13 Books in Translation: A Literary History of Egypt After 2011

Many Egyptian literary works set in or after 2011 were composed in Arabic, English, and other languages, ranging from hastily conceived memoirs to epic poems to plays to surrealist short stories to future-set novels. Relatively few of the works written in Arabic have been translated to English; of those, nearly all focus on Cairo.

Still, these thirteen books (six novels, three works of literary nonfiction, a graphic novel, a poetry collection, a short-story collection, and a collection of playtexts) provide a not-insubstantial literary landscape of contrasting visions and emotions:

Novels

Cigarette No. 7, Donia Kamal, tr Nariman Youssef (2012, translation 2018 Hoopoe Fiction)

The author said, of her book, that “if there was one concrete motivation for me to write, it was that through everything that had happened since January 2011, with every small or big development, I’d find myself wondering what my father would have done if he were alive. What advice would he have given me? How revolutionary would he have been? The questions haunted me, and I needed to finally sit down and explore them.Read an excerpt on the Hoopoe website.

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The Crocodiles, Youssef Rakha, tr. Robin Moger (2012, translation 2014 Seven Stories Press)

This novel, composed in short prose-poem-like sections, is set against the backdrop of Tahrir Square, as its narrator looks back at its secret poetry group, in a Bolañoesque exploration of poetry, sex, suicide, and the meaning of revolution. Read an excerpt on the Penguin Random House website.

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The Queue, Basma Abdelaziz, tr Lissie Jaquette (2013, translation 2016 Melville House Press)

This surreal, slow-burn novel is a portrait of citizens facing down an ever-slipperier state that gaslights them at every turn and refuses to acknowledge the most basic facts. In it, a centralized authority known as “the Gate” has risen to power in the aftermath of the “Disgraceful Events,” or a failed popular uprising. The Gate never opens, and life in the queue in front of it grows increasingly more complex. Read an excerpt on LitHub.

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Otared, Mohamed Rabie, tr Moger (2014, translation 2016 Hoopoe Fiction)

This future-set novel is a narrative of luminous, riveting anger at state-sponsored violence and its effects, and was shortlisted both for the Sawiris Prize and the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Moger has called it a “quite extraordinary, weird, epic book. Deeply upsetting (and I mean emotionally affecting, not shocking) in parts (I found some of it hard to read) shocking in parts, but always haunted and terrifying.” Read an excerpt on the Hoopoe Fiction website.

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Slipping, Mohamed Kheir, tr Robin Moger (2018, translation 2021 Two Lines)

Many novelists had this musical, magical, elliptical novel on their list of favorites of 2018. From the publisher’s description: “A struggling journalist named Seif is introduced to a former exile with an encyclopedic knowledge of Egypt’s obscure, magical places. Together, as explorer and guide, they step into the fragmented, elusive world the Arab Spring left behind.” Read an excerpt of Slipping at LitHub.

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Here is a Body, Basma Abdelaziz, tr Jonathan Wright (2018, translation 2021 Hoopoe Fiction)

This terrifying, un-put-downable novel is told in alternating perspectives: that of a street child swept up and trained to work for the state, and that of a woman living at the Rabaa al-Adawiya Square encampment in the lead-up to the Rabaa massacre. The two story lines eventually come together in a horrifying conclusion that the reader wishes they had the power to stop. The author said, in an interview translated by Wright, “The idea for Here Is a Body had been flourishing in my mind over the past few years. It grew out of an event I had witnessed closely, at least partly, and I felt crushed by its monstrous details. No one dared to stop it. No one could even talk frankly about it and accusations arose as a way to deter anyone who tried to highlight the crimes.” Read an excerpt on the Hoopoe Fiction website.

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Graphic novels

Apartment in Bab El Louk, Donia Maher, ill. Ganzeer and Ahmed Nady, tr Elisabeth Jaquette (2014, translation 2018 Darf Books)

A prize-winning noir poem of a graphic novel gives us small stories, including protest, through the eyes a recluse in the downtown Cairo neighborhood of Bab El-Louk. Read an excerpt on Words Without Borders.

