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January 2006

Words Cannot Be Weighed: Literature From Egypt

"With the confidence of a woman who knows three languages," the Egyptian writers featured here write fabulism, social realism, modernist irony, and other tongues. In "Veiler of all deeds," by Hamdi Abu Golayyel, "People are delighted when they hear the news that a pious man has been caught red-handed in some wrongful act." A man waiting for a job interview is his own worst enemy in Mahmoud al Wardani's "The Dark and the Daylight," while a seamstress stitches a life for her children in Na'am al-Baz's "Mrs. Saniya's Holiday." The sensual crooning of a wedding singer awakens old and new passions on an island in the Nile, between Egypt and Sudan, in Haggag Hassan Oddoul's "Flirting with the Moon." A hen and a rooster aim for respect and bring about a cultural revolution in Salwa Bakr's "The Rooster's Egg: A Fable of Ancient Thebes." Literary journalist Mohamed Makhzangi observes spring in Chernobyl after nuclear disaster. And poets Tamer Fathy and Iman Mersal, like the Bedouin in Mersal's "Sometimes Wisdom Possesses Me," "knew early on that words fly/and cannot be weighed."

Thanks to Chip Rossetti of American University in Cairo Press -- the most prolific and essential publisher of Arabic literature in English -- for his labors as guest editor in bringing us these works.

Photo by Ehab Samy

The Flesh and the Bones
By Rubem Fonseca
My plane wasn’t leaving till the next day. For the first time, I regretted not having a picture of my mother with me, but I’d always thought it idiotic to go around with family pictures in…
Translated from Portuguese by Clifford E. Landers
The Rooster’s Egg: A Fable of Ancient Thebes
By Salwa Bakr
It is hard not to read this story as a lesson about the arbitrary nature of power and attendant reversals of fortune. Some historical background: Akhenaten, originally Amenhotep IV (1353-1335 B.C.), was…
Translated from Arabic by Chip Rossetti
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…
The Dark and The Daylight
By Mahmoud El-Wardani
NOTE: Mahmoud El-Wardani (born Cairo, 1950) has published six novels and several collections of short stories. Typically his works are dispassionate and discontinuous depictions of ambiguous, disturbing…
Translated from Arabic by William Maynard Hutchins
Happiness
I believe the stretcher whisked by two as the patient's coma is interrupted on it. I doubt the sympathy in the eyes that follow the scene. I respect the fisherman because he is the only one who understands…
Translated from Arabic
Voice
Dilapidated wall I asked myself Today why she Didn't hang herself Lea, the blonde Lea At night with a rope She'd have dangled Like a ripe pear And the street dogs Would have barked People would…
Translated from Romanian
The Veiler of All Deeds
By Hamdi Abu Golayyel
When Abu Gamal revealed Shaykh Hasan's secret to the residents of Number 36 . . .
Translated from Arabic by Marilyn Booth
Learn
Mrs. Saniya’s Holiday
By Na’am al-Baz
Forget the admirer, Saniya. This guy will not take care of you.
Translated from Arabic by Alexa Firat
Learn
Flirting with the Moon
By Haggag Hassan Oddoul
NOTE: Haggag Hassan Oddoul (born Alexandria, Egypt, 1944) an ethnic Nubian author–who writes in Arabic–did construction work on the Aswan High Dam and has served in the Egyptian armed forces…
Translated from Arabic by William Maynard Hutchins
Memories of Chernobyl
By Mohamed Makhzangi
The entire city began to wash itself ceaselessly . . .
Translated from Arabic by Samah Selim
Learn
In Perfect Happiness
By Iman Mersal
Before I sleepI will take the phone to bedand talk to them about many thingsto make sure they are really there,that they have dates for the weekend,and enough securitythat makes them fear old ageand makes…
Translated from Arabic by Khaled Mattawa
He Marks the Weak Point
By Iman Mersal
Of course,the concrete pillars are not lacking in delicacy,and the columns of old houses are a nostalgia all their own.He added that he marks the weak pointand distributes its weight among the relatively…
Translated from Arabic by Khaled Mattawa
Sometimes Wisdom Possesses Me
By Iman Mersal
One day wisdom will possess me / and I will not go to the party.
Translated from Arabic by Khaled Mattawa
Learn
When Clothes Were Small
By Tamer Fathy
NOTE: This poem is taken from a debut collection published in 2005 entitled Yesterday I Lost A Button. All of the poems in the book revolved around clothes: their personalities, their memories, and…
Translated from Arabic by Taline Voskeritchian & Chris Millis
I Look Around Me
By Iman Mersal
With the alertness of a creatureexpecting its demiseI usually look around me.Perhaps that is whymy neck has a strengththat does not match my body,and what is surprisingis that I do not foresee live bulletsfrom…
Translated from Arabic by Khaled Mattawa
Things Elude Me
By Iman Mersal
One day I will pass by/ the house that used to be my home.
Translated from Arabic by Khaled Mattawa
Learn
Amina
By Iman Mersal
My perfect friend,/ why don't you leave now.
Translated from Arabic by Khaled Mattawa
Learn
I Have A Musical Name
By Iman Mersal
Maybe the window I sat byforetold an unusual glory.I wrote on my notebooks:Iman . . .A student at: Iman Mersal Elementary School.Neither the teacher's rodnor the laughs that leapt from the desks at…
Translated from Arabic by Khaled Mattawa
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