What are the best books on...

Literature

Humphrey Davies recommends the best of

Contemporary Egyptian Literature

One of the leading translators of contemporary Egyptian literature, Humphrey Davies, gives us his top choices.

  • 1

    The Yacoubian Building
    by Alaa Al Aswany

  • 2

    On Being Abbas El Abd
    by Ahmed Alaidy

  • 3

    Life Is More Beautiful than Paradise
    by Khaled al-Berry

  • 4

    Taxi
    by Khalid Al Khamissi

  • 5

    Metro
    by Magdy El Shafee

Humphrey Davies

Humphrey Davies is one of the foremost contemporary Arabic-English literary translators, and has translated a wide variety of Arabic works, dating from the Ottoman period to the present day. He has lived in Cairo for the past 35 years. He is a two-time winner of the Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation.

Save for later

Humphrey Davies

Humphrey Davies is one of the foremost contemporary Arabic-English literary translators, and has translated a wide variety of Arabic works, dating from the Ottoman period to the present day. He has lived in Cairo for the past 35 years. He is a two-time winner of the Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation.

Save for later
 

Editor’s note: This interview was conducted on 9 February 2011 — two days before Hosni Mubarak resigned as Egyptian president.

Are many members of the expat community spending time in the Square?

Some of them are. I’ve been down once, not more than that. I personally feel a little awkward pretending to be an Egyptian, even though I’ve lived here for 35 years, to the degree of actually shouting slogans that concern Egyptians and only an Egyptian can say with true sincerity. Meanwhile I entirely support what they’re doing and I try and support it by doing what I can do, which is being a translator.

I love your choice of books, and especially liked the phrase you used in your email to describe them — that they ‘may help the non-Egyptian reader to understand where Egyptians are at’.

Yes. They’re all recently written; the oldest was published in Arabic in 2002. They all deal with or reflect some of the main themes in present-day Egyptian society and life.

Your first book is Alaa Al Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building.

The Yacoubian Builiding is celebrated, possibly even notorious, for being a real bestseller — originally in Egypt and the Arab world and subsequently in the West, in English and in many other languages. It tells the story of a building in downtown Cairo, and the changes that have affected the building and its inhabitants. So it encapsulates the last 80 years of Egyptian history and it provides a series of extremely sharply drawn sketches of what you might call archetypal figures of our day. You have the ageing aristocrat; you have the doorkeeper’s son who becomes a terrorist when his career ambitions are thwarted by the system. There’s a corrupt mega-businessman who winds up trying to battle the government when it wants to take what he considers too big a bite of his business — and a whole range of other poor and middle class characters who are adapting to the situation as best they can. It’s beautifully written; it’s incredibly readable; it’s often very funny — and I suspect it will go on being read for many years as a kind of portrait of Egypt on the eve of the events that are taking place now.

So it rings true? These are people you do actually meet?

I find them incredibly recognisable people, yes.

One of the reviews said it was ‘gripping’, which seems like a good sign.

Oh yes. I don’t suppose this was in the author’s mind, but it almost feels like a soap opera. Each new story, each thread, is taken to a certain point — and then he leaves it just at the point when you’re really, really keen to know what happens next and moves on to a different thread. It’s very deftly written.

Next you’ve chosen On Being Abbas El Abd, by Ahmed Alaydi

This book is totally different, conceptually and in style, from the one we were just talking about. It’s a wickedly complex tale. People debate what actually takes place in the book. It’s about a terminally grumpy twenty-something negotiating Cairo’s shopping malls and high-rises. The book as a whole reflects a culture that will be familiar to anybody in Egypt, who sits, as so many here do, at that meeting point between global culture — the internet and the cellphone and so on — and Egyptian street life, the general craziness (and, in the case of this book, the literal craziness) of Cairo. I’ll use a word that will only reveal my age and total squareness when I say it’s very hip. I’m sure there are better words than that now. It’s funny and very smart and fairly weird.

