New releases in books you don't want to miss

Soha Hesham and Nader Habib, Tuesday 12 May 2020

Among the recommended new releases are: Islamic Signposts, The Spartan Court, Ezma, Egypt’s Housing Crisis: The Shaping of Urban Space, Heliopolis Rock

Mahmoud Said

Min Maalim Al-Islam (Islamic Signposts), Mohamed Farid Wagdi, ed. Mohamed Ragab Al-Bayoumi, Cairo: General Egyptian Book Organisation, 2000, pp336

Mohamed Farid Wagdi (1878-1954) was a traditionalist polymath and devout theologian who edited the monthly Al-Azhar Magazine – initially called Nour Al-Islam (or “The Light of Islam”) – for many years, writing a column on various aspects of the religious life. Born in Alexandria to an originally Circassian family, he lived between Domiat, Suez and Cairo, working at the Ministry of Endowments and as the owner of a print press, publishing and editing a number of magazines while actively participating in the tumultuous political life of the first half of the 20th century. He wrote, among many other books, a ten-volume Islamic encyclopaedia.

In this book – a Ramadan read as learned as it is accessible – a later Al-Azhar Magazine editor and student of Wagdi’s, Mohamed Ragab Al-Bayoumi (1923-2011), gathers together Wagdi’s articles for the magazine. Three of these (dated 1938, 1939 and 1942) discuss the nature and meaning of fasting in Islam – “a religious sport” beneficial to body, mind and soul, which consists in neither eating, drinking nor engaging in any sexual activity from sunrise till suset – bringing in scientific and ethical perspectives. He points out, for example, that eating two huge and unhealthy meals on fast days, as many Muslims do, defeats the purpose of the fast, which is to purify the body and give its organs a rest from the exertion of continual digestion, and to liberate the mind from the tyranny of material desires.

The book’s cover is a beautiful painting by the Alexandrian pioneer Mahmoud Said (1897-1964).

Reviewed by Nader Habib


Al-Diwan Al-Esbarti

Abd Elouaheb Aissaoui, Al-Diwan Al-Esbarti (The Spartan Court), Meim Publishing House, 2018, pp384

Al-Diwan Al-Esbarti (The Spartan Court), the latest novel by the Algerian author Abd Elouaheb Aissaoui, which won  the 13th International Prize for Arabic Fiction at a pandemic-lockdown online ceremony on 14 April, is a multi-layered tale with many voices, and an insight into the history of the occupation in Algeria where two colonial powers are struggling to control the country. Its multiple, interwoven narrative lines are among its greatest achievements.

The novel follows the fates of five characters whose lives are somehow connected in the period 1815-1833, documenting the last few years of Ottoman, and the first few of French, occupation. The five characters include two Frenchmen, two Algerian men and one Algerian woman. The three Algerian characters have very different views on the Ottomans and the French: Ibn Mayar regards politics as a way of building relationships with the Ottomans and even the French, while Hamma Al-Sallaoui genuinely believes in the revolution as the only way forward, while Douja, the woman, is torn between these viewpoints as she is somehow forced to play a role in the ongoing transformation in Algeria, something she doesn’t necessarily approve of though she is unable to leave. As for the Frenchmen, they are Dupond, the French journalist assigned to cover the colonial campaign against Algeria, and Caviard, a former soldier in Napoleon’s army who is later a prisoner in the city and a major force in the campaign.


The Algerian author Abd Elouaheb Aissaoui was born in Djelfa in 1985. He graduated from the Electromechanical Engineering department of the Zayan Ashour University in Djelfa and works as a maintenance engineer. In 2012, he published his first novel, Jacob's Cinema, which came first in the novel category of the President of the Republic Prize. He won the Assia Djebar Prize, the literary award generally regarded as the most important in Algeria. His second novel was Mountain of Death (2015), which tells the story of Spanish Communists imprisoned in North African camps after losing the Civil War. In 2016, he took part in the IPAF “Nadwa” (creative writing workshop for talented young writers). His third novel Circles and Doors (2017) won the 2017 Kuwaiti Suad Al-Sabah Novel Prize. In 2017, he also won the Katara Novel Prize in the unpublished novel category, for Testament of the Deeds of the Forgotten Ones. The Spartan Court was published in 2018.



