdist mode of writing. Of the two one-act plays in this collection, The Donkey Market shows his deftness at turning a traditional folk tale into a hilarious stage comedy. Tawfiq al-Hakim produced several of the earliest examples of the novel in Arabic; included in this volume is an extract from his best known work in that genre, the delightful Diary of a Country Prosecutor, in which he draws on his own experience as a public prosecutor in the Egyptian countryside. Three of the many short stories he published are also included, as well as an extract from The Prison of Life, an autobiography in which Tawfiq al-Hakim writes with commendable frankness about himself.
From her cell in a women’s prison, Aziza decides to create a golden chariot to take her to heaven, where her wishes and dreams can be fulfilled. As she muses on who to take with her, she tells the life stories of her fellow prisoners and decides in her heart which ones deserve a free ride to paradise. Aziza’s cruelly frank comments about her friends and their various crimes—including murder, theft, and drug-dealing—weave these tales together into a contemporary Arabian Nights. Salwa Bakr takes a wry and cynical look at how women from widely differing backgrounds, some innocent and some guilty, come together in a single prison ward. Salwa Bakr’s writing depicts life at the grassroots of Egypt’s culture, admiring its resilience in the face of poverty and inequality. With a strong distrust of imported kitsch, western consumerism is contrasted with the indigenous culture. In The Golden Chariot, Salwa Bakr opens a magical door, through which we are able to see the injustices of a society in transition. Beyond these stories of crime, we glimpse the yearning and longing for a better life, and the problems of not being able to realize these dreams by honest means.
Tucked away in a rundown quarter, just out of sight of fashionable downtown Cairo, a group of intellectuals gather regularly to smoke hashish in Hakeem’s den. The den is the center of their lives, both a refuge and a stimulus, and at the center of the den is the remarkable man who keeps their hashish bowls topped up—Rowdy Salih. While his former life is a mystery to his loyal clientele of writers, painters, film directors, and even window dressers, each sees himself reflected in Salih; but without his humor, humility, or insight, or his occasional passions fueled by hootch. And when the nation has to face its own demons during the peace initiative of the 1970s, it is Rowdy Salih who speaks for them all. This is a comic novel with a broken heart very like Salih himself, whose warm rough voice calls out long after we have recovered from the novel’s painful conclusion.
One long winter night and the Cairo neighborhood of Kit Kat stands at a crossroads. Poised like herons fishing on the banks of the Nile, the characters of this novel wait and watch as opportunities swim by past their reach. Some gaze on as their local café is stolen before their eyes. One studies how the nouveaux riches of the Open Door Policy make their money, while others try their own hand at swindle. Still others read the empty rhetoric of state-run newspapers and wonder what it all means. It is long past midnight; some walk, some sit and smoke, and all are trading stories. A young artist waits by himself for a girl, a drink, or a revolution. All are waiting for what the next day might bring. Set on the eve of the January 1977 “bread riots” against IMF austerity programs and privatization that nearly brought down President Anwar Sadat, The Heron catches Egypt in the mid-stream of its modern history. Since it first appeared in 1984, Ibrahim Aslan’s The Heron has been a classic of modern Arabic literature. It has been translated into a number of European languages and adapted as the successful film Kit Kat.
Documenting a historic struggle with fresh vision, Sahar Khalifeh has penned what is at once a re-casting of the story of the Holy Family, a lyrical ode to Arab Jerusalem, and a call for liberation, not just of a nation but of its individual women and men. After abandoning his beloved Mariam when she falls pregnant, and escaping her brothers’ bullets, Ibrahim abandons his own ideals and dreams of becoming a fiction writer, opting instead to follow the path of wealth and commercial success abroad approved by his father. Thirty years later, lonely and disillusioned, an older Ibrahim returns to Ramallah to retrace the past he tried to leave behind. He sets out on a long and frustrating quest to track down Mariam, which takes him from the West Bank to Israel. Along the way he encounters his son, Michael, a young man with spiritual powers that enable him to see what is unknown and find what has gone missing. The novel weaves religious and political symbolism into a story of love and loss. At its core is Ibrahim’s—the Palestinian’s—agonizing but unrelenting search for a home, a center, fulfillment that, despite material success, continues to be elusive.
Together with such figures as the scholar Taha Hussein, the playwright Tawfik al-Hakim, the short story writer Mahmoud Teymour and—of course—Naguib Mahfouz, Yahya Hakki belongs to that distinguished band of early writers who, midway through the last century, under the influence of Western literature, began to practice genres of creative writing that were new to the traditions of classical Arabic. In the first story in this volume, the very short ‘‘Story in the Form of a Petition,’’ Yahya Hakki demonstrates his ease with gentle humor, a form rare in Arabic writing. In the following two stories, ‘‘Mother of the Destitute’’ and ‘‘A Story from Prison,’’ he describes with typical sympathy individuals who, less privileged than others, somehow manage to scrape through life’s hardships. The latter story deals with the people of Upper Egypt, for whom the writer had a special understanding and affection. It is, however, for the title story (in fact, more of a novella) of this collection that the writer is best known. Recounting the difficulties faced by a young man who is sent to England to study medicine and who then returns to Egypt to pit his new ideals against tradition, ‘‘The Lamp of Umm Hashim’’ was the first of several works in Arabic to deal with the way in which an individual tries to come to terms with two divergent cultures.
