Fulbright Scholar recommends Egyptian literature


Whenever I say that I come from Alexandria, Egypt as a Arabic Fulbright teaching assistant, people here in the US, almost always say that I am so far away from home. Another remark that I hear often is that they’ve never read any books written by “people living in that part of the world,” and they wish to pick up a book, but don’t know where to start. Is reading a book written by an Egyptian as good as traveling to Egypt? I would argue that it can be better, for it can give you insights that traveling alone for a short period of time wouldn’t.

This week, the 45th Cairo International Book Fair is taking place in Cairo, which is the largest yearly cultural event in the Middle East. This year’s slogan is “Culture and Identity” and the honorary literary personality chosen to represent this slogan is Taha Hussein.

He was one of the most influential writers in Egypt, and his name is always associated with the Arab Renaissance that took place in the 20th century. His fictional literary works are full of the smells and flavors of Egypt’s countryside. He is widely read throughout Egypt and the Middle East. The author is unique, as it’s seen through this extract from his Autobiography, “The Days”.

“He perceived that other people had an advantage over him and that his brothers and sisters were able to do things that he could not do and to tackle things that he could not. He felt that his mother permitted his brothers and sisters to do things that were forbidden to him. This aroused, at first, a feeling of resentment, but ere long this feeling of resentment turned to a silent, but heartfelt, grief — when he heard his brothers and sisters describing things about which he had no knowledge at all. Then he knew that they saw what he did not see,” Hussein writes in one of his works.

Taha Hussein was blind. He lost his eyesight at the age of three when a practitioner transcribed a wrong treatment for a simple eye infection. Even though his blindness caused him much bitterness throughout his life, he never let it hinder him. His autobiography was taught in schools in Egypt for many years, and is a favorite book amongst Egyptians.

Another well known writer in Egypt is Naguib Mahfouz. He won the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature. He left a legacy of 34 novels and more than 350 short stories. He is well known for his beautiful prose and for his deep depiction of Egyptians from different walks of life. His works inspired a number of Egyptian movies and TVseries. His description of Cairo in his books has also attracted many foreigners to Egypt just to see its streets and people.

I haven’t read a novel or short story by him that I didn’t like, but if I would pick one of his works as a favorite, it would be “The Cairo Trilogy”. It tells the story of three generations of a family living in Cairo during period of the two World Wars.

Moving to more contemporary writers, Ahmed Khaled Towfik is one of my favorite authors. One mind blowing work of his is “Utopia.” It is a short novel describing a futuristic Egypt in the year 2023. What he describes is a dystopia, where Egypt is sharply divided into two classes; an upper class that lives on a high hill protecting themselves from the rest of the population by heavily secured high fences; and a lower class that is extremely poor. In the end of the story, the poor mobs rise in a revolution against the corrupt upper class. What is truly amazing about this book is that it was written in 2008, three years before the Egyptian Revolution. Yet, his novel captured the true reasons and feelings that provoked the lower classes to revolt, and that reason was not poverty.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to understand the Egyptian Revolution.

These three works should give you a taste of Egyptian literature. The first two are from Egypt’s modern literature. They are written by the two authors that set the tone of 20th century writers not only in Egypt, but also in the Middle East. The last book shows, like other books at the time, the change of Egyptians’ consciousness and the way they view  political powers and leaders.

But Egyptian literature doesn’t end there. It doesn’t even start there. But I hope that you now have an idea where to begin.