Reading Alexandria, Egypt

I suppose most people—if speaking of Alexandria-themed literature in English—would point to Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, or perhaps to the renowned Greek-Alexandrian poet Constantine Cavafy. But the idea of “Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria” is much like “Paul Bowles’ Morocco” and thus—literary merits notwithstanding—is not our interest here.

Note: If you actually travel to Alexandria looking for Durrell’s city—like this Guardian writer who expects Bowles on a trip to Tangiers—we’ll have to send you back to Orientalism 101, or at least a good reading of Candide.

So! Where does one go to read creations and reflections of 20th and 21st century Alexandria? I’m afraid that most of the books I know and love about Skindereya are set in far earlier periods. Please do catch me up and add your own below.

Addition: Thanks to a reader’s email about the 2009 novel by Alaa Khaled, ألم خفيف كريشة طائر تنتقل بهدوء من مكان لآخر. Khaled is an Alexandrian poet and editor of the wonderful Amkena magazine. This book is not (yet) available in translation, but you can read a profile of the author by Youssef Rakha in Al Ahram Weekly , a review of the book by Nousha, and some very glowing GoodReads reviews.

The rest are organized by the time in which they were set:

Azazel, by Youssef Ziedan, is set, in part, in the Alexandria of the fifth century, at a time of great transformation for Christianity and for the city. The IPAF-winning novel should be out in English, translated by Jonathan Wright, next summer.

The Prison of Life, by Tawfiq al-Hakim, is a memoir set in al-Hakim’s early years, some of which talks about his home in Alexandria. An excerpt from this memoir can be found in The Essential Tawfiq al-Hakim, edited by Denys Johnson-Davies. Includes a lovely (and hilarious) portrait of al-Hakim’s father as he builds and unbuilds their Alexandria home. I can’t recall exactly when it was set, but al-Hakim was born 1898ish.

City of Saffron, by Edwar al-Kharrat is set  in the 1930s, and tells the coming-of-age story of a young Coptic boy. Translated into English by Frances Liardet, it has also been translated into French, German, Spanish, Italian, Swedish and Greek. It was chosen by the British writer Doris Lessing as Book of the Year in 1990.

Girls of Alexandria, also by al-Kharrat, is set in 1930s and 1940s, and—like City of Saffron—is a semi-autobiographical work. (But if you’re only going to read one, read City of Saffron.)

No One Sleeps in Alexandria, by Ibrahim Abdel Meguid, is set in Alexandria during World War II. At the novel’s center is a friendship between Sheikh Magd al-Din, a devout Muslim with peasant roots in northern Egypt, and Dimyan, a Copt with roots in southern Egypt. This book is No. 18 on the list of the “top 105” books selected by the Arab Writers’ Union.

Birds Of Amber, also by Ibrahim Abdel Meguid, takes place in Alex during the 1956 Suez War. (Again, if you’re only going to read one—or think you are—start with No One Sleeps in Alexandria.)

Miramar, by Naguib Mahfouz, is perhaps the most celebrated Arabic-language novel set in Alexandria. After all, it was written by Mahfouz. Set in the early 1960s, it’s described by Neil Hewison, who recommended it for our “five Arabic books to read before you die” list as such: “everybody must have their favorite Mahfouz novel, and this is mine. It is the story of Egypt and its Revolution, brilliantly told by four very different men staying in an old-fashioned pension in Alexandria, as they hover around the country girl who works there.”

If you’re only going to read one book by Mahfouz…well, what’s wrong with you?

St. Theresa, by Bahaa Abdelmeguid takes 1967 (the year Miramar was published) as its launching point. Although set primarily in Cairo, significant action happens in Alexandria, between the book’s Coptic, Muslim, and Jewish characters. Translated by Chip Rossetti and published in English in 2010. The character Sawsan:

The word “Alexandria” stirs up something in me; I imagine the wide seas and remember the time my father traveled there when I was a child: he brought me back a small white ball that bounced when it struck the ground, as well as a bright-colored headscarf. …. His body was sunburned. He told me to peel the dead skin from his shoulders, and I felt happy as I removed it and felt the moist layer of new skin underneath it.

Alexandria – Beirut, by Nermin Nizar (published 2009) offers a more contemporary vision of Alexandria, Cairo, and Beirut, but has not been translated—at least, I don’t think—into English.

Also, if you’re in Cairo, Alef bookstores have a big January lineup:

It includes talks with Uncle Khairy Shalaby about his Istasia, which addresses Coptic-Muslim relations, as well as talks by Dr. Youssef Ziedan about his Nabataeans, (next Thursday), Dr. Galal Amin (today), Alaa al Aswany (later in the month) and stand-up comedy.



Categories: Alexandria, Egypt, fiction, religion

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12 replies

  1. Have you posted anything lately about novels that address/discuss Muslim-Christian relations in Egypt? That would be one cool post (as all your posts are, of course, but just saying…)

    • I should, shouldn’t I.

      You could send me some ideas… Istasia, Azazel, St. Theresa, No One Sleeps in Alex, Astigmatism in the Brain…Auntie Safiyya and the Monastery…El Saadawi’s The Innocence of the Devil….Fawzia Assaad’s Layla…? Mahfouz’s Children of the Alley?

      Beer in the Snooker Club for its portrayal of a time preceding/anticipating religious divisions?

      What about Lebanese writing about sectarianism? A different kettle of fish, I suppose.

  2. Oh, don’t go near Lebanon. That’s an entire university department, as well as several PhDs. Hmmm… I’m a bit rusty on my Arab lit…

    You have a great list there already, but I’m sure there are more…. aargh! let me think about what else should be included and get back to you. I know this is a huge topic and would make a great PhD dissertation, but it would be cool to sketch out the portrayal of the relationship between Muslims and Christians in Egyptian literature throughout the past century. (Is that a thesis statement or what?)

    • Yes, you’re right, Lebanon is its own life’s work.

      The Smiles of the Saints, by Ibrahim Farghali?

      Khaled al-Berry’s memoir, Life is More Beautiful than Paradise?

      Amina Zaydan’s Red Wine has a tiny Muslim-Christian conflict…but not really a focus of the book…

      Hmm, well I do need to get that PhD one of these days, don’t I. 🙂

  3. Now, if only it could be comparative in some way. Maybe include film? Or compare it with literature discussing Hindu-Muslim relations in India? *gasp* Is that a college application I see before me?

  4. wondeful list thanks for it ,will try and get a couple of these ,all the best stu

  5. A friend here at UW is doing her dissertation on Edwar al-Kharrat, Durrell, Robert Liddell and Cavafy! Alexandria deluxe!

    Thanks for all the great posts.

    • Sofia,
      Good to hear from you, and hope you’re surviving the cold! I am wearing two pair of pants here in Cairo. 🙂
      M.

  6. Stop playing. I am freezing.

  7. Hello there, could we also have a list of “reading Cairo” ? Mumkin ? Need it for university.

    • Hm. I did a “reading Tahrir” or 5 novels in Tahrir. And you can read the Q&A with Adam Talib (posted today) for a few novels set downtown. But Cairo is a pretty huge entity. Oh…you could read Samia Mehrez’s Literary Atlas for a glimpse.

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