‘We Must Acknowledge That There’s a Real Problem’

After yesterday’s events, I haven’t the heart to write anything new about books. I did an initial read of Bye Bye Babylon and the juxtaposition of bright-colored mass-produced products and weapons (with news about the Maspero protest whispering in the background) nearly overwhelmed me with fear.

All I can do is return to Khaled al-Khamissi, who—following the January 1 church bombing (so long ago, it seems!) in Alexandria—did not have easy words for Egypt. He did not, like others, say that we’re all great and we all (usually) get along. Instead, he read from a list of persecutions and injustices enacted against Copts throughout Egyptian history, saying: “We must acknowledge that there’s a real problem. Intolerance is only rising.”

Four books that acknowledge a real problem, rather than our “commonalities” (which is also surely true; I love Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery, but):

Waguih Ghali’s Beer in the Snooker Club. I really look forward to the day that this 1964 novel is no longer trenchant social and political commentary on Egypt (and the U.K.), the day when it is just a gorgeous, funny book from times gone by.

Bahaa Abdelmeguid’s St. Theresa, trans. Chip Rossetti. This is set soon after the time of Beer in the Snooker Club (around the 1967 naksa), also critically examining the things that keep Jewish, Christian, and Muslim characters apart, without papering over the real problems.

Sonallah Ibrahim’s Zaat, trans. Anthony Calderbank. Ibrahim is also serious about examining how a woman like Zaat can come, if not to hate Christians, to reject them.

Khaled al-Berry’s Live is More Beautiful than Paradise, trans. Humphrey Davies. Al-Berry’s book ends well, in a sense, because Khaled turns into a wonderful guy. But Khaled’s salvation is unfortunately not Egypt’s salvation. His neighbors and friends who attacked their Christian neighbors have perhaps not had similar epiphanies.