Book Reviews: All the world’s an alley

Soha Hesham , Saturday 11 Sep 2021


Naguib Mahfouz died 15 years ago this Tuesday, at the age of 94, having all but single-handedly established the novel as an Arabic literary form over a 70-year career in which he published 35 novels and ten times as many short stories, writing 26 film scripts, all while keeping up his routine as a civil servant and a weekly gathering with fellow public intellectuals. In 1988, at the age of 77, he became the only Arab author to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature; he did not make the journey to Stockholm, but delegated a writer friend to read an acceptance speech on his behalf. It was the year Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses was published.

Following the World Trade Centre bombing of 1993, the New York-based terrorist leader Omar Abdel-Rahman condemned Mahfouz as, among other things, an agent of the infidel West. He based his verdict on the 1959 novel Children of Gebelawi, in reality a deeply conservative allegory which had never been published in book form in Egypt due to censure from the religious authorities.

At the age of 82, as a result, Mahfouz was stabbed in the neck by a young follower of the deranged Blind Sheikh outside his house. Though he survived, he sustained permanent damage in his vocal chords and the nerves controlling his right hand; he could not write for longer than a few minutes a day; and that is how he came to produce the remarkable collections of vignettes Echoes of an Autobiography (1994) and Dreams of the Rehabilitation Period (2004), so different from his normally expansive prose.


Though seldom dazzling, Mahfouz’s writing is as various as it is consistent; a sense of wisdom often governs the fates of his characters, who embody rather than rebel against the received social, cultural and religious norms, but do so in full dialogue with the realities of the modern world and the challenges – moral as well as economic – of the human condition. Often criticized for his moderate politics, in one 1950s Marxist critique Mahfouz was famously described as “the petty bourgeois author”, but in the end his vision survived not only the fall of the Soviet Union but also the rise of Islamist terrorism; and he was to pay a higher price for secularism and liberalism than any of his leftist critics.

Besides The Trilogy (1956-57) – his best known work – Mahfouz is fondly remembered for Midaq Alley (1947) – an intense, character-driven drama of rare artistry and depth, which has been made into a Mexican as well as an Egyptian film – and the sagely, lyrical Harafish epic (1977). Both are set in grassroots Cairo, where he was born and grew up, moving to banks of the Nile when he married at the age of 45.


The weight of life

Centred on the possibility of starting over, Mahmoud Ahmed Faiz’s page-turner Min awwel w gedid (From Scratch), published by Kitabi this year, is a thought-provoking novel that recalls a Bollywood feature in its range, melodrama and entertainment value. The action, which takes place over several decades from 1988 to 2023, has several, progressive climaxes; and its characters are many and various.

Two pivotal characters are Tamer, the nephew, and Hazem, the maternal uncle; both play heroic roles despite moments of weakness in the course of the book tackling a range of issues: family, divorce, child rearing, immigration and, perhaps most impressively, disability. This is expertly woven into the fabric of an extremely complex if fully accessible and engaging narrative, in which the dark, upsetting events are counterbalanced with comic relief and frequent happy endings. A sense of redemption is often felt in the development of interpersonal relations, with such ideas as a simple apology taking on impressive moral weight.


Mohammed Abdel-Nabi, Fi Ghurfat Al-Kitaba: Ta’amulat Adabiya (In the Writing Room, Reflections on Literature), Al-Karma Publishing House, 2021, pp208

Novelist Mohammed Abdel-Nabi takes us on a journey through his creative practice. In a non-fiction book, he reflects on how fiction writers discover their ideas and deploy their talent regardless of technicalities. He also reflects on some existential issues like how literary taste forms and the value of silence and isolation to the novelist. Abdel Nabi also delves into the connection between music and writing; he gives only inconclusive answers to various debates related to literature in particular and the arts in general.  

An Egyptian novelist and translator born in 1977, Abdel-Nabi studied languages and translations at Al-Azhar University, founding a creative writing workshop named Al-Hekaya wi Ma Fiha (All About Tales). He has published five collections of short stories including The Ghost of Anton Chekhov, which won the Sawiris Award for Literature in 2010, Warda Lel Khawanna (A Rose for Traitors, 2016) and Kan Yamakan (Once Upon a Time, 2018), a novella, Imprisoned Phantoms (2000) and such acclaimed and prize-winning novels as Regou Al-Sheikh (The Return of the Sheikh, 2011) and Fi Ghorfet Al-Ankabout (In the Spider’s Chamber, 2016), which was on the shortlist of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction and won the French Prize for Arabic Literature at the Institute of the Arab World in Paris.


Mina Nagy, 33: Aan Al-Faqd wal Rohab (33: On Loss and Phobia), Al-Maraya Publishing House, 2021, pp150

After the sudden loss of his mother, who was neither ill nor old, Mina Nagy chose to deal with his grief in the form of non-fiction, attempting to reinvent the world as he sees it in order to go beyond “the disaster”. In the first part of the book, he composes a diary of poetry as well as prose embodying his struggle.

