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Reading Egypt

Like many people, I’ve been riveted to the reports coming out of Egypt this past week. Prior to rejoining DGLM, I lived and worked in Cairo for several years, and I have watched, electrified, exhilarated and terrified at the history-making events unfolding in Egypt. Tahrir Square, which has been the nerve center of the protests, is not far from where my office at the American University in Cairo Press was located. Indeed, the press’s proximity to the demonstrations made it an easy target. The offices were ransacked, and the looters left a path of pointless destruction in their wake.  I feel terrible for my former officemates but far more relieved that they themselves are all safe.

Internet connectivity was restored yesterday (alarming and outrageous that the internet, along with cell phone service, can be summarily “switched off””) so I was, at long last, able to communicate with friends and colleagues whose first-hand reports were welcome after so much anxious speculation.  Yesterday’s violence—clashes between anti-government protesters and pro Mubarak “supporters” widely believed to be security forces brought in to incite violence—was deplorable, and the potential for greater bloodshed remains. While it is impossible to predict what will transpire in the coming weeks (it is my fervent wish that Egypt will get the democratic, free and fair government its people desire and deserve), it is possible to better understand the social and political forces that brought tens of thousands of ordinary people to go to such extraordinary measures.

Given that this is a blog devoted to publishing and not politics, I’ll leave the analysis to people better qualified to make it (but check out Mona El Tahawy), the reportage to the people actually in Cairo (worth reading the TheArabist.net), and recommend a brief reading list, one that can provide some context for the extraordinary events of the last ten days.  The following books are by no means a comprehensive list, but they do represent a good and engrossing starting point to getting a bead on Egypt.

In fiction, the late Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz’s Karnak Café. His Cairo trilogy is better known, but this slim volume looks at the repressive political atmosphere of the Nasser era and could well have been written last year.

Alaa Al Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building, which shines a revelatory light on the fictional inhabitants, rich and poor, virtuous and venal, of an actual Cairo apartment building

Sonallah Ibrahim’s ZAAT, a darkly funny political satire of one Egyptian woman’s misadventures under three regimes.

In nonfiction, Galal Amin’s Whatever Happened to the Egyptians: Changes in Egyptian Society from 1950 to the Present, a lively and lighthearted (really) discussion of the vast changes Egypt has undergone. Egypt on the Brink: From Nasser to Mubarak by Tarek Osman, and Arthur Goldschmidt’s Modern Egypt: The Making of a Nation State, both of which are thoughtful, comprehensive and readable.

Feel free to chime in with your own recommendations. Meanwhile, I’ll hope that Egypt’s next chapter—the one now being written—is long on triumph and short on tragedy.

2 Responses to Reading Egypt

  1. Thanks for the reading list. I’ve been following this story with much interest, because it is both a fascinating example of what it takes to make people finally revolt and because I had a cousin over there. Thank God she was evacuated Tuesday, but there are still millions of people who call Egypt home, and I hope it will become a better place for them.

  2. Also, Leila Ahmed’s incredible memoir, “A Border Passage: One Woman’s Journey from Cairo to America,” which does such a great job covering the changes from the Nasser era and beyond. And fiction by Ahdaf Soueif, particularly In The Eye of the Sun…

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