Views of Islamism in Egypt: 4 Books

News in Cairo today is focused on yesterday’s Islamist and Islam-focused rallies in Tahrir.

Islamists have been depicted in both English-language and Arabic-language literatures. There are many portraits of (mostly terrorists) who’ve been animated by some vision of Islam. Far fewer literary works treat Islamist characters with sensitivity, depth, or creativity. Four that do:

1) Moon over Samarqand, Mohamed Mansi Qandil, trans. Jennifer Peterson.

This book recently got a much-deserved new Arabic edition from Dar al Shorouk. To quote from my review from a couple years back, which appeared in print but never online:

The book is not without its flaws. The author seems freer when he discusses Samarqand, and more hesitant to explore Islamism in Egypt. The result is a sometimes-blank Egyptian narrator and a sometimes-clunky first section. The labored start is unfortunate, as the book contains two deftly crafted novellas: “Tales of Bukhara” and “My Tales.”

“Tales of Bukhara” tells the story of Nurallah, the (former, fallen) grand mufti of Turkestan. “My Tales” relays the story of our narrator, the son of a (former, fallen) high-ranking Egyptian military officer. At times, one would prefer that these novellas shed the opening material and stand under separate dust jackets: one tale of Turkestan, another of Egypt.

The first novella in particular could be a complete work on its own. Nurallah’s story is remarkably clear-eyed and full-throated: The passionate, puzzling Turkman is never quite sure how to place himself with respect to his loves and his religion. He takes us back through Soviet-run Turkestan and Uzbekistan, and yet further back, to the times of Alexander and Timur the Lame. At first, it seems a dreadful shame that Nurallah is burdened with such a boring Egyptian narrator. It’s only later that we realize these two stories have a great deal to say to one another.

Where the book fails—if “fails” is the proper word with two such beautiful narratives—is when it shies from this dialogue. The Egyptian and the Turkman are both deeply affected by Islamism, oppressive regimes, and strained family relationships. The two share common disappointments and destinies, but these links are brought only halfway to the page.

And from the book, in a scene where Muslim Brotherhood leader Sayyid Qutb appears:

“Endless rings of people of all colors encircled him, shaking his hand, kissing him, and taking him into their embrace. One wave after another—Africans and Asians, Baskhirs and Bosnians. He was at the center of them all. The sheikhs of al-Azhar stood by, impotent, sensing that the rhythm of the conference had slipped through their fingers.”

2) For those curious about Sayyid Qutb, you can read his autobiography, trans. John Calvert, published by AUC Press: A Child from the Village.

3) Life is More Beautiful Than Paradise, by Khaled al-Berry, trans. Humphrey Davies.

I know I’ve plugged this book before, but the most interesting aspects are how relatable it is; the small details of al-Berry’s adolescent struggles in Assyut, even though they are influenced by the very “big issue” of politics and religion.

Plagiarizing myself again:

Al-Berry’s story begins in Asyut, a mid-sized Upper Egyptian city, when he is thirteen years old. School is cancelled because of security concerns, and many parents come to pick up their children in cars. But al-Berry’s father has recently sold their ancient ’68 Opel, so al-Berry ends up walking home with some of the other boys.

One boy mentions the group Jama’a Islamiya, which at the time had hopes of establishing an Islamic republic in Egypt. Al-Berry parrots his father’s opinion: “’[The first post-colonial president Gamal] Abdel Nasser understood them and imprisoned them.’” But the other boy vehemently disagrees. He reproaches al-Berry for condemning those who he doesn’t know, and portrays the Jama’a as heroes defying a corrupt government. This boy has seen al-Berry shy from a fight, and promises to make him a gift of a bicycle chain.

“I spent the night dreaming of the bicycle chain,” al-Berry writes, “just the way I used to dream that I was Bruce Lee, after seeing a movie of his, or Muhammad Ali Clay, after seeing a movie about him.”

4) Naguib Mahfouz at Sidi Gaber: reflections of a Nobel laureate, 1994-2001, by Naguib Mahfouz, trans. Mohamed Salmawy

One would not expect Mahfouz to be gentle toward extremist visions of Islam, particularly after he was stabbed in the neck and nearly killed by a man who felt he was fulfilling his religious duty.

Mahfouz shows himself less interested in Islamism than in problems he sees as more fundamental. From a chapter titled “Crisis Management”:

Our problem, then lies not in creating the conditions necessary for Islam and modernity to coexist. Rather, we face a problem in reversing trends that have come recently to assume an importance they previously lacked. What is most necessary in Egypt is to halt the deterioration of our economy, the major cause of feelings of frustration and impotence. It is this frustration that has led sections of the population to search for alternatives in present-day fundamentalism.

The crisis of Islam and modernity—what to do? We must raise living standards and facilitate greater political participation, which means nurturing a greater democracy. We must allow anybody to form a political party. It is, after all, the people who must decide. (From 24 August 1995, a year after Mahfouz was stabbed)


There was a conference this past February titled “Islamism in Arab Fiction and Film