If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English by Noor Naga

…a big fat nope from me.

DISCLAIMER: Like with any other negative review that I write I feel the need to remind ppl that my opinions/thoughts/impressions of a book are entirely subjective (mind-blowing i know) and that if you are interested/curious about said book you should definitely check out more positive reviews.

If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English implements many trendy literary devices. The two central characters remain unnamed and are referred to as the ‘boy/man from Shobrakheit’ and the ‘American girl’, there is a lack of quotations marks (although, although most dialogues appear in italics), and the narrative is structured in a supposedly experimental way so that when the pov switches between ‘him’ and ‘her’ we get a question that is somewhat related to the content of their chapter. As you can tell from my tone I was not a fan of these devices. They can work but here the sheer combination of all of them struck me as deeply affected and not even that innovative. The story, in broad strokes, could be summarized as: an alienated millennial Egyptian American woman goes to Cairo in an attempt at reinvention. Her shaved head and ‘western ways’ however make her feel like an outsider. She questions the way she is perceived in America, and how being in Cairo challenges her long-held identity and beliefs. We are never given too many specifics about her stay but the author does give us an impression of the ‘mood’ permeating her days in Cairo. Her navel-gazing does provide the occasional pearl of wisdom, but more often than not we are given the usual platitudes about belonging and its opposites. While the author does succeed in articulating her struggles with her dual heritage and her efforts and frustration to ‘master’ Arabic, I found her speculations to be, more often than not, all-flash and not substance. There are attempts at being edgy which come across as somewhat cringey and fairly prosaic.
‘His’ chapters are far worse. The man is a talking, breathing, living red flag. His traumatic experiences and drug addiction do not make him a nuanced character. While I appreciated that ‘she’ understands that his upbringing informs his misogynistic beliefs, which leads him to objectify women and much worse, I could not understand why she remains with him. She tells us that the man in question is a multifaceted individual, but we never see these ‘facets’ on the page. His sections, if anything, only show us his ‘vices’. His exaggeratedly perverted point of view also struck me as not entirely believable. He often refers to ‘her’ lips as genital-like or sees her lips and wonders what color her labia will be. The man is incredibly possessive, sexist, offensive, you name it…this results in a rather one-note cartoonish character. Their chemistry wasn’t there and their arguments left me feeling quite unmoved. The ending of their ‘troubled’ relationship feels rather anticlimactic. Maybe if the author had spent less time pursuing metaphysical questions and dedicated more time to fleshing out the voices of her two central characters I would have ‘felt’ more but since we get a recap of a relationship more than the actual relationship itself, I just could not bring myself to care. The occasional vulgar language was not thought-provoking or subversive and the author’s experimental structure and style were fairly banal. It’s a pity as I found the subject matter interesting (languages, identity, dual-heritage, cultural dissonance, etc..). I did not care for the way the author discusses queerness. She allows (as far as i remember of course) a page to the matter. The girl says she’s queer, but the context in which she says this is weird as she seems to equate her shaved head and desire to move in queer spaces as being queer. I would have liked for the author to spend more page time on this subject. That then we have the ‘lesbian’ character in love with ‘her’ frustrated me somewhat as she only seems to be mentioned to emphasize ‘her’ desirability and to fuel ‘his’ jealousy. That ‘she’ only shows interest/pursues a relationship with toxic men was a bit tiring. Maybe if the author had spent more time articulating the motivations/feelings that lead ‘her’ to self-sabotage, like Zaina Arafat does in You Exist Too Much, maybe then I would have those relationships more realistic.
There is also a mini-rant against cancel culture and its brevity does it a disservice as the author delivers a rather surface-level and rushed commentary on the dangers of this ‘practice’.

