Sameh Fawzi, Ma’a Tahiyat Iblis (With Regards from Satan), Cairo: Dar Al-Maarif, 2020. pp150
Ma’a Tahiyat Iblis
In his new novel, With Regards from Satan, the journalist and writer Sameh Fawzi explores pragmatism in religion. His hero, Ihab Al-Mansouri, who hails from Mansoura, is a picaro who supports himself through relationships with older women and maintains a path of upward mobility, graduating from Cairo University and studying journalism in Leeds, UK, on a British Council scholarship.
As he embarks on a career in the local press, however, Al-Mansouri clashes with bureaucracy and corruption and the decline of the profession. Using Facebook to do what he is prevented from doing by his editor, Al-Mansouri meets Bushra, a similarly dissolute man who happens to be a Christian. Bushra makes his confession to Al-Mansouri, but they differ over the need to abide by religion and how. Yet within a short while Al-Mansouri, who has declared himself an atheist and a rationalist, starts working with Islamist extremists. They give him the protection and power he needs, since he is a vulnerable individual, while he helps them to win their fights with secularists. Marrying an Islamist women, he begins to lead a double life, pretending to be religious among his fellows and in public while drinking and philandering in secret. The contradiction devastates him. At the end of the book, Al-Mansouri visits the old book seller in his hometown who confronts him with his reality: “You are an opportunist.” But he is unable to change his duplicitous ways.
Like It Happened in Brighton, Fawzi’s previous novel, this is an eminently realistic and engaging read, and it deals with some of the most pressing issues in an appealing way
Reviewed by Nader Habib
Abdel-Aziz Al-Sebaie, Al-Askandriya: Sierra Ala Al-Hamesh (Alexandria: Biography on the Sideline), Insan Centre for Publishing and Distribution (Shakhabeit), 2020, pp140
Sierra Ala Al-Hamesh
As is clear from both title and cover – a drawing of the Alexandria tramway – this is a unique account of the cosmopolitan city of Alexandria during World War II, when it had the largest British naval base in the Mediterranean. Reproducing historical documents, the book delves into how Roman Catholic Greeks settled in Saint Catherine Square, capturing the details of the neighbourhood with its contrast of simple working-class houses and aristocratic residences, and discussing its gardens, churches, schools, streets, newspapers, factories as well as its rich architecture and the significance of Al-Mahmoudiya Canal that was originally dug in 1820 to supply Alexandria with fresh water and food from the Nile. The book also features glimpses of the Armenian and Jewish communities and where they lived in the city, and Alexandria as well and their secluded community and where the Jews used to live in Alexandria.
Abdel-Aziz Al-Sebaie, Misr Bain Al-Khanadek wal Makhabei (Egypt between Trenches and Hideouts), Insan Centre for Publishing and Distribution (Shakhabeit), 2020, pp270
Misr Bain Al-Khanadek wal Makhabei
During World War II (1939-1945), Egypt became a war zone in which Alexandria was a British base, with some Egyptians supporting the Allies and others supporting the Axis. What is less well known is how the war affected ordinary lives in Alexandria, bringing about a financial crisis and all kinds of restrictions, and often altering norms.
This book sheds light on every aspect of Egypt during World War II, showing how it played out in political, economic, social and the day-to-day life. Among other things it discusses how to set up a hideout in the basement of a building and includes a photo album showing the devastating effects of war along with such figures as Winston Churchill.
Ahmed Mourad, Lokandet Beir Al-Wataweet (Bat Well Hotel), Al-Shorouk Publishing House, 2020, pp253
Lokandet Beir Al-Wataweet
A small hotel named Bats Well in Al-Sayeda Zeinab, near the Ahmed Ibn Toloun mosque is being renovated in 2019 when a diary dating to 1865 is found walled in room no. 7. This is the premise of best-selling author Ahmed Mourad’s latest, which opens with the suicide note of Suliman Gaber Al-Sioufi Effendi, in which he asks the reader to look for and read his diary. As it turns out this man is a detective who, assigned to investigate the murder of a pasha, uncovers a series of murders.
