List of Lists: The Strange World of Recommended Egyptian Fiction

Tomorrow starts Women in Translation Month (#WiTMonth), that hot, procrastination-rich month each year when ArabLit and other websites turn their focus on work by women that has been written in a language other than English:

By M Lynx Qualey

Many authors, critics, and commentators argue that such a thing is not necessary; that if anything Arab women are overrepresented in English translation; that as Youssef al-Bazzi wrote in an essay in Banipal 36: “We can state here that there is not a single Arab woman writer, regardless of the quality of her literary writing, who has not met with European deference, translation, or ‘presence.’ What Arab women write is tantamount to magic in the eyes of Europeans.”

Al-Bazzi is certainly right to suggest a violent fetishization of Arab women’s writing. Yet this fetishization also means Arab women’s writing is celebrated within certain narrow bounds, usually in the “saving Muslim women” genre, with Nawal El Saadawi the author most likely to appear on lists of Egyptian fiction.

This particular list-of-lists journey began while I was doing research for a series I’m writing about American characters in Egyptian novels, including the wonderful Sister Margaret in Mohamed Mansi Qandil’s Cloudy Day on a Western Shore, Mike Rogers in Ahmed Khaled Tawfik’s Utopia, Jack in Waguih Ghali’s Beer in the Snooker Club, and the anonymous woman who didn’t grieve her husband in Sayyid Qutb’s “The America I Have Seen.” A twirl around the internet turned up a New Yorker list of recommended Egyptian fiction. Unfortunately, the reference to Americans wasn’t associated with any Egyptian title. It comes in the paragraph about Abdul Rahman Munif’s The Trench.

We don’t have to refer to Munif as Saudi — after all, the Saudis stripped him of his passport — but it’s not entirely clear why we would stick The Trench, which Vanna Le describes as a “fictional Middle Eastern country’s transition to a twentieth-century economy in a time of modernization” on “An Egyptian Fiction Reading List.”

The list of lists:

The New Yorker

It’s true that list-compiler Vanna Le doesn’t promise that these books are by Egyptians, nor even set in Egypt. They are, rather, to “help understand the roots of the uprising in Egypt[.]”

The first book-to-understand-an-Egyptian-uprising is Alaa al-Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building (translated to English by Humphrey Davies), which is a book I found on nearly every Egyptian-lit list below. There is certainly an argument to be made for Yacoubian here, even if I don’t find the book of particular aesthetic interest. After that, Le lists the wonderful collection The Cheapest Nights, without seeming to worry much about the translation she’s recommending. It’s hard to say whether Idris’s stories will help you understand Egypt circa 2011, but he does execute some masterful storycraft. Next is Yahya Taher Abdullah’s The Collar and the Bracelettranslated by the brilliant Samah Selim. While I agree you should read it, I cannot make sense of its presence on a “2011 uprising” list.

And that’s it. The other two books are Munif’s The Trench and Marjane Satrapi’s The Complete Persepolis, a book that apparently makes Le’s list because, “It’s always a good time to read Persepolis[.]” By those lights, allow me to recommend Ursula Le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea.

Based on the descriptions, the only book I feel certain Le read cover-to-cover is the last one, Persepolis. Since the list is from February 4, 2011, I imagine it was rushed out as New Yorker editors realized this protest thing in Egypt was getting wheels, and they might get clicks on a listicle or two. Unfortunately, because of the timing, this seems to have become Google’s list-of-record for anyone searching out Egyptian fiction.

The Guardian

In 2013, The Guardian ran a “Bill and Melinda Gates-sponsored” list of Egypt novels called “The best books on Egypt.”  Anything titled “best” is already a shade suspect, as, well, has the listicle-maker truly read so many books on Egypt that they’re in a position to judge? I certainly haven’t.

The three-book list is all male, and the first two choices are the obvious: Al-Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building and Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace WalkThe third is Egypt on the Brink by Tarek Osman. I haven’t read it, but it was also included at the top of the New Yorker nonfiction reading list from February 2011, along with many of the same books that appeared on a February 2011 list by the New York Times. Osman apparently wrote and presented the BBC documentary series “The Making of the Modern Arab World” (2013) and “Sands of Time: A History of Saudi Arabia” (2015), and was the “political counsellor for the Arab world at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD).”

The Telegraph

As far as I can tell, The Telegraph never did a list of recommended Egyptian books. They did one for the “Middle East,”  which includes — yes — Al-Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building, and a list for “Africa” that includes Naguib Mahfouz’s Children of Gabalawi, which, if I remember correctly, they originally attributed to Tayeb Salih when the list first appeared.

The two Egyptian writers on their lists are, naturally, men.