SPOILERS
Here comes the cherry on the poorly baked cake. When the climax happens, we are taken out of the novel and into a writing workshop of some sort. The people there are discussing the novel, while the author remains silent. We learn that the novel is based on her experiences and the people who have also just finished it give their various opinions. Many of them are celebrating her achievement and giving her some truly fantastic feedback. The few dissident voices point out all of the book’s flaws (the experimental style, the ending, the use of dual perspectives to tell what should have been just ‘her’ story) but it just so happens that said ppl are shitty so their critique is made moot. This supposedly self-aware wannabe meta chapter pissed me off. It seemed a preemptive attempt at rebutting any criticism, and in this way, it reminded me of a certain passage from Mona Awad’s Bunny, where we have awful people give some valid criticism to the narrator’s book which happens to be stylistically and thematically similar to Bunny. I am all for autofiction, and some of my favourite books are inspired by the author’s own experiences (the idiot, you exist too much, caucasia) but here I question the author’s choice to add the pov of the man she was in an abusive relationship with. The people in the workshop argue that this is an empowering move and that she has the right to tell her own story etc etc, and while I don’t necessarily disagree with that, I found the way she chooses to portray him and his inner monologue during ‘his’ chapters to be at best lazy, at worst, of poor taste. The florid metaphors that dominate his pov ultimately amount to a caricature of a man (“her water breasts slipping to the sides of her rib cage like raw eggs”). I couldn’t help but to unfavourably compare this to the jaw-dropping finale episode of I May Destroy You or the section in Wayétu Moore’s memoir where she convincingly captures her mother’s perspective.
I dunno, I felt this last section was smugly self-congratulatory and for no reason tbh. Nothing really stood about this ‘novel’: the structure was uninspired, the prose was mannered, and the characters were flimsy at best. The issues and themes had potential, and as I said, the author does on occasion proffer some keenly observed passages on American and Egyptian social mores, on cultural and linguistic barriers, on occupying a female body in contemporary Cairo, on being ‘othered’, on the ‘desirability’ of whiteness (for example she notes how in america her mother has recently ‘reinvented’ herself as white), on the privileges that come with being America (by emphasizing the opportunities that are available to ‘her’ and not ‘him’), and on the dangers of self-victimization (with ‘him’ trying to gaslight ‘her’ for his emotionally abusive behaviour by painting himself as a victim).

I’m sure other readers will be able to appreciate this more than I was. Sadly, I was not a fan of the overall tone of the novel nor did I like how the author portrays her story’s only lesbian character. Lastly, that meta chapter pissed me off. I didn’t think it was half as clever as it wanted to be, and it had the same energy as those successful authors who bemoan their book’s few negative reviews on Twitter.

my rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆


A Dead Djinn in Cairo by P. Djèlí Clark

This is the third novella I’ve read by P. Djèlí Clark and once again I find myself loving his building but not his story or characters. This novella is set in an alternate 1912 Cairo where djinns and angels are the norm. world happens to be the home to djinns Egypt, . In an alternate Cairo infused with the otherworldly, the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities investigate disturbances between the mortal and the (possibly) divine. What starts off as an odd suicide case for Our protagonist is Special Investigator Fatma el-Sha’arawi, the classic ‘spunky’ female lead who is has to ‘forge’ her way in an all-male environment, whose latest case involves the apparent suicide of a djinn. Alongside Senior Agent Hamed al-Nasr, the classic ‘set in his ways/not so concerned by his job’ male counterpart to this type of female lead, Fatima questions and is confronted by otherworldly and potentially world-destroying beings.

The setting is the most unique and strongest aspect of this novella. The storyline is fast-paced and was too action focused. I would have preferred a slower narrative, one that would have allowed for more interiority from the characters. Still, this was an overall quick and relatively entertaining read and I probably would recommend it just the world-building alone (I mean, we have clockworks angels!).


