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Egypt Readings

One way to learn about a culture is to peruse the literature.

Beer in the Snooker Club by Waguih Ghali. Political instability of the 1950s still resonates in Egypt today. The book is set against this backdrop as well as literary London. It’s been coined the Egyptian Catcher in the Rye.

Love in Exile / Sunset Oasis by Bahaa Taher. Cairo’s greatest literary secret, Taher is influential in the Arab world. He believes women in Egypt are still not free. The books reflect his frustration at Egypt’s stagnation under Hosni Mubarak, president since Sadat’s assassination in 1981 and now poised to hand power to his son Gamal.

Proud Beggars / The Colors of Infamy by Albert Cossery. Both I found last year in Paris, since the late Egyptian writer lived on Left bank and published books in French. He challenges the social norms by advocating idleness, the deprivation of luxury and simplicity in life.

Zayni Barakat by Gamal al-Ghitani. The book is set in Cairo during the waning years of the Mubarak era. The style is reminiscent of Mahfouz Naguib.

The Levant Trilogy by Olivia Manning. The novel is set in Cairo during World War II and gives detailed descriptions of life in the capital.

[804] The Visitors – Sally Beauman

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“The most powerful spells known to his priests were recorded on the tomb walls—and there was a reason for that. These tombs are not about death, Lucy: never make that mistake—they’re about conquering death. Everything in them is designed to ensure safe passage through the underworld and an afterlife that would never end.” (Ch.14, 123)

Set predominantly in 1922 but spans almost a decade, The Visitors is about the story of 20th century’s greatest archaeological find in Valley of the Kings in Egypt. The story is told by the fictional Lucy Payne, daughter of a Cambridge don, who has been sent to Egypt with her American governess to recover from typhoid, which killed her mother.

In the Valley, Lucy meets the real life Frances Winlock, daughter of Herbert Winlock, American archaeologist and field curator of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s excavation site near Luxor. Beauman creates a firm friendship between Lucy and Frances—together they shadow the band of real life archaeologists (Beauman thoughtfully provides a list of names in chronological order and divided by geography) in sharing the mounting excitement and anticipation for the new tomb’s discovery.

The Egypt part makes up a bulk of the novel. It is the complex web of relationships and acquaintances in Egypt that will partially contribute to Lucy’s subsequent life. One of the key issues is the proposition that Howard Carter (discoverer of King Tutankhamun’s tomb) and Lord Carnarvon entered the newly discovered tomb secretly before the official opening with the relevant government officials and removed certain artifacts. This allegedly illegal act tarnishes the reputation of both men, who had achieved celebrity status at the time of the discovery. Lucy reveals the extremes to which people are driven by desire and greed. She witnesses deception and questions by what rights does Carnarvon deny the Egyptians the right to enter the tomb.

Following Lucy’s departure from Egypt, the story moves on to events to her career in writing, her reacquaintance with his father, who married her ex-homeschooling teacher Nicola, her rackety marriage to a closet homosexual, her encounter with a TV producer who asks about her experience in Egypt some 60 years ago.

Beauman has written a book with superb detail, blending real life events, fictional and factual characters really well. Although at times the events that unravel after Lucy’s departure from Egypt can be tedious and not as palpable, Beauman has a wealth of material in which to explore personal relations. Lucy makes frequent references to that past that has entrapped her but also has sustained her to an old age as she has outlived almost everyone.

Beauman’s sophisticated writing style is endearing. The style is comparable to university discourse but the prose flows seamlessly. She makes sharp observations about the behaviors and morals of the British upper class and the American wealthy elites. She really nails that sense of entitlement at the time when imperialism and colonial were at their peak. This is evident as Egyptians are scarcely present in the story, though the new and pressing Egyptian nationalism features in the background.

529 pp. Harper Collins. Hardback. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[767] Palace Walk – Naguib Mahfouz

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“Please grant me these things. I want to play as much as I like, inside the house and out. I want Aisha and Khadija to stay in our house always. Please change my father’s temper and prolong my mother’s life forever. I wold like to have as much spending money as I can use and for us all to enter paradise without having to be judged.” (Ch.27, p.169)

Palace Walk is the first book of The Cairo Trilogy. It follows the Abd al-Jawad family living on Bayn al-Qasrayn, or Palace Walk, in Cairo during a time of political instability. Egyptian nationalists have frustrated the British occupying forces with continual demonstrations. But there is a silent revolution going on inside the Abd al-Jawad household, where the threat of paternal terror establishes an ingrained custom and a moral imperative. Women are secluded from the outside world to lead a pure life. Their only access to the world is looking through the peephole in the wooden latticework that forms a closed cage on the balcony. Married to Ahmed Abd al-Jawad at age 14, Amina obeys her husband without reservation or condition. She buries her thoughts and feelings, trying instead to derive a sense of security by blind obedience.

