Category: Egypt

Sonallah Ibrahim: العمامة والقبعة (The Turban and the Hat)

The latest addition to my website is Sonallah Ibrahim‘s العمامة والقبعة (The Turban and the Hat). The novel takes place during the French occupation of Egypt from 1798 to 1801. The historical figure Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti wrote the only surviving account of the occupation from the Egyptian point of view. In this novel, the unnamed narrator mirrors the account by al-Jabarti, his teacher, but unlike al-Jabarti, gives the account from the point of view of the ordinary people. We follow his story, including an affair with Pauline Fourès, a historical figure who was also Napoleon’s mistress. However, we see the changes and chaos following the French occupation, made more awkward (for the French) by the English blockade, Napoleon’s incursion into Syria and a plague epidemic. However, while this is interesting, following the machinations of our hero both as regards his love life and his perspective on the occupation is what makes this such a worthwhile novel.

Ghazi Algosaibi: شقة الحرية (An Apartment Called Freedom)

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The latest addition to my website is Ghazi Algosaibi‘s شقة الحرية (An Apartment Called Freedom). This novel takes place between 1956 and 1961, primarily in Cairo and follows a group of young men, primarily Bahraini, who have gone to Cairo to study. As well as their studies, they pursue other activities. Girls are their main interest but all of them, one way or another, get involved in politics of varying kinds. Nasser is in power and Fuad, our hero and presumably based on the author, is a keen supporter and eventually gets to meet him. Fuad and one other pursue a writing career with some success. They are young men at university with all that entails but also Arab nationalists and Muslims in a period when there is great upheaval in the Arab world, not least because of the Suez Crisis. It is certainly a fascinating book, not least because Westerners will be able to identify with them in some respects but not in others.

Mohamed Kheir: عباصلأا تلافإة (Slipping)

The latest addition to my website is Mohamed Kheir‘s عباصلأا تلافإة (Slipping). This book is seemingly a book of separate stories but, gradually, they nearly all get some connection to one of the two main themes. The first is the story of Seif, a magazine journalist who has to show Bahr, an Egypian exile round Alexandria but it is Bahr who leads him around showing him a completely and recently abandoned village, killer flowers and a way to almost get killed by trams. Meanwhile, the other theme is the government’s attempt to reduce people’s spare time, as they might use it to cause trouble, by increasing bureaucracy and we learn of the people who get caught out by this. Other stories involve a massive private hospital for just one person and a man who is firmly controlled by his dead father. The stories are all highly imaginative, often involving death and/or loss and are enhanced once we make the connections.

Sonallah Ibrahim: االلجن وردة (Warda)

The latest addition to my website is Sonallah Ibrahim‘s االلجن وردة (Warda). This tells the story of Rushdy, a left-wing Egyptian, who has spent time in prison for his political activities. When younger he had met and fallen for Shahla. She and her brother went off to Oman to fight in the Dhofar Rebellion, and Shahla, taking the name Warda (meaning Rose), leads a guerilla troop. Rushdy, visiting, some thirty years later, a cousin who is living in Oman, is determined to track down Warda who seems to have disappeared. He gradually gets hold of her diaries and we follow her troop and her views on the left-wing political events of the day, with Warda and her comrades convinced that the triumphant march forward will bring liberation for the Arab peoples. Meanwhile Rushdy is finding contemporary(i.e. 1992) politics are more complicated than he realised as he travels round Oman looking for Warda. Lost love meets politics in a fine novel.

Ashraf El-Ashmawi: اال>سيدة الزمالك، (The Lady of Zamalek)

The latest addition to my website is Ashraf El-Ashmawi‘s اال>سيدة الزمالك، (The Lady of Zamalek). This novel covers Egypt from the beginning of World War II to almost the end of the twentieth century, focussing on Abbas Mahalawi, a young Egyptian, who, initially, looks as though he is going be a young man made good but soon turns out to be a young man made bad, as he makes lots of money and gains power by totally unscrupulous means, starting with his involvement in a historical robbery and murder. Corruption, lying, cheating, bribery, fraud, using and misusing family members and friends and murder are his stock in trade. He is surrounded by a host of characters, including some historical characters (both King Farouk and Nasser make an appearance), nearly all of whom are as corrupt as he is. The women often do badly, forced into marriages they do not want, but Abbas’s sister Zeinab turns out to be as unscrupulous as her brother and even his daughter, Nadia is not averse to cheating and deception. It is a fascinating portrait of a totally corrupt and immoral society.

Taha Hussein: دعاء الكروان (The Call of the Curlew)

The latest addition to my website is Taha Hussein‘s دعاء الكروان (The Call of the Curlew). Taha Hussein is considered as one of the greatest Egyptian novelists but is also noted for his liberal views and for the fact that he earned academic and political distinction as well, despite being blind from the age of three. This novel tells of a mother and two adult daughters, who are forced to leave their village in shame when their husband/father is killed for his womanising. They find work elsewhere but one of the daughters, Hanadi, is seduced by her employer, an engineer, and again they have to leave. Hanadi is murdered by her uncle for bringing further shame on the family while her sister, Amina vows revenge on the engineer. Hussein tells his story well and is clearly full of sympathy for the hapless women, innocent victims of a male society.

Youssef Ziedan: عزازيل (Azazeel)

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The latest addition to my website is Youssef Ziedan‘s عزازيل (Azazeel). This is a brilliant book, set in the fifth century A.D., telling the story of Hypa, an Egyptian Christian monk, who travel around the Middle East (modern Egypt, Syria, Israel and Turkey). Hypa is caught up in the religious disputes between the early Christians and the pagans (his father, a pagan, is murdered by Christians) but also in the dispute between Bishop Cyril and Bishop Nestorius, with Hypa supporting Nestorius. Unlike the dogmatic people he meets, both pagan and Christian, Hypa tends to take a more tolerant attitude, favouring sexual relationships for monks and learning from the pagans and not just from Christian sources. He is also subject to many doubts, as good heroes often are, urged on by Azazeel, i.e. the Devil. Whatever your views of religion and religious dogma, this is a first-class and most entertaining novel.

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