by Chip Rossetti
Egypt sits at a crossroads of geography, human civilizations, and environments—all of which have contributed to the extraordinarily vibrant modern culture of this very old land. It is virtually synonymous with the Nile River, which has historically linked it to the Mediterranean and to the kingdoms and states to the south. Egypt's ancient civilization is a source of pride for its modern inhabitants, who consider themselves heirs to the builders of the pyramids. But their affiliations go beyond their pharaonic heritage: Egypt is also firmly a part of the Arab world, as it occupies a central position linking North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Levant. (And with a population of over 90 million, Egypt is by far the world's largest Arabic-speaking country.) Most Egyptians are Sunni Muslims, and a minority (perhaps 10%) are Egyptian Christians, known as Copts. In the last two centuries, Egypt has played an outsize role in the history of the Middle East: it has led the way in introducing new ideas into the region, such as European technology in the nineteenth century; social reform (including new ideas about the status of women in society); the emergence of pan-Arab nationalism (closely linked to Egypt's president Gamal Abdel Nasser, president from 1954–70); and the rise of political Islam. In 2011, as part of the Arab Spring, Egyptians ousted their longstanding president, Hosni Mubarak. The widespread protests that brought down the regime were a reflection of the frustration felt by many Egyptians, particularly the younger Internet-savvy generation.
The emergence of Egypt's contemporary literature can be traced in large part to its nineteenth-century ruler Muhammad Ali Pasha (r. 1805–48). An energetic commander, Muhammad Ali sought to modernize the country. Part of that long-term project involved sending young Egyptian delegates to Europe to learn languages and ultimately translate useful information into Arabic. However, these young educated Egyptians also ended up being exposed to new ideas—about politics, the modern world, and writing. Those early scholars became the advance guard for a broader encounter with the modern world, including new forms of literature. During the nineteenth century, newspapers became a thriving business: they not only helped to produce a professional class of journalists—many of whom also tried their hand at fiction, poetry, and essay writing—but they also helped to create a reading public. (Today, Egyptian newspapers still print short stories and poems in their cultural sections, which helps to introduce new writers to the reading public.) Early attempts at translating French novels and short stories soon gave way to novels written by Egyptians themselves, sometimes written with the aim of social or educational reform.
These early writers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were part of a greater movement in Egypt and the Arab world called the “Nahda," a term sometimes translated as a “renaissance" or “awakening." Its aim was to rid their society of backward ideas and ignorance, and to get their country out from under the yoke of the British, which had occupied Egypt as a protectorate in 1882. Much early fiction, such as the pioneering 1913 novel Zaynab, by Muhammad Husayn Haykal, was set in the Egyptian countryside. Other writers, such as the towering figure of Naguib Mahfouz (1911–2005), wrote about city life: almost all of Mahfouz's highly-regarded stories and novels were set in Cairo, whether in the poorer quarters of the medieval city or in its newer residential neighborhoods. (Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988—to date the only author from the Arab world to do so.) In more recent decades, Egyptian literature has come into its own, as authors have sometimes set their novels in earlier historical periods in order to comment on current events, such as Gamal El-Ghitani's Zayni Barakat or Salwa Bakr's The Man from Bashmour. Notable, too, are the Egyptian women writers that have made their mark on contemporary writing scene, including outspoken feminist authors such as Nawal El Saadawi and Latifa al-Zayyat. More recently, younger Egyptian writers have shown a willingness to experiment with new writing styles, as they branch out into genres like noir, science fiction, and graphic novels.
The first theme we have highlighted in this collection of Egyptian literature is motherhood. As in other countries, Egyptian culture often evinces a great respect for motherhood, and frequently Muslims will invoke a saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad: “Paradise lies at the feet of mothers." Partly because of the superabundant fertility of the land along the Nile, Egypt itself is sometimes represented as a fertile woman. (A well-known statue in Cairo, Nahdat Masr [Egypt's Awakening], symbolizes this idea of cultural renewal with the image of a peasant woman lifting her veil.)
