If An Egyptian Cannot Speak English by Canadian Egyptian novelist Noor Naga is an experimental novel with a darkly romantic heart. It was published on April 12 by Graywolf Press and is part of the luminous catalogue of books by African authors published by the indie press.
The novel is set against the Arab spring uprisings in Egypt, which, at the point the story begins, is already a distant memory. The optimism of the uprising has turned into disappointment. The male character, who is referred to simply as “the boy from Shobrakeit,” channels the disillusionment into a life of drugs and intense psychological dysfunction. He was a well-known photographer during the uprising. He took some of the photos that went viral in western media. But he has become a washed up cocaine addict and pushed to the fringes of a social space where he once shone brightly. Like him, she is also a bit of an outcast. She moves to Cairo from the US in search of a fresh start but has trouble fitting in. From her difficulty with speaking perfect Arabic to being accosted by men for exposing her bald head, the female protagonist (we don’t find out her name until much later in the book), feels alone in one of Africa’s most enigmatic cities. When they meets for the first time, both their lives are sort of in shambles. He is poor, homeless, and strung out on drugs. She is lonely in spite of all the privileges of her American upperclass wealth.
Their romance is explosive and intense. I think that the depiction of their love is one of the most moving and unforgettable aspects of this story. I couldn’t help but root for them, at least, in the beginning—two lost souls finding purpose in their consuming desire for each other. And, hats off to Naga, who is a master at staging that intense romantic slow burn that anticipates a deadly explosion. She perfectly paces their first meetings, their blossoming intimacies, and the wild erotic love making. And, even though I could always sense that there was something doomed about their love, that it was driving the story towards something traumatic and possibly tragic climax, I was still caught up in the moment and the poetry of it all.
The book is experimental, as I mentioned earlier. It is divided into two parts. The first part, which takes up much of the book, is a collection fragments with alternating perspectives shifting between the man and the woman. But what really got me excited with this story is the use of koans. A koan is a short saying, story, a question that is so weird or paradoxical that it gets us thinking outside the box. Apparently, koans originated in zen Buddhist teaching philosophy. In If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English, they take the form of questions placed at beginning of each story fragment. Here are a few:
“If an Egyptian cannot speak English, who is telling his story?”
“If you’re competing to lose, what do you win if you win?”
“How long does a new born listen before it utters its first words?”
“How long can you hate yourself before everyone hates you?”
If a city is actively trying to kill you, should you take it personal?”
“Can you be good together if you don’t look good together?”
I love novels written in fragments. [See my review of Glory by Noviolet Bulawayo]. As a reader, I feel a sense of freedom making my way through bits and pieces of stories, each with their own individual punchline as opposed to tracing a continuous plot line. So I knew I was going to like Naga’s book even before opening it. What I wasn’t prepared for was the added element of koans. They are not just ornamentation. These nuggets of brain teasing questions at the beginning of each story fragment held my attention.
This is Naga’s first book, but it comes with considerable creative maturity and stylistic breadth. She does a brilliant job of threading the delicate balance between experimental style and gripping storytelling.