The Egyptian literary canon is full of treasures and remarkable texts that are all too often ignored, even by the educated class. Here are five Egyptian novels that serve as vital backdrops to inform our understanding of Egyptian culture.
Zaat - Sonallah Ibrahim
This highly underrated novel by Sonallah Ibrahim is a treasure of the Egyptian literary canon that is too often overlooked. Following the many turns of fate that the titular character Zaat - which literally translates to "self" - faces, it is the quintessential tale of the spirit of a people - the perfect embodiment of the zeitgeist of modern Egypt, and the sense of hopelessness and struggle that accompanies the protagonist is one that will resonate with many today in post-revolutionary Egypt. Ibrahim's other celebrated novel El-Lagna (The Committee) similarly provides provocative socio-political commentary that maintains the same level of relevance to this day.
Miramar - Naguib Mahfouz
Most people credit The Cairo Trilogy as Naguib Mahfouz's greatest work, but the less noticed Miramar is arguably more insightful, and serves as a better critical allegory of the times.
The Sinners (El-Haraam) - Yusuf Idris
While the bulk of praise and recognition in Arabic literature seems to go to Naguib Mahfouz, his contemporary Yusuf Idris is a literary heavyweight in his own right, and his own interpretation of literary realism provided an arguably sharper and more insightful critique of the times. The Sinners, which was adapted into a film, delves into the collective ills of society, shedding light on the plight of those living on the margins of the nation. Also worth reading is his short story collection entitled The Cheapest Nights.
Being Abbas el-Abd (An Takoon Abbas el-Abd) - Ahmed El-Aidy
Some will argue whether this is indeed a must-read, and perhaps there are other novels that are more deserving of a place on this list, but Being Abbas el-Abd earns a place here if for nothing else than that it so perfectly captures the spirit of disillusionment of its generation - and in that sense it serves as a great precursor for the generation that follows it. Dubbed as the Chuck Palahniuk of Egypt, the novel was sold out nationwide the moment it hit the shelves, and has come to represent the voice of a disenfranchised youth in pre-revolutionary Egypt.
Diary of a Country Prosecutor (Yawmeyat Na'eb Fel Aryaf) - Tawfiq al-Hakim
Though Tawfiq al-Hakim is better known for his plays, the semi-autobiographical Diary of a Country Prosecutor candidly and critically documents the destitute conditions in the countryside, and the inadequacies of a legal system imported from abroad and superimposed in an entirely incongruous setting.