Two very different Egyptian novels appear in translation this month:
Sonallah Ibrahim has had a complicated relationship with English translation. His seminal That Smell is available in two different translations, by Robyn Creswell and Denys Johnson-Davies, and his classic The Committee was co-translated by Charlene Constable and Mary St. Germain. His beloved and popular novel Zaat, adapted into an acclaimed TV series, was translated by Anthony Calderbank and published by AUC Press, but is now out of print. After his luminous Stealth was published in Hosam Aboul-Ela’s translation, the publisher went out of business shortly after. However, fortunately, the novel’s translation was picked up by New Directions Press.
This month Ibrahim’s Warda, a novel set in published in 2000 and set in mid-century Cairo, Beirut, and Muscat, appears from Yale University Press. The titular Warda, a fighter in the Dhofar rebellion (1963-1976), is a skillfully crafted character, lighting the way through this wide-lens novel look at Omani history as it ties into the histories of surrounding nations.
Dawn was breaking as we climbed a rough track through wracks of scrub. We rose with the hillside, the Nile we had crossed like saints falling away behind us, broad and still and unobtrusive, its either bank lined with a thin strip of high palms and indeterminate herbage. And just as we were beginning to pant, there, suddenly, was an opening in the slope’s rocky folds, scarcely large enough to admit a grown man, and in this opening, from within, fingers were beckoning to us. So we bent and entered.
I had been expecting quiet, so the voices and blur of movement took me by surprise. When my eyes had adjusted to the light I saw a large gathering seated on the ground, most of them women and children, and caught the scent of incense in the air. Overhead the sun was rising shyly, preceded by its rays which, an expertly placed spotlight, fell against a bright and almost blank white wall facing us.
As author Muhammad Abdelnabi said at the time, in the novel Kheir “approaches the fantasy world without exaggeration, in a very controlled manner and with a precise tone.”