Against the Odds, a Generation of Egyptian Readers

Over at Mada MasrAsmaa Abdallah reviews Popular Culture in the Middle East and North Africa: A Postcolonial OutlookOne of the chapters features commentary by translator and scholar Richard Jacquemond who discusses, in “The Yacoubian Building and Its Sisters,” popular literature and the “growing insertion” of a new, Westernized Arabic literature into a global literary market:

9780415509725Jacquemond, according to Asmaa Abdallah, gives the heartening assessment that:

Against the odds of an ailing education system, a mostly incompetent publishing industry and failed state cultural policies, a generation of avid readers has risen from the ashes following many years of drought in the reading scene. Jacquemond proceeds to examine a list of the bestselling titles, using the most downloaded books on the website as his basis, since it is otherwise difficult to obtain reliable statistics given the high rate of piracy and fluidity in the Arab book market.

Indeed, tallying best-sellers even within Cairo is a difficult matter; it’s a mountain at which I have thrown my grappling hook a few times. The three titles Jacquemond found were the best of the best-sellers are unsurprising, and tally with best-seller lists put out by Shorouk, Diwan, and Kotob Khan bookstores:

  1. Alaa al-Aswany’s “The Yacoubian Building”
  2. Khaled al-Khamissi’s “Taxi”
  3. Youssef Ziedan’s “Azazeel”

None of these are critical darlings, although Azazeel did win the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. However, neither are Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer’s (best-selling) books.

Jacquemond also apparently refers to humor-writers Ghada Abdel Aal and Omar Taher, as well as other genre writing, like Ahmed Mourad’s Vertigo and Ahmed Khaled Towfik’s Utopia. According to Abdallah, “Some of these new forms, Jacquemond suggests, are better suited to communicating with a Western or Westernized audience” — although, for instance, while Abdel-Aal’s I Want to Get Married! was a best-seller in Arabic, it had no similar reach or connection with English readers.

Abdallah writes:

The chapter concludes that although these works have successfully created a new niche in the reading world, this trend can have detrimental results for aesthetic value. He goes so far as to argue that these works add no aesthetic innovation and are follow a more “economic market oriented logic.”

I feel the need to disagree. While I always flinch at the notion that I should be happy if my child “reads anything” and that “all reading is equally good” — much as I would flinch at the idea that it’s fine to stuff any old food in one’s mouth — I believe there is a place for potboiler comic books, detective stories, satire, romance novels, thrillers, fantasy, MG books about underpants, and more. They shouldn’t supplant the literature that makes my heart breathe, but “junk” food is all right, sometimes. Even if the big novels listed above don’t themselves add aesthetic innovations, several of them are vividly enjoyable and create space for new and different literary fusions.

Others maybe not. But would literature really be better off without “trashy” popular novels? Would the world be better off without the crushing economic realities of “fast” and “convenient” food? Oh, maybe. Certainly, I need to meet Jacquemond’s essay in the flesh, but I do believe that it’s a good thing to foster a greater appetite for reading, even if the books on offer aren’t always Zaat or The Heron or Beer in the Snooker Club.


  1. 4shared is great. An Egyptian professor told me about, when I told him I was having problems with interlibrary loan…But as a subject of study, why not goodreads? There is excellent discussion there about Arab novels. You could probably even profile some of the reviewers, something like what the guardian has done with its prolific commenters. Some of the reviewers on goodreads are really prolific, and they read a wider variety of stuff than what’s on 4shared.

    1. That’s an excellent idea. Do you have any particular goodread-reviewers that you’ve noticed? Or…are you mayhaps interested in profiling one or two?

      1. I used goodreads a lot in drawing up a list of Arab novels for my candidacy exam, but haven’t returned since. I might return soon to see what people have said about Abdel Rahman Munif, because the academic criticism available is unsatisfying. Thanks for giving me that idea! If it works for me I’ll keep you posted and perhaps we could do some profiles.

        1. I would love it, please do. Or if you were interested in writing about the differences between academic criticism on Munif v. Goodreads/popular criticism… I have way under-written about Munif.

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