Mohamed Sadek, Ezma, Al-Rawaq for Publishing and Distribution, 2020, pp367

With a striking cover designed by Karim Adam showing an antique camera and a notebook and so adding to the suspense of the subtitle, “You have nine dares and nine treasure hunts to find me”, this is the latest novel by the best-selling author of Hepta (2014), which was made into a blockbuster movie, and other books.

The novel’s protagonist is Eissa Al-Shawaf, an unstable man, recently divorced, who has lost all sense of purpose. On his 36th birthday he receives an unexpected call from his old friend Sira, who wants to give him a collection of videos from his 18th birthday that he had left with her then, asking her to give them to him on his 36th in order to send a message to his older self.


Al-Aalek Fi Youm Ahad

Abdullah Nasser, Al-Aalek Fi Youm Ahad (Trapped on a Sunday), Al-Tanweer Publishing House, 2019, pp106

This is a collection of 49 short stories on the theme of time shot through with a sense of surrealism. The Saudi writer Abdullah Nasser’s philosophical approach to the topic, often replacing causal with sequential chains and sometimes dwelling on the notion of a temporal loop, is brave and refreshing.

“He is still trapped in Sunday,” Nasser writes in the title story, “while the whole world moved onto Monday. He fears that the whole week will be altered into seven Sundays, but what he fears the most is that all the Sundays will turn out to be so alike he will not be able to recognise the one that is followed by a Monday and the Sundays will last for another week.”

In “Frida Kahlo’s Moustache”, for example, he writes, “He is still in his room and she is still in her room as well. They only come out to eat together, but in silence. Every time a hair falls from his moustache it grows under her nose, until she grows a mustache like Frida Kahlo’s and it is very clear.”

Nasser’s previous collection of short stories, Fann Al-Takhaly (The Art of Abandonment), was published in 2016.


Egypt’s Housing Crisis

Yahia Shawkat, Egypt’s Housing Crisis: The Shaping of Urban Space, AUC Press, 2020, pp288

Egypt has had a housing crisis for nearly 80 years now, according to the author of this book, the urban policy scholar Yahia Shawkat. In Egypt, which is a world leader in per capita housing production – building to enormous excess at nearly double the Chinese rate, though very few people can afford to buy at all – owning a house can make or break marriage proposals, and housing is the keystone of the economy.

Since 1940, the Egyptian leadership established a number of policies to offer adequate housing for the country’s growing population. By the 1970s, housing production had managed to outrun population growth. However, currently large portions of the Egyptian people cannot afford to pay for a decent house.

Housing issues in Egypt are a top priority in presidential speeches as well as parliamentary reports and there have always been efforts to resolve the situation like rent control, public housing and sometimes even legal pardons for informal buildings. According to Shawkat’s analysis, the crisis is largely due to rural-urban migration together with capitalism, corruption and lack of planning.
Yahia Shawkat is a housing and urban policy researcher who specializes in legislative analysis, data visualization, and historical mapping. He is research coordinator for 10 Tooba, a research studio he cofounded in 2014 that focuses on spatial justice and fair housing. He also edits the Built Environment Observatory, an open knowledge portal identifying deprivation, scrutinizing state spending, and advocating equitable urban and housing policies. His work has been published in Egypte Monde Arabe and Architecture_MPS, and he has contributed to Mada Masr, Open Democracy, Heinrich Boell, and the Middle East Institute among others.


Sakhret Heliopolis

Ahmed Zaghloul Al-Sheity, Sakhret Heliopolis (Heliopolis Rock), Al-Ain Publishing House, 2019, pp132

This is the second novel by Ahmed Zaghloul Al-Sheity, published nearly 30 years after the first, the extremely well-received Woroud Sama Li Sakr (Poisonous Roses for Sakr, 1990), recently adapted to the screen as Ward Masmoum (Poisonous Roses, 2018) by filmmaker Ahmed Fawzi Saleh.

Sakhret Heliopolis (Heliopolis Rock) traces the journey of protagonist Youssef Al-Alami – the name is not revealed until very late in the novel – since he was a little boy in Domiat, to his adult life as a resident of Heliopolis, living near Baron Empain resting place in the Basilica church in Korba. It also deals with his two elder brothers Said and Rady, his younger sister Farida, and numerous characters in Domiat, notably in the furniture making industry.

Reviewed by Soha Hesham

*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 May, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly


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