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Egyptian literature traces its beginnings to ancient Egypt , but Egyptian writing today spans a wide range of styles, from the stream of consciousness style of novelist Muhammad Aladdin (Alaa Eddin) to Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt's first winner of the Nobel Prize For Literature.
A selection of Egypt's best writers - novelists and journalists - are featured here. To close, we feature some Coptic literature (mostly Christian texts dating after the 2nd century AD, but also includes Old Coptic writings that predate the Christian era) and ancient stories from Egyptian papyri which are now available as books.
Gamal Al-Ghitani has been awarded both the Egyptian National Prize for Literature, and the French Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. In between, this energetic Egyptian novelist founded and became editor-in-chief of AKHBAR AL-ADAB (a literary Arabic weekly newspaper)
His first short story was published when he was 14. He was trained as a carpet designer, but wrote in his spare time, incured the wrath of the authorities for his critical commentary on the regime of Gamal Abd el-Nasser and was imprisoned for about 6 months. In 1969 he took up journalism with the Egyptian newspaper Akhbar El Yom ('The Day's News'). He is also married to a journalist. He writes widely - historical fiction, often set in Cairo, culture and politics, and helped to found the literary magazine "Gallery 68" and in recent years he has been the editor-in-chief of one of Egypt's primary literary magazines.
The Yacoubian Building in Cairo was a highly acclaimed but controversial novel. The building itself broadly reflects the social and emotional life the city. The statement of its architecture and history is obvious; the stories of love and power, sex and politics twist into a complex labyrinth. In Taha, the doorman's son, the conflicts find a personal expression. No topic is off limits - Islamic fundamentalism, homosexuality, bribery and corruption are all woven in to a merciless and haunting story, at times harsh, but often funny.
more by Alaa Al Aswany
Dark short stories of village life in Karnak, set against the backdrop of the British campaigns in Sudan, the Second World War, and the war in Palestine, "The Collar and the Bracelet" is the grim saga of the troubled Bishari family.
A modernist narrative tapestry of love and revenge with the flavour of a folk story.
A once-zealous government employee, heading rapidly for middle age and totally disillusioned with the politics of the early 1960s and Nasser's 'nationalizations' - and life in general, manages to scrape together just about enough ambition to try for a study grant to go abroad. But intellectual discovery is at the bottom of his agenda. He wants to save enough money to marry off his sisters.
An uncomfortable novel of hope and disillusionment, with some good characters.
more by Bahaa Taher
The Second World War comes crashing down on Alexandria, wreaking irreversible change upon the lives of Muslims and Copts, northerners and southerners, men and women alike.
more by Ibrahim Abdel Meguid
Fifty-eight encounters between passengers and Cairo taxi-drivers - told in a mere 184 pages - in a colloquial style. Sharing the cab-driver's viewpoint - from the vantage point of their various cabs - makes for a surprising double-take on the pretty tough life of a cabbie in Cairo.
'Taxi' - now a best-seller in Egypt - has been over-hyped in the west. Cairo's hundred-thousand-plus taxi drivers probably have little (if anything) in common with the passengers they pick up . . . including potential readers of this book, I would imagine. And that's most of the point - not that each individual story is a mini-masterpiece but that they build up to a worthwhile experience.
Wafaa's romantic infatuation with her cousin Ashraf Daawood begins when he returns to middle-class urban Egypt in 1980 as a banker, having grown up in England. But Wafaa must hide her feelings - and deal with them in light of her Wafaa's provincial Islamic piousness. Ashraf is worldly, carefree - and dating a feisty Communist journalist. But despite their wildly different approaches to life, outside events soon challenge them both to rethink their youthful ideologies.
'The Pistachio Seller' won the King Fahd Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies Translation of Arabic Literature Award 2009
more by Reem Bassiouney
The books of Naguib Mahfouz are 'great reads' in the sense that Mahfouz won the 1988 Nobel Prize in Literature, as well as Egypt's 'National Prize for Letters' and the 'Collar of the Republic' (Egypt's highest decoration). Many of his novels have been made into films, and many of his characters' names are now household names throughout Egypt. But Mahfouz writes in a florid classical Arabic style which is quite hard work, and his novels are not cheerful reading. He has a bleak, nihilistic view of the world - not what most people would call a 'great holiday read'. Don't say we didn't warn you!
At the age of 7, the security of his childhood was shaken by things he saw during the Egyptian Revolution of 1919, and Naguib Mahfouz had already written his first three novels by the age of 27. His stories are usually about very real people dealing with extraordinary events in their lives, amidst the modernization of Egyptian society and the temptations of Western values.
"Palace Walk" (the first of his "Cairo Trilogy" ) begins during Britain's occupation of Egypt immediately after World War I. The trilogy is a sweeping and evocative portrait of both a family and a country struggling to move toward independence in a society that has resisted change for centuries.
"Children of Gebelawi" (1959) is one of Mahfouz's best known works. It chronicles a family feud over Gebelaawi's new mansion built in a desert oasis. Echoing, to a certain extent, the stories of certain Bibical characters, the book was banned in Egypt and throughout the Arab world, except in the Lebanon, for alleged blasphemy over its allegorical portrayal of God.
