During law school I spent a summer in Egypt. I made many friends and read my fair share of books. Someone once said to understand a people, read their poetry. I’m not a poetry fan, but here are some of the best Egyptian authors or books about Egypt that I have read. I don’t read Arabic, so my choices are only from those works that have been translated into English.
Mafouz, Nobel laureate, victim of an assassination attempt, and for many years, the voice of Egypt, towers over Arab literature. He is by far the most popular and important Arab writer of the twentieth century. He was very prolific, and most of it is good. I’ll highlight just a couple.
The best by far is the Cairo Trilogy. Written in the expansive, meandering style of 19th century European novels, the Cairo Trilogy tracks the history of the modernization of Egypt through the story of one family in old Cairo. Its massive, but the pages fly by quickly. I would recommend this book even if Cairo was not the lead story on the news every evening.
Notably, a large number of Mafouz’s books have been turned into films. In the Arab world, the films adaptations are sometimes more recognizable than the novels themselves. I met multiple people in Cairo who did not know the Trilogy were books.
Another lesser-known work by Mafouz, Adrift on the Nile, is also worth a look, especially in these times. One of Mafouz’s more overtly political books, it addresses the lack of political will in the upper classes of Egypt, especially amongst artists and writers. Adift takes places in the 1960s, in the time of Nasser, but the story could have been told in the Cairo of 2007. Disenfranchised and decadent artists uninterested in the political future of their country populate the novel. That was, until last week, a common criticism of the youth of Egypt today.
Obviously, everything has changed, but Adrfit on the Nile is still a good portrayal of the kind of decadent ennui that has been a factor in Egyptian culture for some time.
Nawal El Saadawi
The great feminist writer of Egypt has been a voice for women’s rights and social justice for going on ninety years. Her autobiography, Memoirs from the Women’s Prison, shows you in uncomfortable detail just what it meant to be a dissent under the Mubarak regime.
Because I don’t read Arabic it is hard to know if Saadwi doesn’t have translators as good as Mafouz or if her writing is not are strong, but her books sometimes are not as well writtern (or translated), as Mafouz’s work. That does not take away from their emotional power. Her novel Woman at Point Zero, about the horrific treatment of one woman in Egyptian society, is extremely disturbing and moving. I read it years ago and the thought of it still puts me ill at ease.
Nothing about Saadawi’s life has been easy, and neither are her books. But they are worth the effort, and she is worth celebrating for her incredible courage.
Alla Al Aswany
Aswany is a younger voice in Egyptian literature*, and his novel The Yacoubian Building is a must read. Portraying the goings on in an apartment building in Cairo, it was among the first novels in Arabic to honestly discuss homosexuality and hints at the complex role of the Muslim Brotherhood in modern Egyptian society. Perhaps not the greatest work of literature, it is amongst the most honest portrayals of Egyptian society that you will find in English.
Rodenbeck is not Egyptian, but his book Cairo: The City Victorious is a wonderful love letter to the city. Cairo can be a cruel mistress; its dirty, loud, insanely crowded, full of injustices large and small, and, in my experience at least, can be exhausting and frustrating. Rodenbeck acknowledges all that, and still loves the place. His enthusiasm for the city, warts and all, pulls you in. Read this, and go see the place for yourself after the current crisis calms down.
*It tells you something about the state of Egyptian literature that a “younger” voice was born in 1957.