‘The Best Books on Egypt’

I find today’s “best books on Egypt” list from The Guardian profoundly disappointing:

The Guardian's choices.
The Guardian’s choices.

First, there are a mere three books on the list: Palace Walk, The Yacoubian Building, and Tarek Osman’s pop-history book, Egypt on the Brink.

Second, these are three books you have probably seen on any number of “best of Egypt” or “best on Egypt” lists before. It does seem that, if you’re going to create a “best books in/on Egypt” list, one of Mahfouz’s trilogy and al-Aswany’s Yacoubian are de rigeur. Before Jan 2011, the third book probably would’ve been Max Rodenbeck’s The City Victorious; afterwards, clearly, it needs to have an “Arab Spring” hook.

Now: I wouldn’t steer you away from reading the Trilogy or The City Victorious. But, my goodness, there’s a whole world out there. (There’s even a world of Egypt beyond Cairo.) If the role of the list-maker is to bring the reader some fresh ideas, these are not.

One of The Guardian commenters suggests adding “the works of Youssef Rakha,” an excellent, fresh suggestion — thank you, Nemesis2020. Rakha’s two novels are both being translated into English, his Sultan’s Seal by Paul Starkey (to be published by Clockroot) and his Crocodiles by Robin Moger (to be published by Seven Stories Press). If you’re looking for something post-2011 — and since this is a list of books on Egypt — do read “Thus Spoke Che Nawarrah,” although it’s not for the faint of heart.

When Max Rodenbeck was asked for his Egypt-reading suggestions, in the Economist, he mentioned the short stories of Yusuf Idris and Yahya Taher Abdallah. Idris, you may know, was the other Egyptian on the “Nobel Prize shortlist” of 1988. There are some wonderful stories in The Essential Yusuf Idris (ed. Denys Johnson-Davies) and in Taher Abdallah’s The Collar and the Bracelet, for which translator Samah Selim won the Banipal translation prize in 2009. As Selim wrote in her afterword, “Abdullah was a poet, a master craftsman of language steeped in a centuries-old oral tradition, a modern-day heir to the itinerant balladeers who performed the ancient epic cycles of North Africa and southern Arabia in Egypt from the fifteenth century onward.” Well then.

Although Rodenbeck suggests Idris and Abdallah over Mahfouz, I wouldn’t slight our Nobel winner; I’d just suggest we could pick a novel that isn’t the Trilogy. After all, Mahfouz didn’t exist just to tell us about mid-twentieth-century Egypt. He existed as a novelist. So, outside of Cairo, to Alexandria: Miramar.

Honestly, I am not sure how these lists get made without including Sonallah Ibrahim. Some might suggest The Committee (as Sinan Antoon did on the “5 before you die” list), others Zaat (selected by Hosam Aboul-ela), but I am absolutely weak-kneed for Ibrahim’s Stealth, beautifully trans. Hosam Aboul-ela.

Humphrey Davies, who translated The Yacoubian Building, as well as many other works of Egyptian literature, doesn’t mention that in his “5 to read before you die list,” but he does give a nod to Mohammad Mustagab’s Tales from Dayrutfor a Mustagab taster, read the delightful “The Battle of the Rabbits,” trans. Moger.

These lists rarely seem to include poetry, but I would be remiss in not including Iman Mersal, who represented Egypt at the summer 2012 Poetry Parnassus in London. Her collection These Are Not Oranges, My Lovewas translated by Khaled Mattawa. If you’re interested in the flavor of the 18 days, I also suggest Maged Zaher’s collection The Revolution Happened and You Didn’t Call Me. 

As long as we’re breaking away from prose-only lists, then we can break past the boundary of “book” as as a printed thing. Let’s list Sarah Carr’s blog, http://inanities.org/. If she’d written this post, it would be satiric, delightful, and you’d be stifling a snort instead of nodding ruefully. And yes, dammit: It’s her country, too.

NOTE: Suzy Joinson pointed out that somehow — somehow — I didn’t mention Waguih Ghali’s Beer in the Snooker ClubI thought I always mentioned Beer in the Snooker Club. It is frankly unbelievable that I didn’t.

ALSO: Albert Cossery should be here. And Hussein Omar, who is allowed one addition, throws in Edmond Jabès. For his other suggestions, you can visit Twitter. Alexander Key also made his own list.

This is not comprehensive — it’s rather obviously reactive — but I cannot fail to mention:

Fathi Ghanem’s The Man Who Lost His Shadow, trans. Desmond Stewart

Khairy Shalaby’s The Lodging House, trans. Farouk Abdel-Wahab

Taha Hussein’s The Nightingale’s Prayer

The Essential Tawfiq al-Hakim, ed. Denys Johnson-Davies

Gamal al-Ghitani’s Zayni Barakat, trans. Farouk Mustafa

Mohamed al-Bisatie’s Houses Behind the Trees, trans. Denys Johnson-Davies

Radwa Ashour’s Specters, trans. Barbara Romaine, and Farag, which has been signed by BQFP.

Any of these books will win you a spot on the summer book giveaway for a copy of the 2013 PalFest anthology.