Friday Finds: Excerpts from a New ‘Penguin Classic’ Edition of Youssef Idris’s ‘Cheapest Nights’

Earlier this week, Penguin Classics brought their second modern classic from Egypt, a new edition of Yusuf Idris’s The Cheapest Nights in Wadida Wassef’s 1978 translation. The book has a new foreword by Ezzedine Choukri Fishere:

An English translation of this book, the best-known of Youssef Idris’s short-story collections, was originally released as part of Heinemann’s classic “African Writers Series,” which launched in 1957.

It later reappeared from Lynne Reiners’ “Three Continents Press” imprint in 1989, but also fell out of print.

Now, Penguin has added it to their Classics imprint. It’s their second modern Egyptian classic, following their reprint of William Hutchins’ translation of Tawfiq al-Hakim’s Return of the SpiritIn this case, the paperback edition is listed for a surprising $18. For that much, one might expect a re-translation.

Fishere’s foreword, titled, “How Yusuf Idris’s Stories Upended Respectability Politics in Egypt,” appeared this week on LitHub. In it, Fishere writes:

Each of Idris’s short stories—and I think I have read them all—has common characteristics: a surgical style; an economical use of language, hostile to the redundancy, hyperbole, and melodrama that characterize much of Arabic fiction before him. You can easily cut his stories into scenes and film them without much change. Some of these are one‑scene stories, often the more powerful ones. 

Penguin has also made an excerpt of the collection available on their website. It comes from the titular story, “The Cheapest Nights,” and opens in a translation that seems the same as in previous editions, “A little after evening prayers a torrent of abuse gushing out of Abdel Kerim came pouring down on the entire village, sweeping Tantawi and all his ancestors in its wake.”