Thursday, February 17, 2011

Five works of contemporary Egyptian fiction

Humphrey Davies is one of the foremost contemporary Arabic-English literary translators, and has translated a wide variety of Arabic works. He has lived in Cairo for the past 35 years. He is a two-time winner of the Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation. Days before the revolution ousted long-time Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak from power, Davies recommended five works of contemporary Egyptian fiction to Sophie Roell of FiveBooks, including:
On Being Abbas El Abd
Ahmed Alaidy

Next you’ve chosen On Being Abbas El Abd, by Ahmed Alaydi.

This book is totally different, conceptually and in style, from [The Yacoubian Building]. It’s a wickedly complex tale. People debate what actually takes place in the book. It’s about a terminally grumpy twenty-something negotiating Cairo’s shopping malls and high-rises. The book as a whole reflects a culture that will be familiar to anybody in Egypt, who sits, as so many here do, at that meeting point between global culture — the internet and the cellphone and so on — and Egyptian street life, the general craziness (and, in the case of this book, the literal craziness) of Cairo. I’ll use a word that will only reveal my age and total squareness when I say it’s very hip. I’m sure there are better words than that now. It’s funny and very smart and fairly weird.

Is it all about madness? What’s the opening line?

The introduction is entitled, ‘An Introduction You Can Suck or Shove’, and it starts off with: ‘She wasn’t a corpse yet.’ But yes: the main protagonist, Abbas El Abd, meets somebody at a psychodrama therapy session that he is attending for reasons that are gradually revealed during the book. (They have something to do with his uncle, who was an experimental psychiatrist who rather overstepped the bounds when he raised his nephew.) So madness is very much at the heart of the book, and there’s a wonderful, several page long list of phobias at one point - most of which, it would seem, the protagonist suffers from himself.

How does the protagonist fit with the stereotype that seems to feature in every newspaper article about Egypt - the disgruntled youth?

I wouldn’t go too far down that route, because the hero, or the anti-hero, is not exactly suffering from serious socio-economic problems. He’s not poor; he’s not unemployed. He works in a video store — which is, of course, slightly dated already. He’s disgruntled, but more in the sense of an underlying anger, which is dealt with in a very non-didactic, non-stereotyped way. But there’s a very strong tension running through the book, which perhaps reflects precisely the class to whom the mobilisation of people today is attributed. This is the class of young people who are savvy with the internet, with global communications, and who are totally disenchanted with almost everything about the system in which they’ve grown up. However, you could never call this, on the face of it, a political book. This is a very personal book, though the politics is there in the texture of it.
Read about the other books recommended by Humphrey Davies at The Browser.

Also see: Eight of the best articles on the upheaval in Egypt.

--Marshal Zeringue