In October, I left the beautiful autumn world of Holland behind to study Arabic in Egypt for a while. A day before my departure, I went to my favorite independent bookshop in the center of Rotterdam to frantically buy as many books as my arms could carry and my already depleted budget would allow. Not that I really expected that Egypt wouldn’t have any English language bookshops, but still, what if. I’m sure every bibliophile has experienced this holiday book-packing stress. Luckily, after arrival in Cairo I found that this city is the Arab powerhouse of culture, and specifically of literature. Not a lot of Egypt’s rich literary tradition is available in English, but after searching and serendipitous finding, I have compiled a list of books to read for everyone visiting, or just generally interested in reading a story set in this ancient land.
Ahdaf Soueif’s The Map of Love
“If people can write to each other across space, why can they not write across time too?”
History coated with the stories of an Englishwoman who falls in love with an Egyptian nationalist at the turn of the 20th century and their descendants. By an Egyptian author who writes in English, this book connects a compelling love story with political analysis. It touches on themes of colonialism, the Arabic language and early Zionism. The detailed narrative evokes worlds past and distant, without ever being orientalist. The magic of the Sinai desert, as well as bustling modern day Cairo are described by the characters in rich prose. Being outsiders, the characters looking at their surroundings with new eyes, but always aware of the history of the place.
At times this book may feel like a sugarcoated, Disney-ish romance, but it’s still definitely worth a read.
Naguib Mahfouz’ Khufu’s Wisdom
“A priest’s life is spent between question and answer– or between a question and the attempt to answer it. The question is the summary of the spiritual life.”
Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988, Naguib Mahfouz penned down a lot of novels worth reading. However, this one stands out because of the time and setting. Part of a trilogy of novels set in ancient Egypt, Khufu’s Wisdom transports us back to golden age of the Old Kingdom, the high point of civilization in the third millennium BC. The monarch faces the prospect of the end of his rule and the possibility that his daughter has fallen in love with the man prophesied to be his successor. The modern counterpart of this trilogy is the Nobel laureate’s more famous Cairo Trilogy, also well worth a read.
Alaa al-Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building
“Everything that happened to you is a page that’s been turned and is done with.”
While I haven’t read this one myself, every Egyptian I meet hails this book as essential to understand more of modern Egypt. The story is about the residents of a decaying Art Deco building in polluted downtown Cairo. This international bestseller deals with political corruption, sexual repression, and religious extremism, but not without that undying hope characteristic of humanity.
Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile
“Oh, I’m not afraid of death! What have I got to live for after all? I suppose you believe it’s very wrong to kill a person who has injured you-even if they’ve taken away everything you had in the world?”
This is a classic Agatha Christie detective starring the sleuth Hercule Poirot, who has to solve the murder of a young, beautiful girl on a cruise along the Nile. An easy and entertaining read, especially when you’re doing a Nile cruise yourself.
Cavafy’s The Complete Poems
”Now they’ve come before Jerusalem.
Passions, avarice, and ambition,
as well as their chivalrous pride
have swiftly slipped from their souls.”
Pick up this or any other work by this Greek poet, who lived in the port city of Alexandria for most of his life, when you’re traveling to Egypt’s north coast. These poems are at times nostalgic, evoking a bygone era, and lay bare the pain of loss and the beauty of a temporary world.