A Few of My Favorite Things: Egyptian Authors, Taha Hussein-Present

Image swiped from AraboIslamica.

Please don’t think that the list below is authoritative.

It doesn’t have Yahia Haqqi, for instance, because I haven’t read him. It doesn’t have Edwar Kharrat, because I’ve found the translations of him very unsatisfying.

It’s not even authoritative on its own terms: my favorite things. I’m forgetful.

And poetry! I’m very remiss with poetry. Obviously, you should read Amal Dunqul, although maybe there’s no proper translation?

If you feel I’ve skipped over someone wonderful, please do add their name below. And perhaps I’ll try to do this with Lebanese literature, and Iraqi lit, whenever the mental lightning strikes.

In chronological-ish order, beginning with the

Earliest Modern Authors:

Taha Hussein (1889-1973), best-known (at least by me) as a memoirist and critic; often called “the dean of Arabic literature.” I don’t think the translations do him justice, but they’re nonetheless very worthwhile and I applaud Mona El-Zayyat for her efforts. Read my one-minute review of The Tree of Misery.

Tawfiq Al-Hakim (1900?-1987): I suggest The Essential Tawfiq al-Hakim, brought out by AUC Press, and The Cave, of which I have a one-minute review. Al Haraka has argued elsewhere on this blog that one must read Al-Hakim in Arabic, but obviously that’s not an option for everyone.

Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006) doesn’t need my recommendation. If you want to know more about him, visit his Nobel-prize page.

Latifa al-Zayyat, (1923-1996), The Open Door.

Fathy Ghanem (1923?-1999), The Man with No Shadow is one of my favorite books for reasons that probably resist explanation. I love the shifts in point of view, although other books shift p.o.v. I love the characters, although other books have characters.

Yusuf Idris (1927-1991), The Essential Yusuf Idris has some beautiful moments, although I’m not fond of most of the translations here; I find them lacking in grace. An interesting debate about Idris’s legacy here.

Alifa Rifaat, (1930-1996). Read Distant View of a Minaret. She’s one of Chinua Achebe’s favorite writers, if I’m remembering right. And, even if not, read Distant View of a Minaret.

Nawal el Saadawi (1931 – ) is considered “crazy” by many in Egypt, but never mind that. I will say she’s been brave, tough-minded, and very feminist. Perhaps her memoirs are best? Or Woman at Point Zero.

From the Sixties Generation, (discussed here by Youssef Rakha)…

Bahaa Taher (1935 – ), Read his charming Auntie Safiyya and the Monastery. I find him uneven; I would choose the earlier work far, far ahead of IPAF-winning Sunset Oasis. You can read my review of Sunset Oasis, or my interview with the book’s translator, Humphrey Davies.

Sonallah Ibrahim (1937 – ) People will tell you to read Zaat, and you should, but I will tell you that you can’t go wrong with Stealth, published in English in 2010 by Aflame. You could buy it for your mother, and your literary-minded cousin, and yourself. Of course, yourself. (My review of Stealth will appear next month in The Believer.)

Khairy Shalaby (1938 – ) I wasn’t crazy about his Naguib Mahfouz medal-winning The Lodging House, so why is he listed here? It had interesting elements, and he’s quite a popular and prolific literary writer. AUC has two more of his books coming soon; I’m interested in seeing them.

Mohamed el-Bisatie (1938 – ) He’s uneven as well, but his classic Houses Behind the Trees is worth reading and re-reading.

Ibrahim Aslan (1939 – ) I am mostly interested in Aslan’s short stories, although you probably want to read The Heron or Nile Sparrows. Baheyya writes compellingly about Aslan on her blog.

Gamal al-Ghitani (1945 – ). You won’t miss his better-known Zayni Bakarat or The Zafarani Files (my review of Zafarani here), but if you’re a writer I also suggest Pyramid Texts, which is structurally quite interesting.

Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid (1946 – ) I particularly liked the tone and evocation of place in the opening of his novel The Other Place.

It’s Not the Sixties Generation Any More…

Salwa Bakr (1949 – ) I’ve liked a few of her short stories, particularly from The Wiles of Men.

Mohamed Mansi Qandil (1949 -) His Moon over Samarqand was flawed but so beautiful in places that—although I’ve only read a chapter’s worth of his IPAF-shortlisted Cloudy Day on the West Side—I enthusiastically recommend it. My review of Moon over Samarqand will appear, at some point, in The Baltimore Review. I hope Cloudy Day on the West Side will be translated by the quite good Issa J. Boullata.

Ahdaf Souief (1950 – ) The brilliant translator of Mourid Barghouti’s I Saw Ramallah. I liked her short stories in Aisha, although you’ll probably want to read her Man Booker-shortlisted A Map of Love.

Alaa Al Aswany (1957 – ) I’m not recommending Yacoubian (as though the book needed my recommendation). But I am intrigued by Al Aswany’s blog, and his nonfiction.

Youssef Ziedan (1957 – ) How can I put Ziedan on this list when I haven’t yet read IPAF-winning Azazeel (out in summer 2011 from Atlantic)? Two of my close friends admired the book; I’m tentatively hoping to love it.

