For February we’re reading الحرب في بر مصر، يوسف القعيد / War in the Land of Egypt by Egyptian author Yusuf al-Qa’id, which ranks at #4 on the Arab Writers Union’s list of the best 105 Arabic novels of the 20th century. It was translated by Lorne Kenny and Christopher Tingley.
A brief summary of the book from Goodreads:
“Egypt on the eve of the 1973 October war. A young man has been drafted into the army. His father, the village elder, persuades a poor night-watchman to send his own son as a stand-in. But the impersonation plan goes horribly wrong, with tragicomic results. Qa’id’s tale of the fiasco–steeped in irony and black humor–parodies outrageous corruption and ludicrous bureaucracy. A skillfully crafted mosaic of life in modern Egypt.”
The book was published in 1978 in Lebanon and banned in Egypt until 1985. It was also adapted as a film starring Omar Sharif in 1991: المواطن: مصري (An Egyptian Citizen). For more, here is a review by M. Lynx Qualey in Egypt Independent.
We’ll meet to discuss on Sunday, February 17th 2013.
*UPDATE: Thoughts from our discussion after the jump.
Our discussion of War in the Land of Egypt centered around several points and questions:
- The structure of the book – six chapters each told by a different narrator – is something we haven’t seen before in the books we’ve read, a simple yet effective device. Readers noted different patterns in the structure: the first three narrators are involved in or apologists for corruption, while the second three attempt to expose and find retribution for it; the book zooms in and then out again in terms of closeness to the main character, Masry – the first and last narrator are most distant from him, while the third and fourth are closest to him.
- Masry as the representation of Egypt as a nation – is his patriotism sincere? To what extent is he a character to be admired, to what extent should the reader learn from his mistakes? Why has the author chosen not to give Masry a voice in the narration?
- What does nationalism mean for al-Qa’id? How is this book a product of its time (a response to the Arab nationalism of the Nasser years) and how does it speak to the seduction of nationalism even today?
- Names, and lack thereof. All of the characters in the book were identified by their profession, with the exception of Masry (whose name means ‘Egyptian’), who was the only character with a name. Readers found this a compelling observation about the author’s intent to implicate broad swathes of Egyptian society, potentially over time, and an effective way of contrasting the other characters with Masry himself.
- Language: the book is beautiful without being heavily influenced by classical Arabic, and is rich with colloquial sayings ‘translated’ into classical Arabic. Why has al-Qa’id chosen this kind of language, and how is it effective in conveying the setting and message?