Egyptian Literature Today

As the largest Arabic-speaking country (at 70+ million inhabitants and counting), Egypt, with its teeming capital of Cairo, plays a disproportionately large role in the intellectual and cultural life of the Arab world. From the pan-Arab nationalism of the 1950s and 1960s to the Islamist movement of today, Egypt has always been at the forefront of new ideas in the region. But while Egypt is very much part of a greater Arabic-speaking literary and cultural milieu, Egyptians are also keenly aware of themselves as heirs to-or at least distant descendants of-the millennia-long civilization of ancient Egypt.

I hope that the pieces in this month's issue will provide some idea of the rich variety of current Egyptian fiction. A number of the stories included here touch on themes that reflect some of the rapid changes that Egypt has undergone in the past few decades, as well as some troubling realities. In the excerpt from Hamdy Abu Golayyel's novel, we see the hypocrisy behind a façade of morality (a side-effect of the growing public piety of the country in the last several decades.) The frustrations many Egyptians feel about a stunted political system and an unresponsive government bureaucracy seem to make their way into Mahmoud al-Wardani's eerie, Kafkaesque short story. So too, Salwa Bakr's seemingly simplistic fable offers a reminder about the fleeting nature of power. And in "Mrs. Saniya's Holiday," Naam el-Baz presents a slice of life from one of Cairo's lower-class neighborhoods-a portrait of a poor but economically independent woman laboring over her sewing machine to provide for her children.

Poetry in Egypt plays a far more central role in literary and popular culture than it does in the United States, and new books of poems are routinely reviewed in major newspapers and widely read. I've included two current poets-the young Tamer Fathy, and the more established Iman Mersal-to indicate some of the vibrancy and vitality of Egyptian poetry today.

Rapid changes have brought with them a sense of displacement for many Egyptians-a theme frequently reflected in current literature. Far from the urban environment of Cairo, in the southern regions of the country, is old Nubia: the former Nile-side homeland of the Nubian ethnic group, now lost forever under the waters of the man-made Lake Nasser. When the High Dam was built in the 1960s, the Nubians' river villages were flooded, and the Nubians themselves scattered either to "new Nubia" farther downstream, or to Alexandria or Cairo. The engaging story of Haggag Oddoul-himself of Nubian origin-recreates life in a Nubian village as it was. And Mohamed Makhzangi's account of life as an Egyptian living in Ukraine during the Chernobyl disaster touches on universal themes about the loneliness of the outsider.

The modern descendant of one of humanity's oldest civilizations, Egypt today sits at a number of crossroads-political, social, geographical, and cultural. Like the country itself, Egypt's literature is pulled in several directions at once, embodying both the tensions and the possibilities that lie ahead for this ancient land by the Nile.

—Chip Rossetti

January 2006, Cairo