Egyptian books take the stage

Daily News Egypt
8 Min Read

Reading has no doubt become a new national hobby for Egypt, a reality exemplified by the growing bestselling charts. The hot topics remain social realism, contemporary politics and the new breed of redundant, immaterial social send-ups, led by Omar Taher’s several bestsellers. Two new genres entered the Egyptian literary sphere: Coptic affairs and futuristic fiction.

Poetry, philosophy, and science remain virgin shores Egyptian writers are yet to explore. As we hope that these substantial gaps will be gradually filled over the coming years, for now, here are the literary highlights of 2008:

Azazel by Youssef Zidan

“Azazel is the year’s premium work of literature, exploring one of the darkest chapters in the Coptic Church’s history that, for the first time, is brought to the forefront of popular culture. Set in the fifth century A.D., the protagonist of the novel is a Coptic monk battling his demons as the Church launches its violent campaign to counter the rising wave of heresy.

While vividly putting up what is considered heretical theological views, Zidan averts presenting the church’s theological take, affecting the integrity of the drama and instigating claims of bias on Zidan’s part. Nevertheless, the story is brilliantly conceived, its Sufi-like philosophical interludes are a work of art, and the language and dialogue Zidan seamlessly weaves provides an authentic historical document no one but a revered historian like Zidan could have produced.

Utopia by Ahmed Khalid Tawfiq

Starting what could be a new wave in the Egyptian literary scene, “Utopia is a bleak futuristic tale, portraying a dying dystopia with an annihilated middle-class. No thorough political analysis is at offer. “Utopia is essentially a highly entertaining adventure tale chronicling the journey of an injudicious wealthy kid exploring the vast destitute wastelands of Attaba on a hunt for a human trophy.

Al-A’mama wal-Kouba’a (The Turban and the Hat) by Sonallah Ibrahim

Set in 18th century Egypt at the peak of the French occupation, Ibrahim, in his first historical novel, writes his story in the form of a diary of a young Egyptian-French translator employed by the government. Entangled in a turbulent love affair with a French woman, the translator experiences the disparity between the East and the West, a theme that governs the events of the novel. Through his eloquent language and vided historical details, Ibrahim have shed a light on a period rife with contrasts and intellectual arguments that are relevant now than ever.

Metro by Magdy Al-Shafee

This year, Egyptian bookstores welcomed the very first Egyptian graphic novel. “The novel is a visual record of the zeitgeist, filled with poverty, sexual frustration, corruption and abuse, drawn from the events which surrounded El Shafee when he was plotting the novel, Daily News Egypt reported upon the novel’s release. Two months after publication, a police raid seized all copies made available in the market. Brief nudity, a few curse words and the clear onslaught on the country’s ruling party was deemed as “disturbing public morals by the government. Although a bit too direct in its criticism and lacking maturity, “Metro is, nonetheless, an undeniable landmark in modern Egyptian literature. Unfortunately, its distribution is still discontinued.

Kirieleison by Hany Abdel-Moreed

In spite of what title might imply, “Kirieleison – a Coptic phrase that means “may God have mercy – isn’t a novel about Copts, but a multilayered study of poverty, religious hypocrisy, corruption and sexual deprivation set in Al-Zarayab, one of the poorest districts in Cairo. Abdel-Moreed employs biblical references to paint a despairing portrait of people entrenched in hopelessness. Using a non-linear narrative that occasionally veers towards the surrealistic, “Kirieleison demands multiple readings, if only to digest Abdel-Moreed intense drama.

1/4 Gram by Essam Youssef

The year’s best-selling Egyptian novel that took the country by storm is nowhere as ground-breaking as its massive sales might imply. Based on true events, Youssef’s confessional first novel charts a spoilt, wealthy young man’s life-long struggle with addiction and his successive recovery in rehab. Youssef sheds a light on a culture that remained largely hidden under layers of stereotypes and misperceptions. His lack of experience and fineness results in an uneven reading, stacked with redundant details and manipulative sentimentality. With a sequel in the making, Youssef might learn from his mistakes and deliver a worthier successor.

Taghredat Al-Baga’a (Swan Song) by Mekawi Said

Dark, distancing, and at times even apathetic “Swan Song is an ultra realistic account of a middle-aged Egyptian man experiencing the radical changes of a turn of the 21st century Cairo. With an unsettling air of detachment looming over even his happiest moments, Said drags his readers into his protagonist’s world, where a social revolution or possible constructive change seems increasingly unlikely. Despite its apathy, or even because of it, the novel opens a window for the readers to glimpse into the various social facets of modern Cairo from a neutral, if alienating, perspective.

Al-Ayam Al-Akheira (The Last Days) by Abdel-Halim Kandil and Inside Egypt: The Land of Pharaohs on the Brink of a Revolution by John Bradley

As critics continue forecasting the inevitable end to the current regime in the near future, the average citizens are questioning the political future of the country. “Who will rule? The army? The Muslim Brotherhood? Gamal Mubarak? Is there a way to have a peaceful transition from the family rule to the people rule? Kandil ponders these questions with his political expose, relaying several scenarios that occasionally feel outlandish. With several parts leaning towards slander and chapter titles on the vein of “A plan to knock off the dictator, it’s a mystery that this book is still in distribution. Like most recent books on the topic, the ordinary reader, eager for change, will find no insight into the role he/she can play in shaping this future.

“Inside Egypt poses almost the same questions albeit in a less aggressive fashion and with an additional emphasis on societal as well as governmental corruption, describing Egypt as a fractured nation that might soon head towards an Iranian-style theocracy.

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