During the 1960s Mahfouz's stories became more existentialist. "The Thief and the Dogs" (1961) is a dark, hopeless tale of a Marxist thief, who has been released from prison and plans revenge.
His outspoken support for Sadat's Camp David peace treaty with Israel caused to his books to be banned in many Arab countries - until he became the first Arabic writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. During his 70-year career he published 34 novels, over 350 short stories, dozens of movie scripts and five plays, and has many Arabic-language films to his credit. Children of the Alley was deemed an allegory on the lives of the prophets including the Prophet Mohammed, which led to a fatwah being pronounced and in 1994 a religious zealot tried to stab him to death.
A fatwah against him (prompted by his book Children of the Alley, which was deemed to be an allegory on the lives of the prophets including the Prophet Mohammed) led to assassination attempt in 1994. This left Mahfouz almost unable to write for the final twelve years of his life. He died in Cairo, aged 94.
On a trip to Egypt in 1900 Lady Anna falls in love with an Egyptian Nationalist, a man utterly committed to his country's cause, Sharif Pasha al-Barudi - a man who seems to stand for the real, secret Egypt.
Nearly a century later, Isabel Parkman, recent divorcee and a descendent of Anna and Sharif, falls in love with a New York based Egyptian, Omar-al-Ghamrawi. An old family trunk captures her imagination - she dcides to take it - in person - to Omar's sister Amal, who lives in Cairo.
As the tensions and dangers in contemporary Egypt become more threatening, Amal unpacks the trunk. The old love stories - love of Sharif and love of Egypt - seem intertwined with the difficulties of her own life - living, as she is, poised between two cultures.
The two most popular independent daily newspapers are Al Masry Al Youm and Al Dustoor. Thousands of copies of both were destroyed in 2010, for reporting on the posters which have appeared in poor neighbourhoods of Cairo, promoting Gen Omar Suleiman (Egypt's intelligence chief) as a possible future president, in the run-up to the elections for a successor to President Hosni Mubarak.
Newspapers in Egypt have been banned from reporting on the posters, according to the BBC, whose Middle East Analyst reports:
The authorities' decision to gag the newspapers seems to derive from a fear that news of a campaign in favour of the general could refuel speculation that there is a power struggle within various wings of the ruling elite.
EGYPTIAN NEWSPAPERS at amazon
(newspaper list courtesy of wikipedia)
Copts are Egyptians whose ancestors embraced Christianity in the first centuries after Christ. Coptic literature is mainly religious, and the Coptic Orthodox Church (the historic Christian church in Egypt) is now the sole remaining bastion of the Coptic language. Translating the Bible into Coptic was the keystone of Coptic literary form, with the lives of the saints and other religious stories taking a secondary place. In the 7th and 8th centurys, hymns were written in Coptic to encourage the Coptic Christians through the persecutions which followed the Muslim invasions. Theotokia are poems praising the Virgin Mary.
In the 2nd century the Coptic language of Egypt, the last stage of ancient Egyptian, began to be used as a literary language. The earliest original writings in Coptic were the letters by Early Coptic literature, especially in Alexandria (under Greek rule) was written in Greek and only translated into Coptic afterwards. However, Antonius (or St. Anthony of Egypt) the first of 'The Desert Fathers' and Pachomius both communicated exclusively in Coptic. Shenouda (or Shenute, abbot of the White Monastery, near Atripe, Upper Egypt) made a political decision to address the repressed Copts in their own Coptic language. His sermons, treatises, and homilies were skilled and persuasive.
Works by these writers are sometimes referred to as 'purely Coptic literature', with Shenouda's works regarded as the pinnacle of original writing in Coptic.
Coptic literature centred upon three distinct areas. At Wadi al-Natrun the Bohairic dialect was preferred. The Pachom Monasteries in Upper Egypt, and the monastery of al-Dayr al-Abyad, under Shenouda, used the Sahidic dialect. With Shenouda's influence and Christianity's increasing popularity in rural Egypt, Coptic began to oust Greek, until Sahidic became the preferred language for Coptic literature, continuing until the Arabs took over Egypt.
Much Coptic literature is now lost but a good collection was discovered in the library of the Monastery of St. Michael in the Faiyum in 1910.
The spiritual advice, anecdotes and parables of 'The Desert Fathers' were first recorded in the 4th century, and since then have inspired poetry, opera and art, and have provided spiritual nourishment and a template for monastic life.
In this inspirational and fascinating book, Archbishop Rowan Williams looks at the stories of the desert fathers and mothers - a group of Christian monks and nuns living in the Egyptian desert in the 3rd to 5th centuries - concentrating on the wisdom, insights and spirituality found in their writings.
Miriam Lichtheim (Egyptologist and philologist) has written some useful introdutions to Ancient Egyptian Literature, with the University of California Press, the Near Eastern Center at UCLA and others - including Ancient Egyptian Literature
by Sir W.M.Flinders Petrie (Editor)
ed. by W.M. Flinders Petrie, illustrated by Tristram Ellis (2006)
ed. by W.M. Flinders Petrie, illustrated by Tristram Ellis (Hard Press, paperback, 2006)