In Jar al-Nabi Hilw's story “It's a Chick, Not a Dog," the narrator's mother is a key part of the story. Her care for the baby chick demonstrates her loving nature, even as she manages to avoid stepping backward on it. But the chick, when grown to be a rooster, doesn't remember the special treatment it received from her, even though the mother has saved it from being eaten by the father and brothers: the rooster's aggression feels like a betrayal, like an ungrateful child. Perhaps Hilw is suggesting a lesson for the rest of us? Na'am Al-Baz presents a different reality of motherhood with her story “Mrs. Saniya's Holiday." Here we have a portrait of a working mother in a poor district whose seamstress work feeds her family. Because her husband is a drug addict, she works herself to the bone to provide for her four children. Although traditional views of the roles of men and women may prevail in many parts of Egyptian society, the economic realities of poverty have turned her into the family's breadwinner.
The second theme found in these stories—that of revolution—is a reflection of the widespread anger at Hosni Mubarak's regime and the upheavals of the last few years that have transformed Egypt's political landscape. Popular uprisings have been a feature of Egypt's modern history, including the massive protests, strikes, and demonstrations against British rule in 1919, a turning point that forced the British authorities to issue a limited self-rule in 1922. However, the corrupt politics of the following decades led to further frustration, and in 1952, a coup led by military officers sent Egypt's King Farouk into exile and made Egypt a republic. Unfortunately, a history of “strongman" rule undermined hopes for a genuine democracy in Egypt, culminating in the massive protests of early 2011 that finally forced the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak after thirty years in power. Egyptians of all political stripes—from liberal reformers to Islamists aspiring to a specifically religious state—had turned against Mubarak. However, it was in the months after Mubarak's resignation that tensions came to the fore: what kind of state did Egyptian want? What should be the role of religion in public life? Was it possible that the revolution had removed the president but left powerful figures in place, meaning that nothing had really changed?
During the seventeen days of protest that toppled Mubarak in early 2011, bold public statements circulated online and in print among the crowds in Cairo's Tahrir Square. In his widely-circulated handout, “Two Million People in the Square," the comics writer Magdy El Shafee contributed his artistic talents to the cause of revolution by laying out straightforward facts and a set of popular demands. Millions of Egyptians knew that the Mubarak regime's talk of democracy and justice was hollow, and after years of being “silent listeners," as Iman Mersal puts it in her poem “Sometimes Wisdom Possesses Me," they decided they had had enough. Nawal El Saadawi's essay, “The Egyptian Revolution Won't Be Fooled," was written a few months afterward, and takes a defiant tone: it expresses the concern that many Egyptians felt about the direction the revolution was taking, and their fear that all their courage and determination would be betrayed in the end.
The third theme to be found in some of the stories is friendship—a universal motif of human relationships that has resonance in Egypt's contemporary life as well. Early in the twentieth century, Cairo was a relatively small city, but in the last several decades, it has mushroomed, particularly with an influx of rural Egyptians who have moved to the big city in search of work and better lives. Other cities such as Alexandria have also witnessed serious transformations, as older populations have dealt with an influx of new arrivals. One of the side effects of modern life in big cities is loneliness and anomie, particularly for people who have left behind their familiar lives to start new ones among strangers. Thus, people turn to friendships, new and old, as a way for something to hold on to.
