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Arts & Culture

Fictional Cairo: Best Arabic Literature that Navigates Life in the City

arts Books cairo Culture egypt
Fictional Cairo: Best Arabic Literature that Navigates Life in the City
written by
Nada Medhat

Cairo is as complex as a city can get, a Russian Doll of a sort with each layer full of rich complexities wherever you venture in further. That’s not a hypothesis; it already is the case as you can see from the hundreds of Egyptian (and sometimes foreign) photographic, cinematic, musical, and poetic works that had the city as both the subject and the muse. The case is even stronger with literature; Cairo is as alive in Naguib Mafhouz and Taha Hussien’s works as it is beneath our feet now. But, that’s not where it’s limited! Here are some of the best-written fictional works of art that put into words the nuances of the great city of Cairo.

Taxi: Street Stories by Khalid Al-Khamsi 

Written in Colloquial Egyptian, in a time where that was still a risky literary choice to take, Taxi is not just a bestseller, it is also considered a recorded oral history. The 58 short stories/ monologues are recreated from real experiences the writer had with taxi drivers in the city. Reading the book is like going through the hectic, bumpy streets of Cairo, alongside getting the incomparable insight of the drivers’ tales. Brilliant, crude, wise, and funny, Cairo through its drivers’ eyes is unlike anything else you’ll ever read.

Cairo Maquette by Tareq Imam

An ode to the city, the previously IPAF-shortlisted novel takes on the polymorphous identity of the city and its inhabitants. With three time periods and three central characters, the novel primarily deals with the paradox of the city’s constant changes and unyielding identity. 

Zaat: The Tale of One Woman’s Life in Egypt During the Last Fifty Years by Sonollah Ibrahim

Better known now as the 2013 show starring Nelly Kareem, Zaat by Sonollah Ibrahim chronicles Egypt and Cairo’s modern history through the life of one woman. More of a historical fiction than a character-centralised novel, the country’s transformation is described through life in its capital. In it, you can see Cairo as it stands now and Cairo as it has always been, and all the spaces in  between.

Proud Beggars by Albert Cossery 

Despite leaving Egypt as a teenager, Albert Cossery’s entire bibliography takes place in Cairo and only between distinctly Cairene characters. Published in 2011 and taking place around the 50s-60s, the most startling thing about a book about a motiveless murder is how similar Cossery’s Cairo is to ours. It is testimony to not just his skill as a writer, but his insight into the core of the city, that he’s capable of presenting it in this timeless manner, with those timelessly unique set of characters.