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.