Mourad, an Egyptian author and a screenwriter born in 1978, graduated from the Higher Institute of Cinema in 2001. His first novel was Vertigo (2007) and it was made into a TV series in 2012 starring Hind Sabri and directed by Othman Abu-Laban. Tourab Al-Mass (Diamond Dust, 2010) was made into a film in 2018 starring Assir Yassin and Menna Shalabi, directed by Marawan Hamed. So was Al-Feil Al-Azraq (The Blue Elephant, 2012), shortlisted for the Arabic Booker Prize in 2014 and adapted into a film starring Karim Abdel-Aziz and Khaled Al-Sawi. A sequel, Blue Elephant II, was released in 2019.
Nayra Atiya, Zikrayat: Eight Jewish Women Remember Egypt, AUC Press, 2020, pp156
Eight Jewish Women Remember Egypt
In the 1980s and the 1990s, author and historian Nayra Atiya managed to record the memoirs of eight Egyptian Jewish women living in New York. They were among the 60,000-strong Jewish community whose members were forced to leave Egypt after the Nakba of 1948 and the Tripartite Aggression of 1957. Surrounded by enmity and accusations of Zionism, their financial and sometimes physical well being was undermined – and they were encouraged to leave.
Narrated by Atiya, the testimonies of those eight women – who came from upscale neighbourhoods, lived in lavish houses and often summered in Europe – offer a coherent narrative of the lives of middle- and the upper-class Jews in Egypt and their powerful economic and artistic role in Egyptian society. When they left, many of them went to America and Europe rather than Israel. The book brilliantly captures both Egypt’s former cosmopolitanism and the women’s heartbreak.
Nayra Atiya is an Egyptian-American oral historian, writer and translator born in Egypt. The winner of the UNICEF Prize, Atiya is the author of Khul-Khaal: Five Egyptian Women Tell Their Stories (1982). She also translated the book Zanouba by Out El Koulob in 1996 and later wrote Shahaama: Five Egyptian Men Tell Their Stories (2016).
Hisham Al-Kheshin, Shelet Liban (Lebon Group), The Egyptian-Lebanese Publishing House, 2020, pp244
Set in one of the apartments in the Liban building in Zamalek – one of Cairo’s most exclusive and well-known, this was home to many celebrities – this book is about a group of friends who gather regularly in an apartment there, especially on New Year’s eves. Their friendship goes back to the late 1970s, but it is on New Year’s eve in that they discover a series of life-changing secrets.
Born in 1963, Hisham Al-Kheshin is a Berlin-based Egyptian author whose books Hekayat Masriya Gedan (Very Egyptian Tales), 7 Days in Tahrir and Hadath fi Berlin (It Happened in Berlin).
Mohamed Abul-Gharr, Al-Wabaa Alladhi Qatal 180 Alf Masri (The Pandemic that Killed 180 Thousand Egyptians), Al-Shorouk Publishing House, 2020, pp214
Al-Wabaa Alladhi Qatal 180 Alf Masri
This book offers an insight into the Spanish Flu pandemic (1918), which lasted from 1918 till 1920 and infected 500 million people when the world’s population was estimated at two billion, with an estimated death toll of 17-50 million. It also killed nearly 1.5 percent of Egypt’s population. Known as the deadliest pandemic in human history, which broke out during World War I, it is here compared to the Covid 19 pandemic which has a much lower death rate but a greater economic and social impact. With help from Texas University and Al-Ahram, modern-day polymath Mohamed Abul-Gharr manages to gather documents never before published on the Spanish Flu in Egypt.
Born in 1940, Abul-Gharr is a Cairo University gynaecologist and political activist who founded the 9 March Movement for the Independence of Universities in 2003 and took part in the 2011 January Revolution, later founding the Egyptian Social Democratic Party together with figures like political analyst Amr Hamzawi and filmmaker Daoud Abdel-Sayed. He is also on the board of the Sawiris Foundation for Social Development. He has written widely on history and politics.
Reviewed by Soha Hesham