“The Veiler of all Deeds," taken from Hamdi Abu Golayyel's sardonic novel Thieves in Retirement, is set in one of the informal, economically marginal neighborhoods that have sprung up in Cairo to accommodate new arrivals from the countryside. The friendship/rivalry between Abu Gamal, the established local, and Shaykh Hasan, the country bumpkin fleeing a scandal in his hometown, is cemented as they both visit a Muslim religious scholar (faqih) in the hopes of getting a favorable religious ruling (fatwa) to absolve them of their and their family's misdeeds. The shifting fortunes of the two make for an amusing commentary on friendship, hypocrisy, and human foibles. Albert Cossery's “Proud Beggars" offers a similar look at Cairo's demimonde in an earlier decade (as shown by the fact that all the male characters wear the red tarboosh [the fez]). Cossery's characters have loyal ties of friendship and honesty, even in an illicit atmosphere of drug-dealing, prostitution, and murder. Iman Mersal's poem “Amina," and Migo Rollz's “The Last of the Bunch," a bittersweet story narrated in cartoon form, both dwell instead on the obstacles that come between friends, such as the mixture of jealousy and resentment the poem's speaker feels towards Amina, or the deliberately (?) missed connections that keep the father from meeting his long-lost friend Tariq.
Last, we turn to the theme of leaving home. Home, of course, can represent a physical location, or simply the feeling of comfort and familiarity that we leave behind with our childhoods. But leaving home can also symbolize cultural estrangement. Starting with Napoleon's invasion of the country in 1798, Egypt's encounter with Europe and the West has often involved cultural, economic, and political domination, in which Egyptians found themselves adjusting to a world where the rules were not of their making. The result can mean feeling like a stranger to one's own culture.
Iman Mersal's poem "Things Elude Me" captures well the image of a past forever lost, of a house that used to be a home, leaving in its wake pain and regret, which the speaker stubbornly refuses to evade. In "The Guest," Miral al-Tahawy (who herself comes from a Bedouin tribal background) sympathetically conveys the life of a peasant woman bought in marriage from her family by a Bedouin shaykh. Although the narrator doesn't explicitly state it, we can surmise that the life of “the Guest," as the grandmother is called, is one of loneliness and abrupt separation from her family. With a more urban, contemporary setting, Donia Maher and Ganzeer's sketch about an apartment in the central Cairo neighborhood of Bab El-Louk makes city life seem alienating and lonely: the apartment is filthy, the cleaning ladies cheat and steal, and “you'll feel like you've emigrated to another country" as soon you move there. Leaving one's homeland can be alienating, too, as Mohamed Makhzangi relates in “Memories of Chernobyl," where his pent-up tension about the dangers of radiation come bursting to the surface in an encounter with an old Ukrainian woman on the train. Finally, we come to Florent Ruppert and Jérôme Mulot's "The Pharaohs of Egypt" an illustrated vignette of Egyptian tour guides at the pyramids and the arrogant European tourists who hire them. (Climbing up the Giza pyramids was popular among nineteenth-century visitors making the Grand Tour of Egypt, although it is illegal today.) The story invites us to consider just exactly who the “pharaohs" of the title refer to, as it portrays the colonial encounter in all its ugliness, including a barrage of racist insults denigrating the locals for their supposedly inferior culture and intelligence. Veering into absurdity and fantasy, it successfully encapsulates the ugly dynamics of colonial power and the sense of estrangement that occurs when you become “the other" in your own home.
All four of these themes—motherhood, revolution, friendship, and leaving home—have made their way into Egypt's contemporary literature. It is impossible to fully encapsulate such a large and complex society through a small selection of its literature, but the translations included here offer a wide-ranging tour of modern Egyptian life, as seen through the eyes of its writers, poets, and artists.
In 2020, students from Ann Neary's World Literature class at Staples High School reviewed dozens of articles on contemporary life in Egypt, which has undergone significant changes since the 2014 publication of Chip Rossetti's unit introduction. The two articles that were determined to be the most clearly written, informative, and unbiased are below -- Editors.
- Report from Egypt past, present, and future by Jonathan Guyer, Institute of Current World Affairs
- Freedom of Creativity is Under Siege in Egypt by Amr EL-Tohamy, Al-Fanar Media.
Educators, for a sample lesson plan from the unit, read The Guest: Sample Lesson Plan and the short story "The Guest" -- Ed.'s