Khaled Al Khamissi (1962 – ) His Taxi lacks literary polish, but is enjoyable, enjoyable, enjoyable. Read my review here.

And the Young Writers (So-Called Because They’re Around My Age)…

Amina Zaydan (1966 – ) Zaydan won the Naguib Mahfouz medal for literature in 2007 for her Red Wine; it’ll be out from AUC Press in January 2011.

Hamdi Abu Golayyel (1967 – ), I suggest his terribly titled but (deservedly) Naguib Mahfouz medal-winning A Dog with No Tail. I review it here.

Miral Al-Tahawy (1968 – ). Blue Aubergine. Mentioned by Nuruddin Farah as one of the up-and-comers of the literary world.

Hamdi el-Gazzar (1970 – ). A member of the “Beirut39” crowd; he gave a charming reading at Kotob Khan this spring. I haven’t yet read his Black Magic, translated by Humphrey Davies, but I mean to.

Khaled al-Berry (1972 – ). His memoir, Life is More Beautiful than Paradise, came out late last year. While a bit dense in parts, it’s wonderfully honest-feeling, and creates a sharp and compelling portrait of al-Berry’s adolescence.

Ahmed Alaidy (1974 – )  Being Abbas el Abd should be a “love it or hate it” sort of book. I have to admit, though, that I admired certain points, neither loving nor hating.

Mansoura Ezz Eldin (1976 – ) Her 2009 Beyond Paradise was shortlisted for the Arabic Booker. I think Paul Starkey’s translation of Maryam’s Maze is…bad. But you should still read Ezz Eldin. My review of Maryam’s Maze here. Also a Beirut39er.

Where Are All the Other Young Writers?

Many more young Egyptian authors were featured in Banipal 25; my friend Mai did that issue’s cover art. If you’re interested in the Egyptian literary scene (especially poetry, which I neglect here), buy a copy. You’ll get more of Mai’s wonderful art as well.

I would suggest you read Samia Mehrez’s The Literary Atlas of Cairo, except it’s not out until July.

Until then, see M. A. Orthofer’s index of Arabic literature for more Arabic lit (in English) of all generations. He has reviews of Idris Ali’s Poor, Yahia Haqqi’s The Lamp of Umm Hashim, Mekkawi Said’s Cairo Swan Song (although so do I, here) and all the Naguib Mahfouz you can consume in a sitting.

And if you like lists, well, this is a list.


  1. (My below comment is based on reading the Arabic versions only. )

    – Tawfiq Al Hakim is one of my favorites too, especially “Return of the soul”, and others. It’s written with enjoyable sarcasm in easy language. Many people think he is a difficult read like El Aqad and Taha Hussien.. That’s why he may not be popular between many of my friends (Personal opinion)

    – I agree that “Auntie Safiyya and the monastery” is one of the very best by Bahaa Taher – if not the best. Although usually “Love in the exile” is mentioned more, along with “Sunset Oasis”. While I admire the latter, “Love in the exile” reminded me with any novel by Ehssan Abdelqodos, I mean, nothing attracted my attention awi. “Point of light” (if that’s the correct translation) is an underestimated text by Taher. Not many people mention it, while it is another worth read novel.

    – I had a special admiration for “The open door”, even before reading it. The movie was one of the best I’ve seen, and was a reason to choose the name “Laila” for the “Kolena Laila” initiative pro women.
    However, I have to say that I didn’t fall equally in love with the Arabic text. While the idea is noble, but the way of putting it was somehow poor. May be because i had high expectations? I thought of it as a stronger novel with a rebelling language, not just a go-with-the-drift persona..
    Wish the English translation is better, because many of my non-Arab friends fell in love with it. However, at the time being, while I still hold the admiration for the novel -considering the time it was published- but not sure if I’d recommend it.

    – I second your friends “Azazeel” is awesome. It is a most read. But is there an English translation already?!

    – I have problems with novels, either they capture me from first chapter, or they don’t. “Beyond Paradise” was one of those that I couldn’t continue reading beyond 1st chapter. I wonder how it was shortlisted for Arabic Booker?.. The writing is childish, and not on the same level of Sunset oasis or Azazeel.

    – I am currently reading “I saw RamAllah”, and charmed by the beauty of words. Mourid Barghouti writes in such poetic language!.. Hope the translation is as profound. And somehow certain that Ahdaf’s translation is equally amazing.

    – Yesterday a friend shared this list for the best 100 Arab books by Arab Publishers Union.
    Thought may be you’d like to take a look.

    – Thank you for putting this list, I really enjoyed it. And defiantly will make my best to read all your archive.. Waiting for your other Arabic lit. lists as well 🙂

  2. I was shocked to see you thought Paul’s translation was ‘… bad’. When I looked at your review via the link this is not what you specified there. If you are writing for an English audience you need to use terms they are familiar with. You can’t simply translate word for word which is what you imply there. Paul has a wealth of experience in translation and has always been praised highly for his many translations including that of Edwar al-Kharrat’s Stones of Bobello which is difficult to understand in any language. If you really feel this strongly about it, you might have the courtesy to discuss it further with Paul. All the other reviews of this translation praise it more than highly!

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