The New York Times

The New York Times had a “A Reading List for the Egypt Crisis” in February 2011. The “Egypt Crisis” list begins with nonfiction by Mary Anne Weaver, Max Rodenbeck, Barry Rubin, Giles Kepel, Lawrence Wright, Lee Smith, and ends, naturally, with Albert Hourani.

Egyptians do get to write their own fiction on this all-male list, which includes: Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy and his Cairo ModernAl-Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building (again), Sonallah Ibrahim’s Zaat (which, in Anthony Calderbank’s translation, is out of print),and Taha Hussein’s early twentieth century memoir The DaysLike the other list-makers, Alexander Star fails to name the translators, nor does he seem particularly concerned about whether the translations were artistic or flat-footed.

Star further — and a bit oddly, unless this is a family friend — suggests: “Readers interested in assessing American influence in Egypt might turn to Master of Games by the longtime CIA officer Miles Copeland Jr.. Copeland, the father of Stewart Copeland, the drummer for the Police, and Miles Copeland III, the record producer, relates (and perhaps embellishes) his elaborate efforts to keep General Nasser from slipping into the Soviet orbit.”

‘The Egyptian Novels’

Apropos of nothing, while searching for lists, I found Pan MacMillion’s series “The Egyptian Novels,” written by Wilbur Smith.

5 Books

The website 5 Books ran a list where “Humphrey Davies recommends the best of Contemporary Egyptian Literature.

Now, I am a fan of Davies, who is certainly well-read enough to suggest a list of “bests.” But he seems to be trying to craft a list that’s fresh, contemporary, and accessible. It lacks Davies’ seventeenth-century favorite Brains Confounded, for instance. Indeed, the list tends to hit a single note. The all-male list starts with The Yacoubian Building, naturally. Two others are also books that Davies translated: Ahmed Alaidy’s Being Abbas el Abd and Khaled al-Berry’s memoir of not becoming a jihadi, Life is More Beautiful Than Paradise. The other two are Khaled Al Khamissi’s popular novel Taxi, translated by Jonathan Wright, and Magdy al-Shafee’s graphic novel Metro, translated by Chip Rossetti.

The Millions

The Millions has a list of “Six Egyptian Writers You Don’t Know But You Should,” which is always a strange claim. The list starts out by gratuitously mentioning Alaa Al-Aswany, even though he won’t appear as one of the six, since you are assumed to already know him from all the lists above.

The next writer mentioned is Naguib Mahfouz, just to get him out of the way, although he also isn’t one of the six. The six are: Mansoura Ez Eldin, Youssef Ziedan, Bahaa Taher, Muhammad Aladdin, and Nawal El Saadawi. I’m not sure what criteria the list-maker is using, so it’s hard to assess these six. (You should know them for a trivia night? For your personal enlightenment? To impress strangers at a party?) I would say Nawal El Saadawi (b. 1931) is a writer that many people already do know. After all, she is the second most-translated Arabic-language writer (into English), and her work is widely taught in university curricula as a representative of Egyptian feminism.

Travel Websites

I found a “Best Books to Read About Egypt Before You Go” that was in circulation on several travel websites.

Apparently, Michael Oondatje’s The English Patient “definitely sets the scene for adventures into Egypt with rich desert landscapes, all the romance of archaeological discoveries and the tense buildup to WWII.” I mean, sure! This novel will definitely prepare you to view all your Egyptian experiences through the lens of a Canadian historical novel, if that’s your desire.

The list doubles down with The Secret Life of Laszlo Almasy: The Real English Patient by John Bierman and The Lost Oasis: The True Story Behind The English Patient by Saul Kelly. The next fiction to appear on the list is The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell and Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie, followed by Asterix and Cleopatra.

The last paragraph suddenly remembers that Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for Literature and that there are “women writers like Nawal El Saadawi and Alifa Rifaat,” although what exactly they’ve written remains a mystery.

A quick listicle of eight books by Egyptian women, originally in Arabic, that you might like:


Iman Mersal’s How to Heal: Motherhood and Its Ghosts (tr. Robin Moger)

Arwa Salih’s The Stillborn: Notebooks of a Woman from the Student-Movement Generation in Egypt (tr. Samah Selim)

Classic fiction

Latifa al-Zayyat’s The Open Door (tr. Marilyn Booth)

Radwa Ashour’s Siraaj (tr. Barbara Romaine)

Graphic novels

Donia Maher’s The Apartment in Bab El-Louk (art by Ganzeer and Ahmed Nady, tr. Elisabeth Jaquette)

Deena Mohamed’s Shubeik Lubeik (forthcoming in her own translation)


Iman Mersal’s Until We Give Up the Idea of Houses (tr. Robyn Creswell, forthcoming); until then, some poems available online

Fatima Qandil’s My House Has Two Doors (not yet in translation)