New Egyptian Literary Voices: Dystopias, Thrillers, Graphic Novels, and Future Histories

Every serious library has a few novels by Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt’s sole Nobel Laureate. What’s going on in Egyptian writing now?

A good library might also have books from the generation of writers post-Mahfouz: Ibrahim Abdelmeguid, Sonallah Ibrahim, Gamal al-Ghitani, and Radwa Ashour. But what’s going on with young, emerging, and popular novelists like Basma Abdel Aziz, Mohamed Rabie, Youssef Rakha, Nael Eltoukhy, Mansoura Ez Eldin, Ahmed Naji, Ahmed Mourad, and Yasser Abdel Hafez?

Dark dystopias and future histories

A few of the novels that have come out from Egypt lately have been brilliant and alive, but so full of painful anger they can be difficult to read.

otaredMohamed Rabie’s Otared (Hoopoe Fiction), translated by Robin Moger, is such a novel. Rabie’s book has been widely acclaimed: It was shortlisted for the 2016 International Prize for Arabic Fiction and this month won the 2017 Sawiris Prize in the emerging-novelist category. The violent dystopic thriller is set in an Egypt-like future, and it’s up to the reader to figure out exactly what sort of future this might be. There are two difficult pages where the narrative describes shootings by the protagonist policeman, relentless and incantatory, borrowing real police shootings — and real victims — from life in Egypt. Excerpt forthcoming next week on GLLI.

Dark, disturbing, painfully real.

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womenNael Eltoukhy’s Women of Karantina (AUC Press), also translated by Robin Moger, is another future history, although  with a more comic edge. When I asked Moger to give the book an elevator pitch, he said, “To the Anglophone reader I would say: Good evening. Women of Karantina is a savage comic epic, relentlessly ironic, uncompromisingly rude, profoundly moral, totally true, good value for money, and available online. Ihab Abdel Hamid said of it: هتفشخ دماغ الخواجة.”

Moger’s also excited about Eltoukhy’s forthcoming novel, which follows “the progress of a young mother through revolution and tragedy personal and political this enormous, digressive, shaggy-canine, surreal novel has some of the signature humour and shambolic expansiveness of Nael’s Women of Karantina, but carries devastating emotional power and focus, the mock-seriousness fringed with melancholy and madness. It is excellent.”

Dark, funny, and epic.

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Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue (Melville House Press), translated by Elisabeth Jaquette, goes Mahfouz-meets-Orwell in this dystopic look at Egyptians standing in line in a future that feels very similar to the present. One thing Abdel Aziz’s book does tremendously well is its portraits of women characters. In its small portraits of individuals’ lives, and their relationships to power, it is very much an anti-patriarchal book.

Dark, dystopic, yet loving and hopeful.

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safetyYasser Abdel Hafez’s The Book of Safety (Hoopoe Fiction, 2017), was ALSO translated by Robin Moger, who specializes in young and thrilling writing.

In this novel, Khaled Mamoun works at the Palace of Confessions, a state-run security agency, transcribing the testimonies of criminals. At one interrogation, he comes across a university professor turned master thief, who breaks into the homes of the powerful and blackmails them into silence. An excerpt will be forthcoming on GLLI next week.

Dystopic-philosophical crime-writing.

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Graphic novel dystopia hybrids

Ahmed Naji’s Using Life (University of Texas Press, 2017), illustrated by Ayman Zorkany, translated by Ben Koerber. Even if you haven’t heard of Using Life, you might have heard of  PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award-winning author Ahmed Naji. Last February, in a move shocking to many Egyptian writers, novelist and journalist Ahmed Naji was jailed for an excerpt of Using Life that was published in Akhbar al-Adab magazine, as it allegedly “violated public modesty.” This is despite the fact that the book itself passed through the censorship office without incident. This graphic-novel-prose-dystopia-thriller hybrid has beautiful descriptions of Cairo. Read an excerpt on ArabLit. 

Lyrical-comic dystopia, with art!

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Magdy al-Shafie’s Metro (Metropolitan Books), translated by Chip Rossetti. Even though al-Shafie can only be classed as young-at-heart, he’s a pioneer in Egypt’s new graphic novel movement, and this dystopic thriller is a fast, engaging read.

Crime-thriller graphic novel

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Ganzeer’s Solar Grid (http://thesolargrid.net/). This fantastic future-dystopic-utopic web comic is being written in English, so technically doesn’t belong here, but since we borrowed Ganzeer’s art for the featured image, he deserves a plug.

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Bestsellers and political thrillers

vertigo-englishAhmed Mourad’s Vertigo (AUC Press), translated by — yes — Robin Moger. Ahmed Mourad is perhaps the most popular author living in Egypt today. His 2016 novel, Land of God, was voted by viewers of a popular Egyptian TV show as the year’s best by a fairly wide margin. This detecting thriller, written from the point of view of a photographer-to-the-powerful, is both fast-paced and funny.

Again, Moger’s words on translating the novel: “Vertigo was fun. Wisecracks, action, drama, the dark heart of a corrupt system, baddies, belly dancers… It’s a thriller, but the voice is not that of formulaic genre fiction: it’s warm and good-natured and in its own way quite moving (I’m not necessarily referring to the love interest). There’s something very true to life about it and very plaintive, too. The part where the lovers’ walk along the Corniche is ruined by the prurient policemen struck a chord with me: I think he wrote very well and subtly about Ahmed’s panicked uncertainty and Ghada’s disappointment.”

Funny, fast-paced thriller about last-years-of-Mubarak Cairo

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Youssef Rakha’s Sultan’s Seal

Youssef Rakha’s Sultan’s Seal (Interlink Books), translated by Paul Starkey. This book is in a category by itself — using the breadth and depth of classical Arabic literature to craft a contemporary philosophico-thriller. As Seth Messinger writes in Music and Literature: The Book of the Sultan’s Seal is, among many things, the narrative of a man’s unravelling. Recently separated from his wife, Mustafa Çorbaci moves back into his mother’s apartment and slowly begins to notice patterns and events that, rather than seem coincidental, are indicative to him of connections between this world and a more transcendent one. Everyday events such as his daily commute between his home and the office of the magazine he works at, near Tahrir Square, begin to take on mystical dimensions. As a result, he starts to make sense of the world by taking the names of familiar Cairo neighbourhoods and landmarks, transforming them into a kind of dream language that is one part his own making, but in another way reflective of the connections between the two worlds.”

Philosophical, transcendental reinvention of language, Cairo, and being

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