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January 2006

Words Cannot Be Weighed: Literature From Egypt

Image: Ehab Samy

"With the confidence of a woman who knows three languages," the Egyptian writers featured here write fabulism, social realism, modernist irony, and other tongues. In "Veiler of all deeds," by Hamdi Abu Golayyel, "People are delighted when they hear the news that a pious man has been caught red-handed in some wrongful act." A man waiting for a job interview is his own worst enemy in Mahmoud al Wardani's "The Dark and the Daylight," while a seamstress stitches a life for her children in Na'am al-Baz's "Mrs. Saniya's Holiday." The sensual crooning of a wedding singer awakens old and new passions on an island in the Nile, between Egypt and Sudan, in Haggag Hassan Oddoul's "Flirting with the Moon." A hen and a rooster aim for respect and bring about a cultural revolution in Salwa Bakr's "The Rooster's Egg: A Fable of Ancient Thebes." Literary journalist Mohamed Makhzangi observes spring in Chernobyl after nuclear disaster. And poets Tamer Fathy and Iman Mersal, like the Bedouin in Mersal's "Sometimes Wisdom Possesses Me," "knew early on that words fly/and cannot be weighed."

Thanks to Chip Rossetti of American University in Cairo Press -- the most prolific and essential publisher of Arabic literature in English -- for his labors as guest editor in bringing us these works.

Photo by Ehab Samy

The Veiler of All Deeds

NOTE: Born in 1968, Hamdy Abu Golayyel is of Bedouin origin and lives in Cairo. In keeping with a growing trend in Egyptian fiction, Thieves in Retirement-the novel from which this excerpt is

The Dark and The Daylight

NOTE: Mahmoud El-Wardani (born Cairo, 1950) has published six novels and several collections of short stories. Typically his works are dispassionate and discontinuous depictions of

Mrs. Saniya’s Holiday

Under the beam of light that fell from the one window of the room, darkening the rest of this particular place, Abla Saniya, the seamstress, starts up her machine aware of making use of the

Flirting with the Moon

NOTE: Haggag Hassan Oddoul (born Alexandria, Egypt, 1944) an ethnic Nubian author--who writes in Arabic--did construction work on the Aswan High Dam and has served in the Egyptian armed forces

The Rooster’s Egg: A Fable of Ancient Thebes

It is hard not to read this story as a lesson about the arbitrary nature of power and attendant reversals of fortune. Some historical background: Akhenaten, originally Amenhotep IV

Memories of Chernobyl

NOTE: As a young doctor studying in Kiev in 1986, Mohamed Makhzangi found himself in the midst of a public health catastrophe when the Chernobyl nuclear plant melted down that spring. The

When Clothes Were Small

NOTE: This poem is taken from a debut collection published in 2005 entitled Yesterday I Lost A Button. All of the poems in the book revolved around clothes: their personalities, their

I Look Around Me

With the alertness of a creature expecting its demise I usually look around me. Perhaps that is why my neck has a strength that does not match my body, and what is surprising is that I do not

Egyptian Literature Today

As the largest Arabic-speaking country (at 70+ million inhabitants and counting), Egypt, with its teeming capital of Cairo, plays a disproportionately large role in the intellectual and

I Have A Musical Name

Maybe the window I sat by foretold an unusual glory.

In Perfect Happiness

Before I sleep I will take the phone to bed and talk to them about many things to make sure they are really there, that they have dates for the weekend, and enough security that makes them


You order beer by phone with the confidence of a woman who knows three languages and who weaves words toward unexpected contexts. How did you find this security as if you had never left your

Sometimes Wisdom Possesses Me

The light is self-obsessed on the ceiling, in corners, on the table. Pleasure has brought them to the edge of sleep. Of course this is not my voice. Someone is singing behind the black curtain

Things Elude Me

One day I will pass by the house that used to be my home and try not to measure the distance from it to my friends' homes. The plump widow whose cries for love woke me up many times is

He Marks the Weak Point

Of course, the concrete pillars are not lacking in delicacy, and the columns of old houses are a nostalgia all their own. He added that he marks the weak point and distributes its weight among


I believe the stretcher whisked by two as the patient's coma is interrupted on it. I doubt the sympathy in the eyes that follow the scene. I respect the fisherman because he is


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