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:
The Yacoubian Building
Alaa Al Aswany

Your first book is Alaa Al Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building.

The Yacoubian Builiding is celebrated, possibly even notorious, for being a real bestseller — originally in Egypt and the Arab world and subsequently in the West, in English and in many other languages. It tells the story of a building in downtown Cairo, and the changes that have affected the building and its inhabitants. So it encapsulates the last 80 years of Egyptian history and it provides a series of extremely sharply drawn sketches of what you might call archetypal figures of our day. You have the aging aristocrat; you have the doorkeeper’s son who becomes a terrorist when his career ambitions are thwarted by the system. There’s a corrupt mega-businessman who winds up trying to battle the government when it wants to take what he considers too big of a bite of his business — and a whole range of other poor and middle class characters who are adapting to the situation as best they can. It’s beautifully written; it’s incredibly readable; it’s often very funny — and I suspect it will go on being read for many years as a kind of portrait of Egypt on the eve of the events that are taking place now.So it rings true? These are people you do actually meet?

I find them incredibly recognisable people, yes.

One of the reviews said it was ‘gripping’, which seems like a good sign.

Oh yes. I don’t suppose this was in the author’s mind, but it almost feels like a soap opera. Each new story, each thread, is taken to a certain point — and then he leaves it just at the point when you’re really, really keen to know what happens next and moves on to a different thread. It’s very deftly written.
Read about another novel recommended by Humphrey Davies at The Browser.

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

--Marshal Zeringue