Egyptian Literature (in Translation) for Teens

The publisher has not made this an easy sell to teen boys. No, it doesn't represent Ghada Abdel Aal's book very well, either.

A few days back, @zoraoneill (Zora O’Neill) asked me: “Any Egyptian fiction in translation you’d recommend for teens?” She was, she said, “looking for stuff to prep tourists.”

It’s been a while since I was a tourist, but it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suppose that a flash-visit to another country can be broadened and deepened by reading a few novels beforehand. Age-appropriate YA is a phenomenon I missed as an adolescent, so I’m not exactly sure what to recommend for “teens.” I have enjoyed several Lebanese YA novels published recently, notably Fatima Sharafeddine’s Faten and two by Samah Idris. But: 1) They’re not Egyptians, and 2) They haven’t been translated.

There are, of course, a number of YA books “about” or “set in” Egypt by Americans and Brits. Nisreen M. Kamel Anati, in “Teaching through the Conflict: Examining the Value of Culturally Authentic Arabic Young Adult Literature,” discusses these sorts of works. She complains of the “low sensitivity to the lived experiences and complex cultural matrices” in books written about Arabs that aren’t by Arabs.

Anati wanted stories that spoke authentically to her. She mentioned, among other books written by Arabs, Taha Hussein’s An Egyptian Childhood. This might be an option for the traveling teen, although it’s not particularly contemporary. She’s also talking about coursework, whereas we’re trying to colonize a busy teen’s “free” time.

So, what?

My best suggestion, I think, is Ghada Abdel Aal’s I Want to Get Married, trans. our friend @litfreak, Nora Eltahawy. It’s funny, it’s sharp, it’s engaging; the downside is the long introduction and the footnotes, which turn it into an anthropological rather than literary-comedic work. But for the traveling teen, perhaps that works. Unfortunately, the cover makes it hard for a tough-guy guy to carry around.

Taxi, Khaled al-Khamissi, trans. Jonathan Wright, re-issued Bloomsbury Qatar is an obvious choice. It’s also funny, recent, and macho boys can flash the cover at will.

Life is More Beautiful than Paradise, by Khaled al-Berry, trans. Humphrey Davies, is the story of its author’s adolescence. It’s compelling for an adult reader, but perhaps a bit dense in places for a teen. It addresses issues of religion, tolerance, violence, and identity. Plus, it’s being made into a movie.

Ernie Brill, who teaches Middle Eastern literature to high schoolers in Massachusetts, has said that he teaches Nawal al-Saadawi (Woman at Point Zero). However, because this book has contributed to a particular reading of Arab women, I’d say it wouldn’t top my list. But it’s certainly a fast, straightforward read.

For the teen who likes sci fi, why not Utopia, by Ahmed Khaled Towfik (trans. Chip Rossetti), a futuristic tale set in a gated community on Egypt’s north coast in 2023? And—another one for the guy-guy—for the teen who liked Fight Club, Ahmed Alaidy’s Being Abbas el Abd might appeal, although it’s not for a reader who can’t take narrative ambiguity.