'The Book of Cairo' sheds light on life and laughter in the Egyptian city through short stories
Author and editor Ralph Cormack brings the spirit of the Egyptian city in a new book of short stories
If it’s tempting to cast the new short story collection The Book Of Cairo as a snapshot of the Egyptian capital – “a city in short fiction” is the book’s subtitle – then Eman Abdelrahim’s contribution is certainly an eye-opener. After all, in the first few paragraphs a girl readily falls for a video shop owner who appears to have a cannibalism fetish. “Cairo has all these beautiful sights but things aren’t as they seem; places have their secrets, people have hidden lives,” says Abdelrahim by way of explanation. “What I wanted to do was explore the fears and nightmares of the people who call this city home.”
Abdelrahim says she was heavily influenced by “David Lynch and a very foggy, unclear dream”, when she wrote her short story, Two Sisters, in Arabic, which captures the tone of her vivid tale perfectly. It formed the centrepiece of her own short story collection in 2013, The Rooms, which took second place at the Sawiris Cultural Awards two years later, and eventually caught the eye of editor Raph Cormack when he began compiling the fascinating and often unsettling anthology of Egyptian writing that is The Book Of Cairo.
The translator and author travelled around Cairo’s bookshops and visited publishers, buying all the short story collections he came across – which in Egypt’s vibrant literary scene is a lot – and started the long process of sorting through the most interesting writing to translate into English.
“Eman is definitely one of Egypt’s rising literary talents and I wanted to gather together something that spoke not only to modern Cairo, but my feeling of the city, too,” Cormack explains. “I learnt Arabic there about 10 years ago and spent most of my 20s in the city. It doesn’t feel the same as it did during the events of 2011 in Tahrir Square, when there was this tremendous sense of optimism and possibility.
“Now, Tahrir hides in the shadows somewhere, we are in a moment where people don’t know where they stand … generally there is something happening beneath the surface of the city which can’t quite be grasped. That really comes through in Eman’s story and others here; there’s a sense of the relationship to reality being quite strained.”
Alongside Abdelrahim’s contribution (which was written before 2011), this idea is most obvious in Hassan Abdel Mawgoud’s Into The Emptiness, in which the protagonist is so troubled by and disconnected from his city that he begins to question whether he is alive or dead. The cause of his torment radiates from his isolation in a new development on the outskirts of Cairo. “Maybe things are moving in a certain direction, away from the centre,” says Cormack. “But I don’t think anyone really realises what that means yet.”
Black comedy is definitely a defining feature of Cairo; almost every Arab you come across will tell you that Egyptians are very funny, but I don’t think that’s something that anyone in the English-speaking world has any concept of whatsoever.
Into The Emptiness is also blackly comic, as is Hatem Hafez’s slightly pathetic head of department in Whine (not so far removed from a scene in Ricky Gervais’s comedy programme The Office) and Mohamed Kheir’s rumour-monger in Talk. With comedy so rarely translated – there’s always the concern that the humour literally doesn’t translate – it’s interesting to find so much to laugh at in The Book of Cairo, too.
“I really hope the comedy comes across,” says Cormack. “Black comedy is definitely a defining feature of Cairo; almost every Arab you come across will tell you that Egyptians are very funny, but I don’t think that’s something that anyone in the English-speaking world has any concept of whatsoever.”
Abdelrahim has tried her hand at comedy scriptwriting in the past and one of the functions of The Book Of Cairo is to act as a window into the Egyptian city for the English-speaking world. After Jokha Alharthi’s Man Booker International Prize triumph last month for her book Celestial Bodies, Cormack is as wary as Marilyn Booth – who translated Celestial Bodies into English and was Cormack’s PhD supervisor – that any story should be expected to completely represent a place or people. “No book can hold that weight,” he says. But the fact he used 10 different translators (including himself) for The Book Of Cairo shows that there is a strong interest in Arabic literature.
“I’m delighted Two Sisters has been translated into English and is in this book,” says Abdelrahim. “I want as many people as possible to read my work; for me, writing is an expression of human experience which is common to people all over the world. Maybe if it doesn’t touch someone in Egypt, it can in India, for example.”
It’s only the second time a piece of Abdelrahim’s work has been translated into English, the first being another short story, Estrangement, which features in the latest edition of ArabLit Quarterly, edited by The National contributor M Lynx Qualey. Abdelrahim will have another translation published in Index On Censorship magazine next month. “Like Two Sisters, it mixes surrealism and reality, but it’s much stronger,” she says.
The Book Of Cairo may also help to reassure wary publishers of works in English that a novel by a new Arab author is worth taking a chance on. Whether we’ll ever see one of Abdelrahim’s novels translated into English is a moot point, though, not least because she is not prepared for either of the ideas she’s currently working on to be published in Arabic, let alone English. “I enjoy playing with writing and not having to worry about an audience or making money from it,” she says. “They’ll be published one day, but I’m not so confident about them yet.”
For now, we’ll simply have to look forward to Laugh And The World Laughs With Me. Written in 2011, it has a link to the uprising in Egypt but is less about the event itself than how it affected the people of Cairo.
“During the time of revolution, I loved Cairo,” says Abdelrahim, who now lives in Germany. “But it quickly became oppressive and I felt a big disappointment in almost everything. I felt helpless, uncomfortable, and maybe the best way to explore those feelings is from far away, through writing.”
The Book Of Cairo: A City in Short Fiction (Comma Press) is out now
Published: June 10, 2019 07:30 AM