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Read Around the World: Egypt

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Our next stop in our world tour of literature is Egypt. Join us as we explore some of what Egypt has to offer in terms of literature and find out which book we selected. We hope you help us to add to the list of recommended reading for Egypt!

 Fun Facts about Egypt

  • Egypt is over 380,000 square miles, just over half the size of Alaska. It is the most populous country in the Arab world even though 90% of the country consists of desert.
  • Over 130 pyramids have been discovered to date in Egypt. The largest pyramid, The Pyramid of Khufu weighs as much as 16 Empire State buildings.
  • The ancient Egyptians forged one of the earliest peace treaties on record (History.com).
  • Cairo is home to Africa’s only subway
  • It is produced four Novel Laureates for peace, chemistry, and literature
  • Over 500 free press newspapers, journals, and magazines are available in the country
  • Egypt is home to 30 percent of the Arab world’s bloggers
  • Cairo’s annual international book fair is one of the largest book fairs in the world.

Book SelectedMidaq Alley by Naguib Mahfouz
Published in: 1947
Find it here: Midaq Alley

Reason Selected: Naguib Mahfouz is considered by many to be on of the finest and most well known Egyptian novelist. Midaq Alley is considered to be his best novel. Once again, Book Worm and I read this book with our 1001 book group (now at Goodreads) but it is a good novel to represent the country due to both the reputation of its author and the focus of the novel. The novel takes place in Cairo and depicts the life and trials of an assortment of colorful characters.

Synopsis (from Amazon): Written in the 1940s, this novel by the Egyptian Nobel laureate Mahfouz deals with the plight of impoverished classes in an old quarter of Cairo. The lives and situations depicted create an atmosphere of sadness and tragic realism. Indeed, few of the characters are happy or successful. Protagonist Hamida, an orphan raised by a foster mother, is drawn into prostitution. Kirsha, the owner of a cafe in the alley, is a drug addict and a lustful homosexual. Zaita makes a living by disfiguring people so that they can become successful beggars. Transcending time and place, the social issues treated here are relevant to many Arab countries today. With this satisfying tale, Mahfouz, often called the Charles Dickens of Arabic literature, achieves a high level of excellence as a novelist and storyteller.

Jen’s Review: 3.5 stars. I have vacillated on my rating of this book. I loved many elements of the books but I also disliked the almost satirical nature of the characterizations. For me Midaq Alley was a combination of social realism and satire. I loved the way Mahfouz created a very vivid scene and brought the alley to life. However, I found the overly exaggerated characterization (the pimp with the smoldering looks, the whore, the cripple, etc) to detract from my enjoyment of the book. I would have preferred more nuanced characterizations rather than what I felt were stereotypes. That said, it was an interesting book and I haver read very little Arabic literature and therefore appreciated being exposed to a world so different from my own. I would recommend this book to others.

Book Worm’s Review: 4 stars. The book focuses on the residents of Midaq Alley a street in Cairo during WWII. While the characters seem to represent specific types (the hashish smoking coffee shop owner, the husband beating wife, the marriage arranger, the cripple maker, etc) rather than specific individual characters, I enjoyed the insight into a different way of life.

It was good to see a view of Islam not colored by recent events. A place where a woman can enjoy life independent of men and where husbands can be equally under the rule of their wives.

Other recommendations for Egyptian Literature:
It is a daunting task to even begin to make recommendations for Egyptian literature given Egypt’s rich history when it comes to the development of literature. So I hope you all join us in helping to fill what we can’t possibly cover in just a few paragraphs. I have only read two works by Egyptian authors: Midaq Alley and Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawi. As we mentioned earlier, Mahfouz is perhaps one of the most well known novelists from Egypt. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988. Over the course of his life he published 34 novels, over 350 short stories, and five plays. In addition the Midaq Alley, his most well known works include: The Cairo Trilogy, Heart of the Night, Love in the Rain, and Cairo Modern.

A few other influential authors include Tawfiq al-Hakim, Yusuf Idris, Yahya Haqqi, Taha Hussein, Abbas Mahmud al-Aqqad, and Ahdaf Soueif.

We want to hear from you. Have you read any books based in, or by authors from Egypt? Do we have any Egyptian readers? What would you like to share about literature in your country? Which books do you recommend?

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. The only Egyptian work I’ve read is The Yacoubian Building by Alaa-Al-Aswany. The synopsis seems pretty similar to Midaq Alley by Naguib Mahfouz: vignettes about a motley crew of lower to middle class Egyptians. It’s been a long time since I read The Yacoubian Building, but I would rate the novel similar to Jen. Same problems with the Midaq Alley: the themes are important and relevant, the story is engaging, but the characterization somehow doesn’t ring “true” and can easily fall into cliches.

    Liked by 1 person

    March 7, 2016
  2. JoLene R #

    One of my favorite books that is set in ancient Egypt is River God by Wilbur Smith (not Egyptian, but born in Zambia). I read this in the early 90’s and I think it’s one of the books that fostered my love of historical fiction and my curiosity about Egypt. So curious that Egypt (and Jordan) were where my husband and I went on our honeymoon.

    Liked by 1 person

    March 7, 2016
    • Honeymoon in Egypt sounds wonderful. Thanks for sharing the book recommendation!

      Like

      March 7, 2016
  3. Tracy S #

    I liked Midaq Alley, and Miramar, Mahfouz’s other book on the 1001 list. I read River God ages ago, and remember enjoying many of the books Smith wrote. What a rich history Egypt has!

    Liked by 1 person

    March 7, 2016

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