MY RATING: 3 of 5 stars

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Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie — book review

Death on the Nile is one of Agatha Christie’s most ingenious mysteries. While Christie has definitely penned more ‘twisty’ whoddunits, the shifting dynamics between the book’s various players make for a suspenseful story.
With the exception of our wonderfully punctilious Poirot, Death on the Nile is almost entirely populated by unlikable characters (who are either blatantly racist or express misogynistic and classist sentiments). While Christie’s characters are in essence stereotypes—the self-centred socialites, the oppressive mothers, the vociferous communist, the self-effacing plain-Jane, the vengeful scorned woman—to dismiss them as ‘shallow’ or ‘caricatures’ is rather unjustified. Through her sharp-wit, Christie observes how duplicitous her characters are, regardless of their class and gender. The murder victim is initially presented as heroine of sorts: admired for her beauty, wealth, and altruism. But, here and there, we see glimpses of her flippant and selfish nature.
Throughout the course of the novel, Poirot, as per usual, demonstrates the power of his little grey cells. His denouement, however, wasn’t as satisfying as it could have been. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed how enraged the suspects became once Poirot confronts them about their lies (I mean, they had it coming).

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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A Pure Heart: A Novel by Rajia Hassib — book review

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A Pure Heart’s portrayal of sisterhood is tepid at best.
The needlessly expository narration, the clichéd character dynamics, and the meandering storyline didn’t really grab me at all.

This novel reminded me a lot of The Other Americans and many other titles that seemed aimed at an American audience…so we have these two sisters who don’t get along: one is usually very religious and perceived by the others as conservative; the other one is usually pursuing some sort of academic study, she is thought as ‘unconventional’, she is far more spirited/animated than her sister, and she usually ends up falling in love or marring an American guy.

Maybe I could have looked past the predictability of the story if said story had been told in an engaging or emotionally charged manner…but that wasn’t the case. Here we have very flat storytelling, which provides very little nuance, and attempts to create atmosphere by describing each movement its various characters make (they sit up, they walk here, they walk there, they move their hands, the use their hands to lift objects, their legs move…) and resulting in a slog of a narrative.
There is this one scene in which perhaps the author wanted to juxtapose the tension between a group characters by over-describing all of their actions during their dinner together:
➜ “Rose pulled her hand back. She got up to carry the turkey to the countertop and, after washing her hands, started pulling pieces of meat off its carcass.
➜ “Ingrid walked up to the cabinet, stretched to reach the box of Ziploc bags.
➜ “Ingrid asked, taking the plates from Mark and rinsing them before putting them in the dishwasher.
➜ “Rose glanced at Mark, who was slowly wiping the table, now cleared of plates, with a wet washcloth, his hand going from side to side, again and again, […] Mark wiped the table with a dry cloth, now rubbing it in spots, scraping at it with his thumbnail, making sure every crumb was gone, every inch was glistening,”.

Soon I was tired of reading phrases such as these:
➜ “She did not lift her eyes from her noodles, stabbing them with the fork, turning it to wrap them around its prongs.
➜ “she opened the fridge, pulled out a cup of fruit yogurt, and ate it standing by the window.

The non-linearity of the story also served very little purpose. Looking at past events didn’t really provide us with a more in-depth portrayal of the various characters, but rather it made their shallow characterisation all the more glaring. We have the American nice-ish husband who is bland and in spite of his fixation on Egypt he will never quite understand his wife or her country; his douchebag male friend who is the stereotype of the inconsiderate bro-dude American; the eccentric Polish landlady…
The story would have benefited from having a narrower scope, giving us an insight into the psychology of the two sisters. This story could have easily been told in a more conventionally linear timeline, giving us time to familiarise ourselves with the two sisters, to see their bond shift and change over the course of their youth.

The last part of book includes the story of a character that should have either been the entire focus of this narrative or merely a ‘backstage’ figure…perhaps the author should have trusted her readers more as she didn’t quite need to cram in a hurried narrative of a hard-working young man who ends up doing an unthinkable act of violence after he experiences hardship after hardship.
What could have been an interesting story of sisterhood and belonging ended up becoming a rather trite, and occasionally tacky, narrative that strives to be aesthetic and topical…

My rating: ★★✰✰✰ 2 ½ stars 

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