June 20, 2013

The Guardian’s “Best Books on Egypt” list underwhelms…to put it mildly


All you need to know about Egypt in a handy three-book format.

When you’re making sweeping generalizations about what to read to get to know another country—its history, its inhabitants, and its literature— the honorable route to take is one of compensatory maximalism: a list maybe ten or twenty books long that serves the purpose of all such lists, namely to introduce to your reader to many intriguing and relevant books, so that they might, in the end, read one or two.

But the Guardian is not on this boat when it comes to listicles, and actually, it’s not even on the fucking dock. This week it ran a piece called “The best books on Egypt” as part of a semi-regular series by journalist Pushpinder Kaneka. That list is not ten, not five, but three books long. There is the obligatory Mahfouz title, the first book in the Cairo trilogy, Palace Walk (suggesting that possibly you don’t really need to read the rest of the trilogy). There is Tarek Osman’s recent historical overview, Egypt on the Brink. And there’s Alaa Al Aswany’s bestseller The Yacoubian Building, which may count as important simply because it’s been read by so many people internationally, but couldn’t really be called the “best” anything.

M. Lynx Qualey does a redoubtable take-down of the list over at the blog Arabic Literature (in English), pointing out that for one thing it’s very Cairo-focused, and she suggests many, many other books and authors that should be on here, including works by Yusuf Idris, Sonallah Ibrahim, Albert Cossery, Tawfiq al-Hakim, and Yahya Taher Abdallah. And, on Twitter and elsewhere, the list has spurred, as these things tend to do, equal parts scorn and alternative list-making.

To be fair to Kaneka, other countries in the series also only get three books. The number three seems to have been chosen so that Kaneka couldn’t be accused of simply recommending one book that everybody already knows (for instance, One Hundred Years of Solitude, which he recommends when he gets around to Colombia). Instead, with three, he can recommend one book everybody already knows, one pop history book, and one wildcard from a contemporary writer, to make it all seem fresh and up to the minute. This is distressing to anyone interested in international literature, because it suggests an attitude of bite-size, wary, toe-in-the-water reading, which is exactly the kind of attitude that usually keeps people reading only domestic works to begin with.

Perhaps, in the days of print, when column inches were limited, there was a rationale for lists like these. Or, the list-compilers may argue, their time is limited, as is the time of their readers—neither can be expected to read everything. But there’s actually no shortage of people who know more about the literature of Egypt or Colombia or Vietnam or Nigeria (the other countries Paneka subjects to this cherry-picking) than one dewy-eyed reviewer does, and all the Guardian would have to do to find them is Google around for a bit, invite them to post, and instantly have a more valuable contribution to discussions about the literature of a particular country.

It’s the assumption of ignorance, I think, that is really the problem here, and of course it’s not limited to the Guardian. It’s a particular issue in much writing about Arabic literature, the “let me introduce you” article, which often seems like it reproduces the generalist writer’s own experience surveying a vast field of writing fairly quickly under the pressure of a deadline.

My modest proposal in this case is that media organs with some pretension to worldliness, like the Guardian, should behave as if their readership were more sophisticated than they (the media organs) think they (the readers) are, and bring in writers who have the background to make truly surprising, nuanced, and wide-ranging suggestions. For Arabic literature only looks thin to Western audiences if we hear about the same two or three books and authors over and over again—and that’s not Arabic literature’s fault.


Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.