This article was originally written to accompany a review of Omar Robert Hamilton's The City Always Wins and was published on Bookwitty.
For those interested in scholarship, there are any number of books that can accompany The City Always Wins. Certainly the Eric Hobsbawm that Khalil quotes (The Age of Revolution) will be a solid companion. Alaa Abd El-Fattah’s letters from prison also give important context and theory; a recent one from April has been translated by Nariman Youssef. Their journalism, as mentioned in The City Always Wins’ acknowledgements, is an important source of information about Egypt.
Many excellent novels about contemporary Egypt are not yet available in English translation. For those who read Arabic, both Ezzedine Choukri Fishere’s Bab al-Khorouj and his 2016 novel, Kol Hasa al-Haraa should be urgently added to the nightstand.
Five for Anglophone readers are:
1. The Open Door (1960), by
One thread of The City Always Wins is a feminist love story in revolutionary times that moves beyond the lean-in, colonial-militarist feminist fantasies. This is the one of the main threads in Latifa al-Zayyat’s revolutionary-feminist-bildungsroman The Open Door, (translated by Marilyn Booth) which takes place more than half a century earlier, during the 1940s and 1950s, when Egypt was working to end direct colonial rule and its protagonist, Laila, was struggling against family, colonial rule, and society to find a satisfying life that breaks with patterns of the past.
2. Beer in the Snooker Club (1964), by Waguih Ghali
While both Egyptian insider-outsiders writing debut novels, Omar Robert Hamilton and Waguih Ghali have markedly different sensibilities as novelists. Yet it’s also interesting to see the overlap between the two books: Both were writing in the time of a depressing return to autocracy, after a moment of hope had escaped from them; both have a bleak sense of humor; both are concerned with torture, autocracy, and escaping the rotten patterns of history and politics. Both are clever authors who have an eye for mocking hypocrisy. Ghali’s brilliantly satiric novel is set after al-Zayyat’s, after the shine had worn off Gamal Abdel Nasser’s revolution, at least for many of those in Egyptian prisons.
3. Zaat (1992), by Sonallah Ibrahim, trans. Tony Calderbank
The then-young revolutionary author Sonallah Ibrahim was one of those jailed under Gamal Abdel Nasser. Ibrahim’s Zaat (translated by Tony Calderbank) is a quintessentially Egyptian history, following a working-class woman (Zaat), and weaving a cacophony of news headlines through the course of Zaat’s life during the regimes of three Egyptian presidents: Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and Hosni Mubarak. Zaat works in the Department of News Monitoring and Assessment, and later in Archives, part of the mouthpiece of Egyptian propaganda that so frustrates Khalil in The City Always Wins.
4. Cairo: My City, Our Revolution (2012), by Ahdaf Soueif
This book, a memoir written soon after Egypt’s Eighteen Days (January 25-February 11), is about the award-winning author’s life and her relationship with Cairo. It probably won’t age as well as her son’s debut novel, The City Always Wins. But it could be considered a sort of prequel to Cairo, Memoir of a City Transformed, as it fills in some of the earlier, more hopeful backstory that continues in Hamilton’s novel.
The book was revised and reprinted in 2014.
5. Otared (2015), by Mohammed Rabie, trans. Robin Moger
This grim future history is one of several dystopias to hit the shelves, and was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2016. It resonates strongly with The City Always Wins, depicting an Egypt spun out of control, a living representation of communal despair and rage. Set between 2011 and 2024, Otared follows a police officer, Ahmed Otared, as Cairo cycles through occupation, civil war, and grim nightmarish poverty. Worse, the characters have fallen into a moral torpor; the shock of events have reached such a pitch that any horror can be digested, sometimes literally.
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