What Does the New York Times Think You Should Read about Egypt?

Despite a general worldwide support for the aspirations of the Egyptian people, some do seem to be buying the regime’s spin on the uprising.

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.

More: Egypt’s Sixties Generation Novelists on the Nation and Revolution

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15 comments

  1. This is terrific, as is the rest of your invaluable blog – many thanks. I look forward to tracking down some of these works. I just checked “Stealth” out of the library yesterday and have Ibrahim’s “Turbans et Chapeaux” on order from France, where this French translation was published just three days ago (I remain completely dumbfounded that Ibrahim’s “Amrikanli” is still unavailable in English…).

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    • I also can’t understand it, although I believe he doesn’t want to work with AUC Press, the “easiest” way to get translated into English. It’s too bad Aflame tanked, as they might have taken on more of the Ibrahim translations. The French generally seem to do better with Ibrahim; I understand the French translation of Stealth is very well-done. But I like Hosam’s version, too.

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      • As I studied Arabic at UC Berkeley, albeit some time before Sonallah Ibrahim spent his year there as a visiting professor, I was particularly keen to work on a translation of Amrikanli – so much of what he presents there struck powerful chords in my own memory and experience there. As an America teenager returned ‘home’ to attend college, after high school years in Beirut at the American Community School — I found life in America as bizarre as Sonallah did, evidently. I met him at the Arabesques Arabic Arts festival in Washington DC a couple of years ago, and in subsequent correspondence he welcomed my offer to work on translating Amrikanli — but indicated that we had to find a publisher first. Any suggestions? I approached Telegram in London, for whom I translated Hassan Daoud’s Ayyam Zaa’idah (with the title Borrowed Time) but did not receive a response…so I am hoping to discover a publisher that is interested in such a project. As an anthropological expose of American society and media, and the US educational system, the work is, I think, invaluable. And, like all of his work, caustic and laugh at loud hilarious at the same time. I expect the events of the past two weeks may spark some interest in publishers of Arabic literature in translation, so maybe an English Amrikanli can be anticipated in the not too distant future…I hope so, whether I can work on it or not!

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  2. […] What Does the New York Times Think You Should Read about Egypt? (via Arabic Literature (in English)) Posted on February 5, 2011 by quranreciter Despite a general worldwide support for the aspirations of the Egyptian people, some do seem to be buying the regime's spin on the uprising. 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 foc … Read More […]

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  3. Thank you! I can’t believe that I didn’t know of your website before now! I will definitely read STEALTH, since you seem to like it so much:). I would prefer to read it in Arabic, but short of that I will read it in French. Can you tell me where I can find either version in the US? Thanks.

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  4. Thanks. I’ll try your suggestions. Amazon.fr might be the way to go since I don’t have an Arabic keyboard.

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  5. Strange, no one is mentioning Aslan’s novel of the 77 uprising — a very interesting text to read next to these events. But maybe because that translation is so clunky.

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    • It must be the translator, frankly, who’s a big pain in the #$@.

      But, for anyone still interested:
      http://www.aucpress.com/p-2762-the-heron.aspx

      I suppose I find it a funny idea to run out and read literature of a country that’s in the news. But certainly, people should read The Heron, just for pleasure and general enlightenment.

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