There’s more to Arab literature than Naguib Mahfouz
By Dominika Maslikowski
“Naguib Mahfouz?” the bookseller asked as I browsed his makeshift stands of magazines and newspapers one evening on a side street off Mohamed Mahmoud. I nodded and followed him to his fiction section, where we both squinted trying to read the book titles in the glow of the neon McDonald’s sign. There were a few novels by a Palestinian writer, and another by a Libyan, but nothing from Egypt’s literary great. So I grabbed a couple novellas by Henry James and Thomas Hardy: both familiar, reliable authors who I’ve read before and studied at school. The bookseller didn’t try to persuade me to give the Arab novelist a shot, perhaps figuring that most foreigners aren’t much interested in any except Mahfouz.
He had a point. I haven’t met many expats who’ve read widely from Egyptian literature beyond Mahfouz, and I’ve never met any foreigner who didn’t love — or at least enjoy — the Nobel laureate’s rollicking tales of characters inhabiting his city’s crowded alleys. Unless they’re literature students, or bookworms, chances are most foreigners aren’t familiar with much Arab fiction besides Mahfouz and One Thousand and One Nights.
It can be difficult to know where to start. The birth of the Arabic novel is dated to 1929 with the publication of Muhammad Husayn Haykal’s Zaynab, which makes the genre relatively new to the region when compared to Europe and its first novel Robinson Crusoe, published some 200 years earlier. The Arab region’s relatively short history of novel-writing means the possibilities are limited. If you love 18th- and 19th-century literature, you won’t find much from that period in the Egyptian tradition. A novel like Gamal el-Ghitani’s Zayni Barakat, for example, may be set in the Egypt of the Mamluk dynasty, but it was written in 1974.
Getting recommendations from Egyptian friends or browsing the “best of Arabic literature” lists online aren’t always reliable ways of finding good books. Several friends had so highly praised Taha Hussein’s The Days that I bought it at full price that same week, but I could hardly get through it. Since then, I’ve read at least a dozen Egyptian novels that I could hardly finish, and in rare cases — like with The Days — I wondered what was lost in translation and wished I could read the original Arabic.
After a period of having given up and then reading some more Mahfouz novels, I decided to explore on my own. I started buying used books, as it’s much easier to take a chance on an unknown Egyptian author if that risk won’t set you back more than LE 10 at the book stalls in Attaba. I’ve had a few more misses, but also enough hits to convince me the search is worthwhile and shouldn’t end with Mahfouz.
I discovered Alaa Al Aswany when I picked up The Yacoubian Building, despite how a friend said it was a “horrible novel” that was only written to make Egyptians “look bad.” After I read Yusuf Idris’ City of Love and Ashes — a story of the young radical Hamza during the British occupation — I considered Idris on par with Mahfouz. I later picked up Tawfiq al-Hakim’s Diary of a Country Prosecutor because I liked its colorful cover, and found a brilliant black comedy inside about the legal system. The best novels haven’t only entertained me, but also taught me about Egyptian history and culture in a more meaningful way than I’d have gleaned by simply living here.
My explorations into Egyptian literature have been haphazard, and at times disappointing and frustrating, but discovering novelists like Idris and al-Hakim has made the hunt worthwhile.
When I think back to how I discovered the novels that I now consider the greatest I’ve read — mostly thick, 19th-century Russian or European works — then I remember all of the searching, misses and disappointments before I stumbled upon them, too.
I’d read The Odyssey and Romeo and Juliet at school, and my best friend’s favorite book when I was a teenager was To Kill a Mockingbird. But I wouldn’t have become much of a book fiend if I’d stuck with those picks and didn’t dig further, because those were all books that hardly kept me up at night.
One day during a family trip to the local library, I wandered over to the “classics” section and picked up several novels at random. None were familiar and, except for Franz Kafka, they all later proved disappointing when I read them. But sometimes it’s best to dive into uncharted waters, and I’ve found that in Cairo — when I’m once again facing a bookshelf without a clue — diving in and picking up novels at random is still the best thing I can do. et