Also: World War Three Illustrated, issues #42 and #43, feature original translations of comix by Egyptian cartoonists Ahmad Nady, Ganzeer, and Magdy El Shafee on Egypt’s mass protests.

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Nonfiction

You Have Not Yet Been Defeated, Alaa Abd el-Fattah, tr collective (2011-2021, translation 2021 Fitzcarraldo)

A collection of “living history,” in the words of the editors, that opens in July 2011 and collects essays, tweets, Facebook posts, extemporaneous speeches, and collaborative literary writing by activist and thinker Alaa Abd el-Fattah. Moving, informative, and thought-provoking, the collection gives a portrait of all life from inside an Egyptian prison. Read an excerpt on the Fitzcarraldo website.

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Revolution Is My Name, Mona Prince, tr Samia Mehrez (2012, translation 2014 AUC Press)

Mona Prince’s self-published thoughts, feelings, and impressions of the original “18 days” (January 25- Feb 11) that preceded Hosni Mubarak stepping down from power, which she carried around with her and hand-sold. Read an excerpt on the IB Taurus website.

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Book of Sleep, Haytham ElWardany, tr Robin Moger (2017, translation 2020 Seagull Books)

As ElWardany said in a 2018 interview, “What happened on June 30 happened, the defeat came to pass, and it was then that I started to take the subject [of sleep] seriously. It’s true that the book isn’t about the revolution and its defeat but it is haunted by the political through the discussion of sleep and its attempt to escape the conventional portrayal of sleep as a surrender, a laziness, an anti-activity.” You can read excerpts on Minor Literature[s]

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Plays

Tahrir Tales: Plays from the Egyptian Revolution, ed. Rebekkah Maggor and Mohammed Albakry (various, translation 2016 Seagull Books)

The ten plays in this collection are set just before, during, and in the wake of the Tahrir Square demonstrations, reflecting and engaging events in Egypt through 2013. Read the introduction to the collection on Academia.Edu.

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Poetry

The Tahrir of Poems: Seven Contemporary Egyptian Poets, ed. Maged Zaher (various, translation 2014 Alice Blue)

In the introduction, Zaher writes: “Most of these poets participated in the demonstrations and sit-ins in Tahrir against Mubarak, in 2011. But they also had their own aesthetic revolution against the barrenness of the cultural life under Mubarak.” The seven poets are Ibrahim El-Sayed, Malaka Badr, Tamer Fathi, Amira Hanafi, Hermes, Ahmed Nada, and Aya Nabih. 

From a poem by Hermes, tr. Zaher: “Politicians are also asleep in our military state. / The soldiers are magnetized standing up on earth. / Slaves of gravity and projectiles.” Read excerpts and an interview with Zaher at The Stranger.

Short story collections & anthologies

Book of Cairo: A City in Short Fiction, ed. Raph Cormack (various, translation 2019 Comma Press)

This collection features stories by Hassan Abdel MawgoudEman AbdelrahimNael EltoukhyAreej GamalHatem HafezHend JaʿfarNahla KaramMohamed KheirAhmed Naji, and Mohamed Salah al-Azab. Cormack said, in an interview, that when he began assembling this book in 2017, “I didn’t start with the idea of doing a kind of ‘post-Arab Spring Cairo’ book but I felt it made more sense of the stories to frame it in this way. Also, I don’t think I found any Revolution-based short stories that I really liked. It might take a few years yet before people really figure out how to turn that period into a great short story.” Listen to a discussion of the anthology with editor Raph Cormack on the Borderless Book Club podcast on Spotify / Google Podcasts / Apple Podcasts and read an interview with editor Raph Cormack on ArabLit.

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Compiled by M Lynx Qualey, with assistance from Twitter.

Also:

Eternal Nightmares of the Hounded Mind: On ‘Post-Revolutionary Egyptian Dystopias’

On Jadaliyya:

Revolution Bookshelf: Blacklist

Revolution Bookshelf: Revolution is My Name

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2 thoughts on “13 Books in Translation: A Literary History of Egypt After 2011

  1. Incredibly useful. Gives a relative outsider something to hold on to when navigating this vast literary ocean. Many thanks for a great post, again!

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