Travel reading

I packed several books in Arabic when I left Cairo on vacation. While I haven’t gotten that far with them, I’m greatly enjoying reading the classic “Maalak al Hazeen” (The Heron) by Ibrahim Aslan. I’d tried to read this book in English several years back and (as often happens to me when reading Arabic literature in translation) hadn’t really gotten caught up in it–something in the language seemed stilted, a song drained of its rhythm. But this time around, in Arabic, I can appreciate all the novel’s charm and humour, its nimble and inspired weaving of anecdotes and characters to give a picture of a neighborhood–Kit Kat–going through irreversible changes.

This is the novel that the classic film “Kit Kat” (a must-see) is based on. For an excellent in-depth discussion of Aslan’s work, see this post by Baheyya.

Sacred Objects

I quite liked this short essay by Sophia Al Maria in the last issue of Bidoun, about the proliferation of miraculous appearances of Allah’s name spelled in baby’s ears, fishes scales, etc. (sort of reminds me of the many appearances of Jesus in the vegetables and washing machines of suburban American moms, as reported by the News of the World). I haven’t gotten my hands on a hard copy of the magazine, and only a few essays are available online, but this issue–full of short essay about various “objects” in the Middle East–looks good.

Final credits for Youssef Chahine

Egyptian film-maker Youssef Chahine passed away the day before yesterday. You can find many elegies online. Personally, I consider “Bab Al Hadeed” one of the best movies I’ve seen–on a par with classic post-war Italian neo-realist films. His documentary on Cairo–“Al Qahera munwwara bi Ahlaha” (“Cairo Illuminated by its People”) is a lovely, subtle, complex tribute to the city.  And he’s authored many classics, like “Al Ard” and others I have to admit I haven’t seen yet. But Chahine’s later career has always struck me as a story of talent somehow squandered–I’m not sure why. None of his later films are on a par with his early, brilliant work–some are positively bad. While I enjoyed “Heyya Fauda” (“Chaos”), his latest feature film, it had none of the insight, naturalism or originality of his earlier work. On the contrary, it bears all too much the mark of his protege Khaled Youssef, whose heavy-handed, sensationalistic and formally mediocre work has reaped a recent–and to me, utterly confounding–success.

Book banning watch

Apparently the Egyptian authorities have banned a recently published book entitled “Inside Egypt: the Land of the Pharaos on the Brinkof a Revolution.” I don’t know anything about the book. But when is the government going to realize that (as this very post attests) there is nothing they can do to give a book better publicity and a higher circulation than ban it?

AUC’s new campus: a mirage in the desert?

First off, apologies for the slow posting (traveling outside Egypt at the moment).

I meant to link to a story I did before I took off on AUC’s new campus. In September, the American University in Cairo is leaving its location on central Tahrir Square and moving to a brand new campus in the desert suburb of New Cairo.  The AUC is quite an institution in Egyptian cultural and intellectual life, and in the life of Downtown Cairo. The move is a dramatic change for the university, which is basically suddenly going from being an urban to a suburban university. What I find particularly interesting about the move is how it fits into a broader pattern of (not to sound alarmist) the abandonment of Downtown in favour of sprawling desert suburbs.  Living in Cairo, it’s impossible not to understand the desire to move to less congested, less polluted areas. But personally I fear that this move (of the elites) to the edges of the city is yet another sign of the total lack of foresight and vision that is so endemic to the administration and planning of Cairo. And the role of real estate speculation–the fact that the construction of new suburbs is much more profitable than the upkeep of central neighborhoods–can’t be underestimated. Anyway, here’s what I wrote:

Last month, students and faculty at the American University in Cairo bade farewell not only to each other but to their campus. Over the summer, the university is abandoning its historical downtown location and moving to a new campus on the outskirts of the city.

The offices of professors and administrators are cluttered with packed boxes. The library shelves are empty. And workers are toiling day and night in the desert outside Cairo to have the new campus – which will be 29 times bigger than the old one – ready by the time classes start in September.

“It’s a very rare opportunity for a university to rebuild itself and upgrade to extraordinary levels all at one time,” says Phil Donoghue, vice president for planning and administration, of the move to the new state-of-the-art campus. But others are concerned that by leaving Cairo’s downtown and moving to the suburbs, the university will lose an important connection to the city and a cornerstone of its identity.

You can read the rest of the piece here.

Links July 16th to July 17th

Links from my account for July 16th through July 17th:

More Al Aswany

A profile I did of Alaa Al Aswany just ran in The National. To be honest, when I was asked to do this, my first reaction wasn’t enthusiastic–Al Aswany’s been covered so much already, arguably at the expense of other Egyptian writers whose work deserves attention. But as it turns out I enjoyed tagging around with Al Aswany to various events (he’s a hard fellow not to like), and by interviewing others–editors, publishers–I think I was able to put his success in context, and to touch on some of the domestic and international dynamics that have played a part in it.

I’ve actually been planning a lengthy “Yacoubian Effect” post, about the impact the book’s success has had on the literary and cultural scene here, and the way Al Aswany and his work has been covered and used in the West, but I’m going on vacation in 2 days and won’t be back till August 5th, so it’ll have to wait till then. 

Links July 9th to July 13th

Links from my account for July 9th through July 13th: