Indeed, the NY Times “Paper Cuts” section seems to have scrambled on board the “if not me, then chaos and hardline Islamism!” bandwagon. Their “Reading List for the Egypt Crisis” starts out with Max Rodenbeck’s perfectly acceptable Cairo: The City Victorious, but then quickly descends into offerings that focus on Islamists and Islam: Mobilizing Islam, The Muslim Brotherhood, Muslim Extremism in Egypt, and The Looming Tower.
Are you scared yet?
From the literary side of the world, they unsurprisingly suggest the Cairo Trilogy, by our Nobel Prize winning Naguib Mahfouz, as well as Alaa al-Aswany’s internationally best-selling Yacoubian Building (because it was made into a movie?), Sonallah Ibrahim’s Zaat, and Taha Hussein’s The Days. Yes, the Trilogy and The Days are beautiful books, but the only one that seems relevant to the aforementioned “crisis” is Zaat.
Of course, mixing politics and literature is always dubious: Let’s not pretend we can learn much about the aspirations and fears of contemporary Russians by reading Tolstoy.
As to “relevant” Egyptian authors, you could read Nawal al-Saadawi, because she’s down in Tahrir and a brave soul if ever there was one, but she’s hardly Egypt’s best literary stylist. Mohamed Mansi Qandil has a book that’s perhaps both “relevant” and beautiful: Moon Over Samarqand, translated by Issa J. Boullata and published by AUC Press. Plus, it’s got Islamists in it!
Khaled al-Khamissi’s Taxi is good pop literature, fun to read, and paints a contemporary Egyptian landscape. It was translated by Jonathan Wright and published by the embattled Aflame, so I hope you can still get it. If you can, also get a copy of Sonallah Ibrahim’s gorgeous Stealth (translated by Hosam Aboul-Ela), which has no particular relevance to events in Tahrir, but it’s such a lovely novel, and Ibrahim is also a brave soul.
Hamdi Abu Golayyel’s A Dog with No Tail paints a circling and re-circling portrait of deprived Egypt; it won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature and has a great deal to recommend it.
And, if you really insist on reading about Islamists, at least read an Egyptian. Khaled al-Berry, shortlisted for this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction, published a memoir in 2009 that follows his time as a member of an Islamist movement, and—probably more importantly—sketches a picture of his very relatable adolescence. Life is More Beautiful Than Paradise was translated by Humphrey Davies and published by AUC Press.
I love Fathy Ghanem’s The Man Who Lost His Shadow, which probably throws no light on Egypt’s current constitutional crisis. However, many of the more recent books that talk about protests and police—such as Butterfly Wings, by Mohamed Salmawy—are not yet available in English.
If you want politics, I don’t suggest reading the books of former CIA officers, a la Paper Cuts. But do go and pick up Tim Mitchell’s Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity and his yellow book, Colonising Egypt.