In eighteenth-century Palestine, on the shores of Galilee’s Lake Tiberias, visionary political and military leader Dahir al-Umar al-Zaydani undertakes a journey toward the greatest aim anyone could hope to achieve in his day: the establishment of an autonomous Arab state. To do so he must challenge the rule of the greatest power in the world at the time—the Ottoman Empire—while translating the ideals of human dignity, justice, and religious tolerance into concrete daily realities. In this compelling story of love and loss, victory and defeat, loyalty and betrayal, award-winning poet and novelist Ibrahim Nasrallah, author of the Arabic Booker shortlisted Time of White Horses, once again brings Palestinian history alive with a set of characters and events both real and imagined to capture the essence of a rich and dramatic epoch in the turbulent annals of a land that has been fought over for millennia.
Egypt in the ninth century ad: an Arab, Muslim ruling class governs a country of mostly Coptic-speaking Christians. After an exorbitant land tax imposed by the caliph’s governors sparks a peasant revolt, Budayr is dispatched to the marshlands of the Nile Delta as an escort for a church-appointed emissary whose mission is to persuade the rebels to lay down their arms. But he is soon caught up in a swirl of events and concerns that alter the course of his life irrevocably, setting him on a path he could never have foreseen. The events that befall him and the insights he gains from them bring about a gradual but inexorable personal transformation, through which his eyes are opened to the fundamental commonalities— practical, spiritual, and existential—that bind Muslims and Copts, and he emerges as an emissary of a new sort. Hailed as a groundbreaking treatment of otherwise neglected aspects of medieval history, The Man from Bashmour is an exploration of the Egyptian character past and present, and offers insights into Egyptian thought on everything from love, philosophy, and religion to life and death.
Set in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk during the 1950s, The Last of the Angels tells the slyly humorous tale of three strikingly different people in one small neighborhood. During a labor strike against the British-run Iraq Petroleum Company, Hameed Nylon becomes a labor organizer and later a revolutionary, like his hero, Mao Tse-Tung. His brother-in-law, the sheep butcher Khidir Musa, travels to the Soviet Union to find his long-lost brothers, and returns home to great acclaim (and personal fortune) in an airship. Meanwhile, a young boy named Burhan Abdullah discovers an old chest in the attic of his family’s house that lets him talk to angels. By turns satiric, picaresque, and apocalyptic, The Last of the Angels paints a loving, panoramic, and elegiac portrait of Kirkuk in the final years of Iraq’s monarchy. But as the grim reality of modern Iraqi history catches up with the novel’s events, we come to learn the depth and complexity of Hameed Nylon, Khidir Musa, and Burhan Abdullah, and al-Azzawi’s comic novel becomes a moving tale of growing up in a dangerous world.
A young man’s dreams for a better future as a student in the Teachers’ Institute are shattered after he assaults one of his instructors for discriminating against him. From then on, he begins his descent into the underworld. Penniless, he seeks refuge in Wikalat ‘Atiya, a historic but now completely run-down caravanserai that has become the home of the town’s marginal and underprivileged characters. This award-winning novel takes on epic dimensions as the narrator escorts us on a journey to this underworld, portraying—as he sinks further into its intricate relationships—the many characters that inhabit it. Through a labyrinth of tales, reminiscent of the popular Arab tradition of storytelling, we are introduced to these denizens, whose lives oscillate between the real and the fantastic, the contemporary and the timeless. And while the narrator starts out as a spectator of these characters’ lives, he soon becomes an integral part of the lodging house’s community of rogues.
The Long Way Back tells the story of four generations of the same family living in an old house in the Bab al-Shaykh area of Baghdad. Through exquisite layering of the overlapping worlds of the characters, their private conflicts and passions are set against the wider drama of events leading up to the overthrow of prime minister Abd al-Karim Qasim and the initial steps to power of the Baath party in Iraq in 1962-63. The skilful building-up of the characters and their worlds within a brief and clearly determined period of recent history allows for a bold and intelligent portrayal of the ambiguous strengths and weaknesses of Iraqi and wider Arab culture. In addition, the dramatization of the relationships between generations, social groups, and genders is achieved with a mixture of humor, bitter irony, and compassion that identifies it as a great work of Arabic literature.
At the close of the nineteenth century, freed slave Bakhit is let out of prison with the overthrow of the Mahdist state in Sudan. On the brink of death, the memory of his beloved Theodora is all that has sustained him through seven years of grim incarceration—that and his vow to avenge her killing. Set against a backdrop of war, religious fervor, and the monumental social and political upheavals of the time, The Longing of the Dervish is a love story in the most unlikely of circumstances. Lyrical and evocative, Hammour Ziada’s masterfully crafted novel is about sorrow, hope, and the cruelty of fate.