Is it all about madness? What’s the opening line?

The introduction is entitled, ‘An Introduction You Can Suck or Shove’, and it starts off with: ‘She wasn’t a corpse yet.’ But yes: the main protagonist, Abbas El Abd, meets somebody at a psychodrama therapy session that he is attending for reasons that are gradually revealed during the book. (They have something to do with his uncle, who was an experimental psychiatrist who rather overstepped the bounds when he raised his nephew.) So madness is very much at the heart of the book, and there’s a wonderful, several page long list of phobias at one point – most of which, it would seem, the protagonist suffers from himself.

How does the protagonist fit with the stereotype that seems to feature in every newspaper article about Egypt – the disgruntled youth?

I wouldn’t go too far down that route, because the hero, or the anti-hero, is not exactly suffering from serious socio-economic problems. He’s not poor; he’s not unemployed. He works in a video store — which is, of course, slightly dated already. He’s disgruntled, but more in the sense of an underlying anger, which is dealt with in a very non-didactic, non-stereotyped way. But there’s a very strong tension running through the book, which perhaps reflects precisely the class to whom the mobilisation of people today is attributed. This is the class of young people who are savvy with the internet, with global communications, and who are totally disenchanted with almost everything about the system in which they’ve grown up. However, you could never call this, on the face of it, a political book. This is a very personal book, though the politics is there in the texture of it.

On to your next book: Life is More Beautiful Than Paradise.

This is a very interesting counterdose to On Being Abbas El Abd. It’s not fiction, but the autobiography of a young man who grew up in a city in Upper Egypt. His parents are middle class and he drifts into joining one of the most important Islamist groups, the Jama’a Islamiya. A few years later, after spending six months in prison, he drifts out again, as he becomes acquainted with, and attracted to, a humanistic, secular world view. But he explores, from the inside, many of the issues that we in the West never gets to grips with about the Islamist movement: the sorts of things that really matter to them, the sorts of debates that they have. Some of it is almost abstruse. But these issues are vitally important to those people, and make it clear why, for example, the Jama’a Islamiya is at daggers drawn with X other Islamist group. It shows the internal debates and jealousies and tensions that exist there. But despite being a very straightforward, insightful exposition of that sort of material, the book never loses sight of the fact — and this is really interesting and nice — that this was a rebellious, grumpy teenager who really cared about what he looked like and the way he wore his hair.

So do you often feel, when you read Western media stories about these groups, that journalists just don’t get it?

Absolutely. They don’t get it because, first of all, they look at them simply as actors on a political stage, and in relationship to the non-Islamist world view. They don’t ever bother to try and get inside the Islamist world view and see what that is. It’s very different, but it’s not without its logic, and it’s carefully elaborated.

Can you give an example from the book?

For me as a non-Islamist it may be difficult to summarise. But there’s a rather interesting passage in which Khaled al-Berry recounts how, one day, he was sitting on his own in the mosque, and a stranger came and sat down next to him and got into conversation with him. The older man raises a very complex issue of theology, and the young man, who is only 14 or 15, realises that he’s swallowed the whole of Jama’a Islamiya’s — his particular group’s — thinking. He’s been told what their stands are on various issues, but he’s never had to think it through, he’s never been subjected to debate. And he doesn’t know how to answer this guy, who, as it turns out, represents a different group and is fishing for new adherents. Then a person from Jama’a Islamiya is furious with him, and says, ‘Don’t ever let yourself get into conversation with a stranger again. If someone comes along you tell me and we’ll deal with them…’

The other thing that’s interesting about this book, and the insider view it gives, is the way the group deals with quite ordinary issues. For example, one of the members of the group turns out to be gay, or is discovered in a compromising situation. How does an Islamist group deal with a gay member?

How does it?

How can an Islamist group even have gay members? Well, life is life, people are people, and some people are gay. And even in Islamist groups some people are gay. So what do you do about it?

