Reading Hebrew Novels in Cairo

On Mada Masr, Egyptian novelist Nael Eltoukhy has begun a series of essays on “How Hebrew teaches us something about ourselves: A personal and not-so-personal account“:

From Eltoukhy's blog.
From Eltoukhy’s blog.

In it, Eltoukhy — who is both an award-winning novelist and a Hebrew-Arabic translator — meanders through his literary journey.

It is certainly not a literary journey that echoes the title above: Reading Hebrew Novels in Cairo, Reading Lolita in Tehran. It is not a story of liberation via the Other’s books, although perhaps of self-discovery.

Eltoukhy’s literary profile has steadily risen over the years, both as a translator and as a novelist. His blog about the translation of modern Hebrew literature into Arabic,, has achieved both acclaim and detractors. Eltoukhy writes in Mada about how it’s been to discuss Hebrew novels in Egypt:

They either quietly listen to my spiel till the end without uttering a single word, or give me the “You are a traitor” response, or “Oh, you are awesome!” or mention that they have once read an Israeli novel, which will only sound dumb, and no one wants that. In short, I just do not reveal what I read anymore. I keep it to myself, as my secret.

As a writer, Eltoukhy has published a short-story collection, two novellas, and two acclaimed novels: 2006: The Story of the Big War and The Women of Karantina, the English translation of which was longlisted for the Financial Times’ inaugular “Emerging Voices” award.

In his essay for Mada, Eltoukhy writes:

Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of the beginning of my journey to learn Hebrew, which has popped in and out of my life along the years. In other words, there were times when I was immersed in the language, and others when I left it behind. What remained constant throughout the years, however, is my oscillation between two main occupations: writing novels in Arabic and reading and translating Hebrew.


In a 2011 piece about Egyptian politics, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz put forward Eltoukhy as a route to understanding Egyptian revolution. Now, in his essay for Mada, Eltoukhy writes: “Israel has helped me understand Egypt after June 30, 2013.”

How it’s helped him understand Egypt is still unclear, but the essay series will continue at


A short story by Eltoukhy – “The Next President of Egypt,” trans. Robin Moger

An extract – Of Women of Karantina, trans. Moger

An interview – Discussing ‘Women of Karantina’: A Savage Comic Epic, Relentlessly Ironic, Uncompromisingly Rude, Profoundly Moral, Totally True 


On Arabic Literature in Hebrew and Arabs in Hebrew Literature