Most Underappreciated Egyptian Lit (in Translation) of 2009

I say this as though I’ve read all of the Egyptian lit published (in translation, in 2009), which I haven’t. Nonetheless:

Moon over Samarqand, by Mohamed Mansi Qandil. Qandil isn’t exactly an English-language unknown; his Cloudy Day on the West Side is on the shortlist for the 2010 IPAF/”Arabic Booker,” and he was the winner of the Sawiris Foundation Award for Literature in 2006.

But I haven’t seen any attention to Moon over Samarqand, published in March 2009. Even friends who regularly troll bookstores hadn’t heard of it. It contains two brilliant novellas, “Tales of Bukhara” and “My Tales,” and other material holding it together that unfortunately isn’t as brilliant. The sole review I could find was on the Gently Read blog.

There’s also an itty bitty piece in Al-Ahram that features a quote from novelist Mohamed Al-Makhzangi (about the Arabic version): “When I read the manuscript of Qamar ‘Ala Samarqand, I found myself carried away by the lyricism of this astonishing work of fiction, which weaves past with present in a manner resembling that of the cinema. Nurallah, the novel’s protagonist, in particular is unforgettable, dealing in extreme emotions but showing a wisdom that comes from the heart. This novel is written with real distinction.”

Life is More Beautiful than Paradise: A Jihadist’s Own Story, by Khaled al-Berry. Somehow, I thought that when this book came out, there would be a clamor to read and review it. After all, there’s all sorts of attention given (in the U.S.) to these “former Muslims” who crowd the speakers’ circuit.

I see that Gently Read intends to review it, and there’s a teeny-tiny review from Emel.

This is a lovely memoir, and memoirs from Arabic to English are rare. (Yes, Ghada Abdel Aal’s Ana Ayza Atgawaz [I Want to Get Married] is also supposed to be out in English soon.) Occasionally, al-Berry’s memoir gets tangled up in dense language; translator Humphrey Davies supposed that this was part of the author’s intense desire to be honest. And the memoir feels blazingly honest, particularly in the prison narrative that comes near the end.

Correction: As Khaled notes, there are reviews in The Independent and the HuffPost. Still, it’s not at all what I was expecting, considering the “hot” topic and well-executed memoir.

Also out and notable from Egypt in 2009 (and, why not, underappreciated): A Dog With No Tail, by Hamdi Abu Golayyel, which received last year’s Naguib Mahfouz medal and is reviewed by Ursula Lindsay in The National.

And, the most overappreciated Arabic literature (in translation) of 2009 (drumroll, please!):

Bahaa Taher’s Sunset Oasis. Maybe all the writers who gave this a glowing, utterly unblemished review in Canadian, U.S., and U.K. publications didn’t want to hurt the Arab world’s feelings, thinking this was the best book the region had to offer? It’s hardly the best book Bahaa Taher has to offer, and certainly not the region. (My review here.)

Ah well. Here’s to a better 2010 (without any more drive-by shootings on high holidays, clashes at the border, pollution, bad literary reviews, corruption, hopelessness, and so on.)

Also out in 2009 (but not quite so overappreciated): Cairo Swan Song (which received attention on The Complete Review, and other places, probably because of its spot on the IPAF shortlist as well as Mekkawi Said’s excellent promotional skills. It’s sold like hotcakes, too.) I’m reading about half-way through, and despite the books bombastic over-generalities, sexism, and scattered narrative, I find that it’s growing on me. Sheesh.