Review: The Best Foreign Books You've Never Heard Of


3 NOV 2017

The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany


While aimlessly scrolling through NPR's website, looking for hopeful news on the state of everything, I was inspired by an article I found in its archive - "The Best Foreign Books You’ve Never Heard Of". Feeling perhaps justifiably cocky, I scoffed. Sir, I am a Reader. I will have heard of these fine works. Saving the great Murakami, I was wrong. And elated! Novels from Turkey, Russia, Britain, Mexico, Afghanistan…all touted as move-to-the-top-of-the-queue finds. I began in Egypt with The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany. 

From the first grade, Egypt has set my imagination aflame. But it was her ancient world full of gods and gold that I was familiar with. I wanted to know more than her glorious past and yet reach beyond the frankly scary anti-Western overtones of Egypt today. Switching focus from one of international politics to daily humanity, this novel invites you to meet the Modern Egyptian, as varied in beliefs, proclivities, and desires as anyone outside a reporter’s sound byte. I was a guest, but an invisible one, free to tour Al Aswany’s uncensored Cairo.

I’ve struggled on how to report back without trying to reframe the novel in an attempt to relate. Uncomfortable truths abound here and the novel’s frank sexuality caused immediate scandal when it was first published. It’s a book that simply begs for group dissection. I can’t stop thinking about these lives. The aging aristocrat with remembrances of Western elegance, the newspaper editor in love with a policeman and the underground gay scene they must safely navigate, the young woman whose rejection of the hijab's strictures comes with other oppressions, the young man whose legitimate frustrations pull him towards fundamentalism…

This novel made me wince, made me laugh, made me put it down and walk away for a day or two, but more than anything made me understand Egypt more clearly. A modern culture with ancient roots still defining the shape it will take in today’s world. Peopled with actual people, not stereotypes, who struggle and love and exploit and sing and hate and celebrate. An education for anyone interested in a nuanced and honest look into Middle Eastern society. 




In service to "Books To Read" lists everywhere, here's the NPR article - http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=95729381




Ghillian Porter-Smith discusses the NPR article: "The Best Foreign Books You've Never Heard Of" and reviews the book The Yacoubian Building  by Alaa Al Aswany. This is her first post on the OgFOMK ArTS.

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