The second part of the book is an essay on agoraphobia, a condition from which Nagy has suffered for most of his life, which he approaches through the lens of the Covid-19 lockdown and the January and June revolution curfews, among other angles. It is a separate topic but not unrelated.

Nagy has written poetry and short stories as well as two novels, Bila Ajneha (Wingless, 2016) and Madinat Al-Shams (City of the Sun, 2020). This is his first foray into literary nonfiction.


Adel Esmat, Ganazet Al-Sayeda Al-Baydaa (The Funeral of the Al-Abyad Woman), Al-Kotob Khan Publishing House, 2021, pp278

This novel revolves around Neema, a woman from a village named Nakhtai, during her last day on earth, but it doesn’t tell her story so much as that of a whole country, complete with challenging circumstances and difficult choices, from the arrival of the French in 1798 to the January Revolution of 2011. Many readers can relate to the changes occurring in Takhtai through Neema, her husband, colonel Othman Al-Fiki and her three children, Manar, Marwan and Somaya.

Neema’s decision to marry Othman over the love of her life Hamdi Badran is one key to her miserable life, the colonel being a vivid symbol of the patriarchal authority that tyrannizes her and her children. The novel thus also deals with generational conflict and historical disaffection. By these means Adel Esmat manages to eliminate the space separating the personal from the public and retell the history of modern Egypt through the intimate, relatable experiences of a typical family.

Born near Tanta in 1959, Adel Esmat graduated from Ain Shams University, where he studied philosophy, in 1984, earning a second degree in library science in Tanta two years later. His first novel, Hages Al-Mawt (Death Premonition) appeared in 1995; he has since published one collection of short stories, Qusasat (Fragments, 2015) and nine other novels including Tales of Yusuf Tadrous, for which he received the 2016 Naguib Mahfouz Medal. The Commandments was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2019, and The Days of the Blue Windows earned the State Incentive Prize in 2011.


Mohamed Al-Makhzangi, Raq Al-Habib (The Lovers’ Heart Softens), Al-Shorouk Publishing House, 2021, pp168

This is a collection of ten short stories in which an acknowledged master of the genre blends reality with imagination and the old with the new. Dealing with both the cholera epidemics of the past and the Coronavirus pandemic, Al-Makhzangi makes a powerful statement on our times.  The title is a tribute to the famous Um Kulthoum, often heard in the background.

Born in 1949 in Mansoura, Mohamed Al-Makhzangi studied medicine, specialising in psychiatry and alternative medicine, first in Cairo, then in Kiev, where he was when the Chernobyl disaster took place. But he worked as a writer and editor, notably at the Kuwaiti magazine Al-Arabi. His most recent books include Janouban wa Sharqan (South and East, 2011) and Haywanat Ayamna (Animals of Our Days, 2006).


Michel Hanna, Al-Sahera wal Kalb (The Witch and the Dog), Al-Shorouk Publishing House, 2021, pp124

Michel Hanna’s debut has a 15-year-old, middle-class protagonist from Heliopolis struggling through adolescence while he tries to push away a strange woman hell bent on seducing his father. As it turns out that woman is a witch who turns the boy into a dog when he refuses to move out of her way; from then on the novel offers a dog’s eye view of the streets of the suburb, as aware of dogs as he is of animals.

Born in 1977, Michel Hanna is well known for his relentless efforts to document Cairo’s heritage on social media and his focus on Heliopolis. He has won awards for his short stories, but he has also written on photography and mythology.


Ashraf El-Ashmawi, Salet Orfanelli (Orfanelli’s Hall), The Egyptian-Lebanese Publishing House, 2021, pp424

The latest novel by Ashraf El-Ashmawi tackles the unusual, forgotten world of auction halls in Egypt. Set before the 1952 revolution and revolving around two characters, Orfanelli – an Egyptian Jew of Italian origin – and Mansour, an indigenous Muslim, who own an auction hall named Orfanelli-Mansour.

The novel sheds light on the strong Jewish presence in the Egyptian economy and the community’s strong ties with the royal family. Orfanelli and Mansour have a love-hate relationship. When the former attempts to bring in his son, the latter’s sneaky attitude turns it into an open conflict, leading to Orfanelli’s death; eventually Mansour decides he needs to kill Orfanelli’s wife too, to be the sole owner of the business. But it is Orfanelli Junior who plans and executes his revenge.

 Ashraf Al-Ashmawi is a judge and legal scholar who found his passion in fiction. His novels include The Time and the Hyenas, Informant and Toya (long-listed for the Arabic Booker in 2013), The Barman, An Only Ticket  to Cairo, The Lady of Zamalek and The Copt’s House.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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