If you only read translated Arabic literature you might get the impression Egyptians are a rather serious lot. While so-called “sarcastic” Egyptian novels are very popular, they’re generally seen as non-literary and often are not translated.
But Nael Eltoukhy’s recent Women of Karantina, published in Arabic in 2013 and in English in 2014, crosses the line from satiric to serious and back again. “Many writers describe the book as a sarcastic work but I don’t think so,” Eltoukhy said at a recent book event in Cairo. He agrees it has a sense of humor but it “is not sarcastic.”
Funny books are usually written off as second-rate by Arab critics. But Eltoukhy does not places his rollicking, over-the-top Women of Karantina in the company of contemporary satires, but as a successor to Palestinian writer Emile Habibi’s darkly humorous Said the Pessoptimist. Indeed, Eltoukhy’s novel has many antecedents: It’s part slapstick Egyptian film, part social criticism, and part great Mahfouzian Novel, resembling a funnier version of Egyptian writer and Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz’s Children of Gabalawi.
Like Habibi’s seminal novel, Eltoukhy’s begins with a science-fictional element. The novel opens half a century into the future on 28 March 2064. The world of our protagonists’ dreams has just been obliterated, and all that is left is an unnamed woman and a couple of mangy dogs in love, both of which are killed in the first chapter.
We then flash back 60 years, to a long-ago time when “the sun was ever beaming down over Egypt, the nights were quieter, the days more joyful, and the Nile flowed by all the while. Everything was wonderful in Egypt. Or that was how Egyptians felt about their country. The truth is what people feel, not objective, physical facts. Who cares about physics?”