Wednesday, October 9, 2013

An Egyptian Fiction Primer

There was something slightly unsatisfying about the classes on the politics and history of the Middle East that I took as an undergraduate. Something about the texture of life? The truth beneath the truth? I couldn’t articulate that feeling, but I picked up Naguib Mahfouz’s The Cairo Trilogy, a dense family epic that spans the two world wars. I didn’t put it down for two weeks, and when I swam back up for air, 900 pages later, I pulled out my laptop and looked up study abroad programs.
I kept reading Egyptian fiction as I studied at the American University in Cairo, in 2009, and then became a journalist and returned for a year in 2011. It’s a constant feature of Egyptian literature to incorporate specific, real locations. With a few exceptions, nobody sets their scenes “somewhere in Cairo.” They pick a neighborhood, a block, an alley, or a street corner. I’d read a story or novel set in an area, and then travel to it, and while I never knew exactly what I was looking for, fiction reshaped the way I understood my surroundings. It made reality feel more vibrant, like the feeling you’d have reading Faulkner and then driving through Mississippi.
But even if you haven’t traveled to Egypt, and don’t plan to, you can learn a vast amount beyond the headlines through Egyptian literature. Here’s an introduction to some of the big names in translation, organized loosely by theme over the benchmarks of the last few years: the first protests, military rule, the elections, and the coup. Not all Egyptian fiction is political, of course, but in a country that has been roiled by upheaval for decades, many novels take political events as their starting point or background.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

On Piety: Egypt, Islam, and the Muslim Brotherhood

I've got a short essay up at The Revealer about the current violence in Egypt. Writing this involved digging back through some of the anthropological studies I pored over while writing my thesis on sound in Cairo in 2010. 

“The first thing he asked me was to make wearing the headscarf mandatory in Egypt,” said Gamel Abdel Nasser, addressing a crowd from behind a bank of microphones. The first Egyptian president was describing a meeting with the head of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1953. At this point their relationship was still cordial, although his government would later arrest and torture members of the movement.
The crowd, however, was not cordial. “Let him wear it,” someone shouted. Others laughed. Nasser grinned. Egyptian women, especially in cities, seldom covered their hair.
“If you cannot make one girl — who is your own daughter — wear the headscarf,” he said, “how do you expect me to make 10 million women wear the headscarf, all by myself?”

Monday, April 29, 2013

The Death of Egypt's Jewish Leader

Earlier this month, Carmen Weinstein, who for decades had led Egypt’s dwindling Jewish community, died at her home in Cairo. She was 82. Obituaries ran in The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. But the irony was she never in her life granted these publications interviews. Lucette Lagnado, a Wall Street Journal reporter and a bestselling-memoir-writing Egyptian Jew herself, wrote of Weinstein, “I found her tough, acerbic, abrasive, combative-and brave. I tried to woo her, citing my background as a fellow Cairene-Jew. But she had no use for journalists and regarded us with suspicion.”

profiled Weinstein for The Revealer last year, and found that she took an interest in me only because I had written about a Passover seder on my own blog, and had not told her I had a journalistic interest in her community (the difference between a blog and a more official publication seemed clear to her, if not to me). One afternoon when my mother was visiting me in Egypt from the U.S., we had all shared a coffee in the back office of her family’s print shop in downtown Cairo, near a McDonald’s and dozens of clothing stores. Her desk was piled high with stacks of paper that framed her queen-like, austere presence. As I told her how my father, a Jew, had left Syria — choosing the path she had always refused, leaving a place of birth because it was no longer welcoming — I detected some warmth and understanding. And I do mean “detected.” You really had to be paying attention.

Read the rest at The Revealer

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

On Sonallah Ibrahim's 'That Smell'

Few non-Western countries are granted the cultural space to have more than one literary representative to the English-speaking public. Often, a Nobel Prize marks out that space. For Turkey, there’s Orhan Pamuk. For China, right now at least, it’s Mo Yan.
For Egypt, over the last half a century, it was always Naguib Mahfouz, author of the magisterial “Cairo Trilogy” and “Children of the Alley.” Most of his works have been translated, The Paris Review has interviewed him, The New Yorker extensively reported his 1995 assassination attempt, and The New York Times ran an obituary when he died in 2006. Because of his international recognition, he is a towering figure in Egyptian literature. His novels are easy to find in Cairo’s bookshops, and his statue overlooks a busy square from behind his trade-mark tinted glasses.
But right at this moment, two years after a revolution that may have ushered in years of social upheaval, Mahfouz’s sharply etched realism and the epic scale of his most famous novels don’t square with the Egypt of the American imagination, an Egypt of politics, protest, and tear gas. Mahfouz wasn’t a dissident—he held a government job for years—and so his fiction, while the guiding light of a literary revolution, doesn’t have the ring of political revolution.
For that we have Sonallah Ibrahim, a 73-year old novelist who was once jailed for his Communist activism and whose first work, That Smell, was recently published in a new translation by Robyn Creswell, poetry editor at The Paris Review and a professor of comparative literature at Brown University.
Really more of a monologue than a novel, That Smell is the first-person story of a man who has just been released from prison. Ibrahim himself spent most of his twenties as a political prisoner under Nasser, and he felt that in order to capture the daze of reentry into regular society he needed a new style, which he later called “telegraphic,” influenced by the newspaper copy he had written as a journalist.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Destiny and Defiance in Port Said

“Don’t go to Port Said,” a security guard told me in February 2012, standing on a street corner near the train station in Ismailia, about an hour away, down along the Suez Canal. “It’s a dangerous city, filled with thugs.” He shook his head and looked resigned. It was just a few weeks after the news had come out of Port Said; news of a soccer game turned violent, of beatings in the stadium, of knives and swords and stones and fists and dozens of dead. 

Read the rest at The Revealer