Law and Conversation

February 4, 2011

Egypt: Politics and Literature

With the unrest in Egypt as the major world news story, it seems like a good time to talk about Egyptian literature.

I love reading literature from other parts of the world.  It’s a good way of experiencing areas to which you’re unlikely to travel any time soon.  Or, if you’ve already been to a place where a book is set, your memories of it can charge your reading experience with extra resonance.

So I was really looking forward to immersing myself in the paperback English translations of the “Cairo Trilogy” by Nobel literature laureate Naguib Mahfouz, which have dreamy, atmospheric photographs of Egyptian scenes on their covers that enticed me to settle down for a long, satisfying read.

Mahfouz’s story, which unfolds over a number of years from the early to the mid-20th century and depicts Egypt’s political history during that turbulent time, held my interest.  Disappointingly, though, I didn’t much enjoy it.  

It took me a while to figure out why; for a while I blamed my own shortcomings as a reader, and I also considered whether the translation might be a factor.  But now I think I’ve identified the problem:  I didn’t find the trilogy’s central character, al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, persuasive. 

Mahfouz portrays al-Sayyid Ahmad as a selfish, sanctimonious hypocrite and petty despot at home who insists on the highest standards of behavior for his family members and absolute servility toward him while displaying zero affection for them.  Out and about in Cairo, tippling with his friends and mistress, al-Sayyid is a genial bon vivant, loquacious and generous. 

The narrative gave me no understanding of why al-Sayyid Ahmad’s wife and daughters—or even his sons—possessed so much love for him.  Real people, and convincing fictional characters, are complex and sometimes contradictory.  Al-Sayyid seemed not one complex and three-dimensional character, but actually two two-dimensional characters:  an absolute Dr. Jekyll outside his home, and an absolute Mr. Hyde within his home, with the twain neither meeting nor mixing.  His wife, Amina, seemed likewise flat to me.  Mahfouz makes her a saint and enabler who, inexplicably, never, ever appears to resent or feel any conflict about her husband’s treatment of her and their daughters as slaves.  Two-dimensional characters are neither convincing nor compelling.  I’d expected better from a Nobel prizewinner.

Two other Egyptian authors whose books are worth a look are Nawal el Saadawi and Lucette Lagnado.  Saadawi is a medical doctor, feminist author and delightful speaker, and has been an outspoken critic of the Egyptian government.  Lagnado’s family left Egypt as part of the Jewish exodus after Nasser came to power and settled in the US.  She now writes for The Wall Street Journal and published a memoir focusing on her father, “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit.”  Though on her publisher’s author page she gracefully declines to discuss works in progress, I’m hoping that, as her Wikipedia page says, another memoir in which she turns her focus to her mother will come out later this year.

If you’ve read Mahfouz’s work, did you have the same reaction I did, or do you think I’m missing something?  Are any of his other books better than the “Cairo Trilogy?”  Any other Egyptian writers you’d recommend?  As I write this post, Andre Aciman comes to mind, and, though Lawrence Durrell was British, so does his “Alexandria Quartet.”  M. Lynx Qualey, a writer and reader who lives in Egypt, has a nice list of Egyptian writers on her very cool blog, Arabic Literature (in English).  I see that The Ruth Group also has a post with convenient links and suggestions for Egyptian, Tunisian, and other Arab literature.

In the meantime, let’s hope that the rule of law and reason will soon provide a peaceful resolution of Egypt’s disquiet.

UPDATES:  Alexander Star in The New York Times has A Reading List for the Egypt Crisis up that includes Mahfouz and others.  (Hat Tip: Eric and Laura at Pimp My Novel.)   And Nina Sankovitch of Read All Day clearly wouldn’t agree with my views on The Cairo Trilogy.

August 20, 2010

Stories from the Islamic world

Ayaan Hirsi Ali has an editorial this week in The Wall Street Journal entitled “How to Win the Clash of Civilizations” .  She argues that Western news media have incorrectly framed the controversies over the proposed mosque near Ground Zero, the eviction of American missionaries from Morocco earlier this year, the minaret ban in Switzerland last year, and the recent burqa ban in France as matters of religious tolerance.  In Ali’s view, those matters are symptoms of a monumental conflict between civilizations.  You can listen to an interview with Ali on Radio New Zealand‘s “Saturday Morning With Kim Hill” from June 18 of this year in which she suggests that democracy is incapable of addressing Islamic fundamentalism, a discouraging idea for anyone who is accustomed to using and upholding Western democratic laws and who has faith in democratic and legal solutions for conflicts.

I don’t know enough about Islam, international relations, or, indeed, Ali herself, to have an opinion on Ali’s views, which have garnered her death threats.  I do know, though, that the Islamic world has a rich storytelling tradition.  Scheherezade, after all, has to be one of the greatest storytellers ever (though she herself is a story, and was not a real person), and The Arabian Nights should lead anyone’s list of great story collections.  (Geert Jan van Gelder discussed the relative merits of the various English translations in the TLS last year.)

Here are some other books, old and recent, fiction and nonfiction, that illustrate, explain, and uphold that tradition:

1) Damascus Nights, by Rafik Schami.  Salim, a coachman in mid-20th century Damascus, inexplicably loses his voice.  For seven nights, seven of his friends gather to tell seven stories in an attempt to cure him.  (Schami writes in German.  The English translation of Schami’s latest book, “The Dark Side of Love,” was published last year.  From the reviews, it sounds like it, too, is full of great stories.)

2) Tales from the Alhambra, by Washington Irving, another great writer who was trained as a lawyer.  Stories and essays inspired by the author’s 1828 trip to the Moorish palace in Granada, Spain.  Saudi Aramco World has a virtual tour of the Alhambra here.

3) The Khamseh of Nizami.  12th century stories from a Persian poet that are as enthralling today as they were 800 years ago.

4) Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi.  Graphic memoir in 2 volumes from a child’s perspective about life in Iran pre- and post-revolution.  Vol. 2 chronicles Satrapi’s life as an adolescent in Vienna, where her parents send her for her own safety.  Bookslut has an interview with Satrapi here; the Guardian has one here.

5) Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azir Nafisi.  Thoughtful, analytic memoir about life in Iran pre- and post-1979, centered around Nafisi’s passion for the Persian storytelling tradition and world literature.  Jian Ghomeishi, host of the CBC’s Q radio program, interviewed her on June 15, 2010; you can listen to it here.

6) Things I’ve Been Silent About, also by Azir Nafisi.  Her second memoir, mostly about her fraught relationship with her mother.

7) Motoring With Mohammed, by Eric Hansen.  Fascinating travel tale about Hansen’s quest to retrieve his journals in Yemen, which he’d buried ten years earlier.  Hansen contributes articles to Saudi Aramco World; you can read an interview with him here.

8) The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini ,  An upper-middle-class Afghan boy behaves dishonorably in the first part of the book but reflects on it and, in the end, redeems himself.  A friend tells me that Hosseini’s followup novel, “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” is even better.

Mary Zimmerman, a Chicago theatre director and professor at Northwestern University, adapted the Arabian Nights and Mirror of the Invisible World:  the Khamseh of Nizami into magical theatre productions for Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company and Goodman Theatre, respectively.

If you’d like to read more about the Islamic world, Saudi Aramco World is a beautiful and fascinating magazine published by the Arabian American Oil Company.  Each issue has a variety of articles on eclectic topics and is gorgeously illustrated on high-quality paper.  There’s no advertising, and the company will send it to you for FREE.

What are your favorite stories or books inspired by the Islamic world?

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