The children are suppressed, all leading an oppressively prim life. They are all deferential to Ahmed as befit in the military. The oldest son embarks on a disastrous marriage. The middle son, an attorney-to-be, falls in love with a neighbor’s daughter and becomes a political activist. The youngest son, inseparable from his mother and sisters, sees through the family’s unhappiness. The daughters must conform to Ahmed’s decree that the younger can never marry before the elder, and marriage is pre-arranged.

The revolution and everything it accomplished were no doubt beneficial, so long as they remained far removed from his household. Once the revolution knocked on his door, threatened his peace and security and the lives of his children, its flavor, complexion, and import were transformed into folly, madness, unruliness, and vulgarity. (Ch.62, p.422)

But Ahmed himself is far from the pious man he appears. At home he is a tyrant; yet the family reveres him as much as they fear him. He assures them of stability and security. Mahfouz spares us none of Ahmed’s insensitivity, both his amorous adventures and tyranny in domestic affairs, but shows us his fears and anxieties as well, and even makes reader sympathize with someone whose life is composed of a diversity of contradictory elements, wavering between piety and depravity. He epitomizes hypocrisy. He practices false patriotism.

Mahcouz’s characters and his insights into the religion in their lives are great appeal of the book. For all the family intrigues, Palace Walk is more than a domestic saga. It’s the novel of the awakening of an entire generation, men and women, rich and poor, educated and uncouth, to the social and political realities in early 20th century. Mahfouz enlivens the tumultuous time in which people have to preserve their Islamic faith and cultural identity as they are overwhelmed by foreign, secular ideologies.

498 pp. Anchor Books/Random House. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Amelia Edwards & Egypt

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Another great find from the used bookstore is A Thousand Miles up the Nile by Amelia Edwards. The book was first published in 1877. It chronicles her visit to Egypt in the winter of 1873-1874. My copy was an used 2010 edition by Cambridge University Press. The first edition is available at antiques dealer for upwards of $400. This book, along with The Culture of Ancient Egypt and Lonely Planet Egypt will be my primer for the trip to Egypt.

Edwards traveled up the Nile from Cairo to Abu Simbel (where the sites of Ramases II monuments) and back. Edwards became fascinated with ancient Egypt as a result of this visit, founding the Egypt Exploration Fund in 1882 and devoting the rest of her life to Egyptology and the protection of Egypt’s ancient monuments. She learned the hieroglyphic characters, and made a considerable collection of Egyptian antiquities.

The view along the Nile might not have changed drastically since her visit, except more cruising boats might crowd up the river as travel becomes more accessible now. Edwards did not just have a jolly boat trip down the Nile in more agreeable weather. No, she was already aware of the threat that tourism and urban development posed to Egyptian archaeological sites. Edwards campaigned to increase public awareness and encourage further scientific research. To this end, in 1882, she co-founded the Egypt Exploration Fund (now the Egypt Exploration Society) with Reginald Stuart Poole, The British Museum’s curator of the Department of Coins and Medals.

Mahfouz and Egypt

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I read Naguib Mahfouz out of curiosity for Egypt, the anicent civilization of Pharaohs, Sphinx and the pyramids. Indeed, for centuries most Westerners thought of the Middle East as a place of mystery, where writers like Sir Richard Burton and T. E. Lawrence swaggered across sandy landscapes and returned with accounts of the exotic customs they had glimpsed there. More recently, the mystery has turned sinister; many of us have come to believe that the entire Islamic world is seething with inscrutable religious fanaticism that ferments violence and mayhem.

It was in the midst of all these stereotypes that Naguib Mahfouz, then unknown to the English-speaking world, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988. Until this year, his masterpiece, The Cairo Trilogy, published in Arabic in 1956-57, has been unavailable in translation. Now, finally, readers can see for themselves why Mr. Mahfouz has long been considered the finest Arab writer of modern times.

