I have found myself thinking about great Egyptian fiction in the last few weeks, as the protesters in Cairo filled the news and swept over my thoughts. Below are a handful of books that delve into modern Egypt and allow for the complexity of all that has happened surrounding the end of Hosni Mubarak's presidency.
A few titles I've loved:
The Map of Love, by Ahdaf Soueif (Anchor Books, 2000)
This parallel love story spans England, the U.S. and Egypt, and numerous generations. The novel begins with Isabel and the Egyptian-American conductor she's fallen in love with in 1977 New York, while also following Isabel as she retraces the love affair between her great-grandmother, Anna, and the Egyptian nationalist she loved a hundred years prior. This book is intense, full of politics, yet also seductive and beautiful.
The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al-Aswany (Harper Perennial, 2006)
In an apartment building in central Cairo stands the Yacoubian Building, full of different Egyptians simultaneously going about their lives. Al-Aswany attempts to chronicle many of the buildings' tenants in this intense fictional web that displays contemporary Egyptian society.
Midaq Alley, by Naguib Mahfouz. (Anchor Books, first published in 1966 in English)
Mahfouz is the most widely translated and sold Egyptian author internationally, and he won the Nobel Prize for Literature after this title was published in 1966. At the center of his books are Egyptian politics, and this book takes place in 1940s Cairo, as Egypt struggles to become a "modern" nation. This novel follows the lives of a rich and complicated cast of characters. Also try Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy, which begins with "Palace Walk".
I Loved You For Your Voice, by Selim Nassib (translated from French, Europa Editions, 2006)
Nassib is actually a Lebanese author, but this book is fitting because it's a fictional account of the legendary Egyptian singer, Umm Kulthum, a massive cultural icon of the 20th century, and a fierce Egyptian nationalist. The novel is told from the perspective of Ahmed Rami, the poet who wrote many of the lyrics for Umm Kulthum's songs, and who is desperately in love with her in this novel.
And for children:
The Illustrator's Notebook, by Mohieddin Ellabad (Groundwood Books, 2006)
Ellabad is a cartoonist and illustrator in Cairo by profession, yet this is his childhood memoir (of sorts). The book is a collage of his childhood growing up in Egypt, all beautifully pieced together and commented upon. One side of the page has the original Arabic text, and on the opposite page is the English translation.
Goha, the Wise Fool, by Denys Davies-Johnson & illustrated by Hag Hamdy & Hany (Philomel, 2005)
This collection of "Goha" tales (known elsewhere in the Arab World as "Joha") is hilarious and witty. As always, Goha gets himself in and out of trouble in ways that will make the whole family laugh out loud. The illustrations are done by two well-known Egyptian artists who stitched the panels together in this traditional form of Egyptian quilting, called khiyamiyas.
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