Are they able to adapt?

No-oo. Not adapt. No, definitely not. Though they don’t actually finally expel the guy from the group. But they do subject him to very vicious punishment. But how exactly that is handled is really interesting. The author himself asks, ‘But I thought we were all saints, we’re all good — otherwise we wouldn’t be in this movement. So how can somebody break the rules to do something so taboo?’ And he has to deal with that. All the way through it’s a teenager’s voice, and it’s very authentic.

One of the other nice things about this book is that the author scrupulously avoids demonising the Islamists. Right at the beginning, he says, ‘I’m not an Islamist, but some of the best people I knew and ever met in my life were members of that group.’ He has immense respect for some of them, even though he has totally rejected their actual point of view.

What about your next choice, Taxi?

Taxi is a delightful book. It’s 58 short passages each of which is a taxi ride during which the author gets into conversation with the driver. These conversations range over just about every aspect of Egyptian life,  but with a very strong political flavour too — which is the way that conversations with taxi drivers tend to go. It’s very much the view from the street. Obviously the writer is a sophisticated person — he’s a journalist, and he doesn’t try to come off as anything else. But the taxi drivers are taxi drivers, and they represent a wide range of opinion and some are very admirable and some are absolute shits. It’s written largely in Egyptian colloquial, rather than the literary language, and that gives it a lot of the flavour of real life. It rings very, very true – and it’s deceptively easy reading. It’s fun to read but covers a lot of very important subjects in Egyptian society.

There’s a sweet review on Amazon that calls it ‘a book that’ll make you feel guilty you ever tried to bargain down a cab fare in any poor country.’ But is this fiction or non-fiction?

They’re based on real conversations. I’m sure he’s tidied them up and presents them to make them as cogent as possible, but they’re based on real conversations.

Your last choice is a graphic novel, Metro.

Yes. This is the first graphic novel in Arabic. It’s almost uncannily prescient. Its hero is a young computer engineer who is gypped out of his rightful earnings by collusion between corrupt businessmen and foreign companies. He’s initially very against the activism that his girlfriend is involved in. His girlfriend goes on marches and takes part in demonstrations. But, by the end, the hero also feels himself pulled into it. He feels finally convinced of the need to do something.

One thing people have said quite often about the recent demonstrations is that people seem to have lost their fear. And this is one of the things that Magdy wrote about in this book, in 2007. One of the characters says: ‘We’re all in a mousetrap, but no one realises that all we have to do is walk out.’ And elsewhere the hero says something along the lines of, ‘everybody is afraid and that’s what he would most like to see an end to’.

Magdy deals with corruption, street demonstrations, frustrations of young people — not only of the bright middle class, but other characters too. There’s a blind shoeshine man, a young guy in the slums who wants to be a singer, who ends up being killed when he is hired by the police to be a thug to rough up and molest demonstrators…

So really very prescient.

Yes, a very timely book. It was confiscated when it was published. It’s not available in Egypt. Its author was tried and found guilty of offending public morals.

On what grounds?

There is one frame in which a woman’s breasts appear. Of which there are a fair number in the Egyptian Museum of Modern Art, but never mind. They needed an excuse because the real motives were political; that’s fairly obvious. At one point in the book, for example, the hero decides that he is going to rob a bank because he can’t think of any other way to get on in life. When he gets inside the bank, he finds a corrupt politician just about to walk off with a suitcase of cash in an unsecured loan —and the politician bears an unfortunately close resemblance to a known public figure… This almost guaranteed that it would be confiscated. It’s not yet published in English, but it has been translated. The author does have an agent, Will Lippincott, and we hope that it will find a publisher.

Support Five Books

Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you've enjoyed this interview, please support us by donating a small amount, or by visiting our site before you make purchases from Amazon. Since we are enrolled in their affiliate program, we receive a small percentage of any product you buy, at no extra cost to you.