Palace Walk, the first volume of the trilogy, centers on the life of a family living through the period between the end of World War I and the beginning of the 1919 revolution against British rule, a time of dramatic change in Egypt. The family’s patriarch, al-Sayyid Ahmad, is a member of the colorful fraternity of Cairo merchants. At home, he is a tyrant who has forbidden his wife to go outside the walls of the house for 25 years. When he discovers that his adolescent son Fahmy has a crush on a neighbor’s daughter, al-Sayyid is enraged. Yet his wife and children revere him as much as they fear him. The father is a complex figure, whose life is “composed of a diversity of mutually contradictory elements, wavering between piety and depravity.” In his shop he is generous and gregarious, and on his nightly carousings with other middle-aged businessmen he is a connoisseur of fine wines and fleshly courtesans.

Then, as now, the issues in Egypt center on several key themes: the role of women in society, moderate versus radical Islam, democracy, and military repression. The recent revolution distinguished itself in that women fought alongside the men in Tahrir Square. Yet those same women were sidelined in the formation of the new government. And some of them were arrested by the military and issued humiliating “virginity tests.” The same old battles remain. The new president, Mohammed Morsi, promises to respect international treaties and even to choose a woman and a Christian as vice presidents. But he comes from the Muslim Brotherhood, known for marginalizing women and Christians.

Mahfouz describes the first days of post-revolutionary Cairo as having a tenuous calm. At the same time, he describes Cairo as having “come back to life … The heart of the nation was throbbing. It was alive and in rebellion.” It’s a sentiment recently shared by Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif, who tells of the same euphoria after the 2011 uprising, describing friends on antidepressants “who, over the 20 days of revolution, forgot to take their pills and have now thrown them away. Such is the effect of the Egyptian revolution.”

The series hardly seems to have aged in the nearly six decades since publication. The novels record the voice of a people coming to terms with their own power, facing the thrill—and fear—of taking their destiny in their own hands. There has perhaps never been a better time to read them.

[664] The Map of Love – Ahdaf Soueif

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” Here in Tawasi, I reflect on my English life and I find myself wondering if there is some sense in which this, Anna’s Egyptian life, will only be fully real to her once it has been linked with her older one . . . In Egypt she met a man she could love and married him, she had his child, she found a place within his family. She also found a cause. But she cannot speak her own language, cannot see her own people—and they cannot, or will not, see her. Does this cast a doubt over her life—make it seem provisional? ” (Ch.27, p.465)

Spanning three continents and the course of a century, The Map of Love on the surface is a cross-cultural love affair. But it goes deeper into how love works to bind people and places together and delves into politics that all too often destroys people. In 1900, a young English widow, Anna Winterbourne, intrigued with the country that killed her husband goes to Egypt for the first time. She chooses to deviate from the well-trodden path of expatriate life and comes to experience the true Egypt, most especially and vicariously through the family of the ardent, well-educated nationalist Sharif Pasha al-Baroudi. Their acquaintance originates from a less-than-plausible incident in which Sharif, bent on ending British Occupation in Egypt, has kidnapped the traveling Anna disguised as a man. Her story is fairly straight-forward, even traditional, in its romanticism. They fall in love and lead a simplistic life, even if overshadowed by roiling politics. It’s a story of her assimilation to Egyptian life.

And there are other divisions: people who would have tolerated the establishment of secular education, or the graduation disappearance of the veil, now fight these developments because they feel a need to hold on to their traditional values in the face of the Occupation. (Ch.23, p.384)

The modern-time story concerns Isabel Parkman, a divorced American journalist who falls in love with a gifted but difficult Egyptian-American conductor Omar. She inherits a trunk full of souvenirs from the past, journals and trinkets belonging to her great-grandmother, Anna Winterbourne. Omar suggests her to take the trunk to Cairo, to show his sister, Amal, who might be able to translate the papers and piece together the narratives. The axis for the twin wheels of the plot is Amal, a woman who escapes a broken marriage in England and returns to her homeland to take up the nationalist cause. She loses herself cathartically in the remnants of Anna’s life. The love affair between Anna and Sharif affects the empty-hearted Amal.

The Map of Love is redolent of history and politics. It’s fraught with political conflicts that plague Egypt during the first half of 20th century—from British Occupation to the Arabic-Israeli War in 1967. The legacies of British occupation percolate even to Amal’s generation. So too does the Zionist movement. Although the historical strands can be tendentious and tedious, the book does show how love can grow in the interstices between countries, even between different times. Love encompasses a far broader map than just romance.The narrative voice in the book switches constantly between Anna’s journal, Sharif’s sister’s journal, Anna’s inner musings and Amal’s third-person voice. This inconsistency marks the pace of the book and renders the writing rich. The only downside is the lack of a resolution.

528 pp. Anchor Books. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]