Friday, February 16, 2024

BOOK REVIEW: If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English by Noor Naga

If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English by Noor Naga is an extraordinary book. A work of contemporary fiction, it plays with literary forms, but is nevertheless accessible and compelling. It is divided into three parts. The first comprises short sections in alternating first person voices, each beginning with a question. The second continues the dual narration in a more straightforward way, but includes footnotes to explain cultural references and unfamiliar words. The third part breaks from the narrative and breaks the fourth wall, letting the reader watch a writing class as a piece of theater, where the novel is discussed (picked apart) by the author’s classmates. 

What is the book about? Identity. Colonialism. Passion. Gender. Exploitation. “Woke” politics. You name it.

The two protagonists are unnamed. One is “the American girl.” A young woman born of Egyptian immigrants to the U.S., travels to Cairo intending to stay. Why? The question is answered and not answered. She is escaping her parents’ divorce. She is running away from an instagram celebrity that has imploded. She is exploring her Egyptian identity. She is finding herself. But she can’t escape who she is: a privileged American who can’t fit in no matter how hard she tries. An educated rich girl who can’t let go of her privilege. And why should she?

But she does get herself an Egyptian boyfriend.

The second protagonist is “the boy from Shobrakheit.” He comes from a small, isolated rural community. He comes from poverty and a broken home. He has been in Cairo for several years, having arrived in time for the Arab spring, a time of innocence (naivete) and hopefulness; he is now living in the disillusioned aftermath. He had been a photographer, a photojournalist, for a brief time wildly successful. Now, he is an unemployed cocaine and tramadol addict. And something of a poet. He meets the American girl. He helps her to navigate Cairo. He moves in with her. He falls in love. Or maybe it isn’t love, but rather need. He is stereotypically controlling and violent, but also tender, frightened, and in pain (physical and psychological.)

This novel is a complex and beautifully written chronicle of their relationship. The characters are flawed, yet sympathetic. A highly recommended read.

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