My Former Jihadist Friend Signs Copies of His New Epic Novel

Ahmed didn't think Khaled looked much like a proper jihadist.

Last night, author Khaled al-Berry defied World Cup mania and celebrated the launch of his new novel, رقصة شرقية (Middle Eastern Dance) at Kotob Khan in New Ma’adi.

The book, which just came out from Dar Al Ain, opens in 1997 as the three male leads are out (separately) buying new underwear. The year, al-Berry said, was a big one for underwear.

This underscores what Al Dostor notes about the book: that it is an epic—weighing in at nearly 600 pages—but an ironic one. Al-Berry said last night that the novel took six years to write; he didn’t mention, as they do in Al Dostor, that he’d completed a large part of it only to have his computer stolen. He had to start again from the beginning.

Honesty, as the Al Dostor piece notes, is one of the distinguishing marks of al-Berry’s work. He is best-known for his memoir, Life is More Beautiful Than Paradise: A Jihadist’s Own Story, which is available in both English and Arabic.

Al-Berry, of course, would surely rather be called a novelist than a former (adolescent) jihadist, although he shares both distinctions with Arabic Booker-winning Abdo Khal. But, for goodness sakes, someone has to whip up excitement about Arabic literature!

The English version of al-Berry’s memoir, translated by Humphrey Davies, came out last December, and I am consistently surprised by how little attention the book has received. Perhaps it is because the book does not make sweeping statements about large categories of people, but rather paints the small, honest-feeling details of al-Berry’s adolescence.

Although the subject matter is “exotic,” even for most Egyptians (al-Berry joins an Islamist group! he’s imprisoned!) the way al-Berry tells his story makes it resonate for any reader who was once an adolescent. One of the most well-done parts comes near the end of the memoir, when al-Berry is imprisoned for reasons that are never entirely clear. This is not a capital-P prison experience: Al-Berry tries to continue to read and study; he is upset at social slights he receives from other members of Al Jama’a Islamiyya; he weeps from a terrible headache, and he is, in one section, perversely upset at not being tortured.

I asked al-Berry if he would ever write another memoir, and he answered a vehement no. He did, however, tell a charming story from his childhood. I was sorry that I didn’t have my recorder going.

When Al-Berry was a child, he and his friends had a lending library beneath the stairs of a building. To be a member, you either had to pay a piaster, or you had to donate books to the establishment. Al-Berry and his friends read Mickey and Lucky Dog, as well as Thirteen Devils and other works.

Egyptians still lack the libraries we need. So! If you’re in Cairo and would like to borrow Al-Berry’s رقصة شرقية or his Life is More Beautiful Than Paradise (I have the English translation), then all you need to do is give me a piaster and a promise, and I’ll get the book to you.

Read more about al-Berry’s new book in Al-Youm 7 and Al Dostor. You can buy the book at Kotob Khan and Alef.