Book Review: Ideas on what to read from the masters of writing

Dina Ezzat , Saturday 4 Mar 2023

A recently published title offers an insight into what some top writers have read for over a century.

Qa eimat Al-Qira ah



Qa’eimat Al-Qira’ah (The Reading List), Amr Fatehi, Al-Karma, 2023, 291 pp

With diligent but strict archival work, Omar Fatehi must have gone through endless volumes of papers, magazines, and radio and television recordings to dig out this very thorough – at times rich – insight on some of the favourite books of 75 writers, mostly Egyptian, who lived and wrote since the late 19th century.

Qa’eimat Al-Qira’ah (The Reading List) was published during the recent Cairo International Book Fair by Al-Karma with the sub-title ‘top writers recommend some of the most important and beautiful books.’

Essentially, this close to 300-page book is a compilation of books to which the selected 70 writers have made references – brief or detailed – in articles they wrote or interviews they gave. Consequently, the recommendations of one writer could take over five pages of Fatehi’s Reading List, while another writer will only occupy half a page, with just the titles and the names of the authors itemized one after the other. The book offers an impressive range of writers and a fascinating variety of titles that cover everything from philosophy to science – but mostly literature, essentially novels and poetry.

One thing that stands out in the list is the strong impact that Russian literature had on most of the writers featured in this book during both the first and second half of the 20th centuries. Russian 19th-century novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky is certainly number one for many – with some just making a reference to his full volumes and others specifically making reference to two of his masterpieces: Crime and Punishment, and The Brothers Karamazov. The fact that most of the authors selected by Fatehi read Dostoyevsky in Arabic inevitably brought up the name of the ultimate translator of Russian literature to Arabic, Syrian writer and translator Sami Al-Droubi.

Early 20th-century Russian playwright and short-story writer Anton Chekhov is also a definite favourite for many of the authors reviewed in The Reading List. In one of the most interesting recommendations, contemporary Egyptian novelist Ibrahim Asslan makes a reference to reading Chekhov, through compiled letters and pictures, as a way of understanding the works of the prominent Russian literary figure.

Boris Pasternak, especially his chef-d'oeuvre Doctor Zhivago, and Leo Tolstoy are also on the list of recommendations on the Russian literature side. In an untypical reference, Egypt’s prominent children’s writer Abdel-Tawab Youssef recommends children’s stories that he said are as impressive as other works by the author of War and Peace.

On several other lists, Fatehi leaves the reader with titles that are rather untypical of the mainstream genre of the writing of their authors. On the list of books recommended by prominent Egyptian journalist Ahmed Bahaeddine, there is a book by Egypt’s singular playwright Tawfik Al-Hakim that stems away from his otherwise literary and philosophical stream. 

Mukhtar Tafssir Al-Kortobi (Selections of Al-Kortobi’s Exegesis) is the 1977 take of Hakim on the work of this 13th-century Andalusian scholar on the interpretation of the Qur’an. Then, on the list of Raga’ Al-Nakkash, a prominent Egyptian literary critic, there is a recommendation for a political book of Al-Hakim’s. 

Misr bayna’ahdaine (Egypt Between Two Eras) is effectively a political memoire of Al-Haim that first came out in 1983. Another untypical recommendation comes from the list of poet Farouk Shousha: the complete poems of Abbas Mahmoud Al-Akkad, the 20th-century intellectual figure who is known mostly for literary criticism and his Al-Abkariat (the genius’s series), which reflects on the lives of Prophet Mohamed and the early rulers of the Muslim state as well as other titles that examine the history of key Christian and Muslim characters.

Arabic classics are hard to miss on many of the lists that Fatehi gathered in his book. Translated classics include the obvious Rubaiyat Omar Al-Khayyam and the Arabian Nights. Equally recurrent on many lists are the Arabic translations of modern and contemporary writers including Franz Kafka, Isabel Allende, Jose Saramago, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges.

American novelist Earnest Hemingway is one of the most recommended. French writers including Gustave Flaubert, Albert Camus, Victor Hugo, Marcel Proust, and English writers including D.H. Laurence and George Orwell are also recommended – even if not as frequently on the 70-plus lists in this ‘readers’ catalogue’. While Orwell is often referred to in association with his quintessential 1984, writer and critic Belal Fadl makes an interesting observation on Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London.

Several Egyptian and Arab writers make frequent appearances on this Reading List. Naguib Mahfouz is one, for sure. On the same list of Fadl’s there is a reference to the need to read and re-read the complete works of Mahfouz “at least once every seven years”. Mahfouz appears on the list of recommendations of no less than Taha Hussein. Hussein refers to Mahfouz’s Zokak AlMadak (Midaq Alley) as not just a good novel but also as exceptionally clever social research. Of Mahfouz’s Bein AlKasserein (The Palace Walk), Hussein wrote, “I cannot think of a novelist who captured the Egyptian revolution [of 1919] in the wake of World War I as Naguib Mahfouz did” in this novel.

Literary reflections on the 1919 Revolution are a recurrent theme in the recommendations of many authors. In his list, Abdel-Tawab Youssef refers to one of the usually overlooked books: Fekri Abaza’s AlDahek AlBaki (He who laughs and cries). “It is one of the most beautiful things written on the 1919 Revolution,” Youssef wrote. In his famous book Hadith Al-Araba’a (Wednesday talk) Taha Hussein shared the same impression on the same book, which he said is one of the best texts that portrayed the Egyptian pursuit to end the British occupation.

Meanwhile, in the recommendations included in Fatehi’s Reading List, Taha Hussein refers to Youssef Idris’ Goumhoriyat Farahat (Farhat’s republic). The play depicts the often-exaggerated power of the police in a third-world country. “A strong and compelling read,” Hussein wrote. Idris is one of the most recommended authors on The Reading List. Yehiya Hakki and Khairy Shalaby are also among the most recommended novelists in the compilations put together by Fatehi.

The book has several references to some specific topics, including the plight of Palestinians with books such as Edward Said’s Out of Place and Ghassan Kanafani’s Rigal Al-Shams (Men of the Sun).

There are also quite a few references to some memoirs, including those of Louis Awad, which got recommended several times, and Fatma Youssef (Rose Al-Youssef).

Unlike the books that offer a collection of reviews of fiction and/or non-fiction titles, Fatehi’s Reading List is not offering compact reviews of any of the volumes referred to by the selected authors. It does not share any details about the size of the books or the details of their publications.

It does not even refer to the fact that some of the titles referred to have been out of print for years or that some other titles are available for free online. In essence, this book is about what some masters of writing enjoyed reading. And with that alone, Fatehi is sure to leave his reader with a few good recommendations from the lists of those 75 authors who are classified by alphabetical order of their first names.

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