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Translating Home: English-Language Novels by Egyptian Authors

May 14, 2023

Arabs authors have been writing in English since the early twentieth century, when colonialism and mass waves of westward migration propelled its rise to the status of a regional lingua franca. Yet, it was not until the early 2000s that the designation ‘Anglophone Arab,’ began to gain traction in academic and literary circles.

At the turn of the millennium, this long overlooked literary tradition garnered unprecedented attention — ushered in both by a growing diaspora and a desire to bridge increasingly contentious cultural gaps, which several theorists attribute to the 9/11 attacks.

In her introduction to the 2009 study ‘Arab Voices in Diaspora: Critical Perspectives on Anglophone Arab Literature,’ editor Layla Al Maleh explains that works falling into this category share themes like “tension between the center and the periphery,” highlighting the consistent battle to provide a counternarrative to western imperialism in its own language.

In the past two decades, these works have played a crucial role in bringing authentic knowledge of the Arab region to the rest of the world. Below are four novels written by Egyptian anglophone authors, whose writings defy orientalist perceptions of the country, and radiate home despite the foreignness of their language.

‘Beer in the Snooker Club’ (1964), by Waguih Ghali

Beer in the Snooker’s Club, published by Serpent’s Tail press

In the decades since its publication, Waguih Ghali’s semi-autobiographical novel ‘Beer in the Snooker Club’ has gained something of a cult following and been hailed by acclaimed author Ahdaf Soueif as “one of the best novels about Egypt ever written.”

The story is set in late 1950s Egypt, at the dawn of the country’s transition from a monarchy to a republic. While Egypt and its former colonial occupier fight for control of the Suez Canal, the two cosmopolitan protagonists — charismatic antihero Ram and his idealistic best friend, Font — split their time between the city’s bars, private sporting clubs, and a clandestine escapade to London.

The author chronicles the characters’ often hilarious misadventures and struggle to adapt to the changing landscape of a newly independent Egypt. A central plot point is Ram’s love affair with Edna, a Jewish heiress torn between patriotism and the question of whether there is any room for her in the reborn nation.

Between its intimate portrayal of postcolonial transition and the protagonists’ simultaneous longing for escape and a sense of home, ‘Beer in the Snooker Club’ is likely to evoke deeply mixed emotions in its Egyptian readers.

The book’s settings, plot, and characters are distanced from present-day Egypt by decades of socio-political change. Yet, in many ways, they are deeply familiar: Cairo’s unchanged bilingual elite, class conflict weaved into minute interactions, or the undying allure of the western world — still symbolizing both the chains of oppression, and dreams of freedom and access to better opportunities.

‘The Map of Love’ (1999), by Ahdaf Soueif

The Map of Love, published by Bloomsbury Press

Novelist and political commentator Ahdaf Soueif is arguably Egypt’s best-known anglophone author, described by renowned Palestinian-American theorist Edward Said as “one of the most extraordinary chroniclers of sexual politics now writing” — a laurel attested to in her most eminent work, ‘The Map of Love.’

Published in 1999, the novel was shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize in the same year, and propelled Soueif to international acclaim. ‘The Map of Love’ tells two cross-cultural love stories, taking place across three continents and over the course of a century.

In 1997, Isabel, a young American woman, befriends Amal, a middle-aged Egyptian woman whose help she enlists in translating Arabic documents inherited from her great-grandmother, Anna — an English woman who moved to colonial Egypt in the early twentieth century.

Isabel’s reconstruction of the courtship between her great grandparents, Anna and Sharif, mirrors her own romance with Omar, an Egyptian conductor living in the United States. Throughout the novel, the parallel love stories serve as a window into cultural and socio-political history, and evolving gender and sexual norms.

A notable feature of ‘The Map of Love’ is its use of Arabic terms, translated in a glossary in the book’s final pages, but not throughout the story. In this sense, the English-speaking reader is asked to perform the same adaptive exercise that Arab readers do when engaging with western works: to acquaint themselves with a foreign language and setting, with limited guidance.

Writing for The Guardian, Johan Mullan noted that Soueif’s use of French and Arabic throughout the novel runs deeper than a simple concern with linguistic or historical accuracy. Rather, he says, the author “makes the crossing between languages the very substance of the narrative,” embodying the tension between center and periphery described by Al Maleh.

‘Chronicle of a Last Summer’ (2017), by Yasmine El Rashidi

Chronicle of a Last Summer, published by Crown Publishing Group

In her debut novel, ‘Chronicle of a Last Summer,’ Yasmine El Rashidi traces three tumultuous decades of Egypt’s history, told through the story of a young girl’s coming of age. The book is divided into three sections, taking place respectively in 1984, 1998, and 2014, and recounting three summers in the unnamed narrator’s life.

Rather than plainly outline the events taking place in those years, the author lets readers discover them through the narrator’s eyes. Told in the style of a memoir, the story lends precedence to the personal in its account of political change.

In the first section, the six year old narrator recounts the rise to power of Hosni Mubarak, “He was sitting next to Sadat when he was killed. They said it was a miracle he wasn’t killed too. It was something from God so they made him president the next week. Now he was always opening a new factory.”

Ensuing change and national grievances are weaved into the everyday: daily power cuts affecting everyone except “important people,” restrictions on the import of chocolate, or underpaid public school teachers refusing to assign homework are some of the reader’s windows into Egypt’s socio economic reality.

By the book’s third and final section, the protagonist is now in her thirties, reminiscing about the 2011 revolution and sweeping change that ensued in the three years since. Her joyful childhood memories of the streets of Cairo have been displaced by the image of violent riots.

Writing for the Huffington Post, Claire Fallon posits that “[the] tension between the urge toward change — and indeed, the complete unavoidability of certain changes — and the grief we feel for lost selves, lost versions of our lives, powers the meditations that fill this novel.”

In this way, ‘Chronicle of a Last Summer’ affords Egyptian history and politics the humanity which they are so often stripped of in western accounts of the country.

‘If An Egyptian Cannot Speak English’ (2022), by Noor Naga

If An Egyptian Cannot Speak English, published by Graywolf Press

Noor Naga’s 2022 novel, ‘If An Egyptian Cannot Speak English,’ is written from the alternating perspectives of its two unnamed protagonists — both of whom are, in some ways, also its antagonists.

The ‘American Girl’ is the daughter of Egyptian immigrants to the United States, newly settled in her family’s native Cairo. The ‘Boy from Shobrakheit’ is a self-taught photographer who moved to Cairo from a small rural town and plunged into drug addiction after the 2011 revolution. In the first part of the book, the two meet at Downtown Cairo’s Café Riche and embark on a mutually abusive romance.

The girl overpowers her partner with unsubtle classism, while his chosen weapon is intimate knowledge of a country to which she is incurably alien. In the second part of the book, passages written from her perspective are speckled with footnotes about Egyptian history, food, and popular culture: all recounted to her by the Boy from Shobrakheit, and for the most part, glaringly inaccurate.

Speaking to Mada Masr, Naga explained that these footnotes were “a way of privileging the Egyptian reader,” who would recognize their inaccuracy and might understand how they tie into the male protagonist’s manipulative tactics, whereas the foreign reader probably would not.

The novel takes no clear stance about which of these two characters is the antagonist, and local and international readers are also likely to have clashing perspectives — a cultural conflict tackled in the third and final part of the book, which is a masterful exercise in metafiction.

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