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If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English

por Noor Naga

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1307210,030 (3.61)14
In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, an Egyptian American woman and a man from the village of Shobrakheit meet at a caf in Cairo. He was a photographer of the revolution, but now finds himself unemployed and addicted to cocaine, living in a rooftop shack. She is a nostalgic daughter of immigrants "returning" to a country she's never been to before, teaching English and living in a light-filled flat with balconies on all sides. They fall in love and he moves in. But soon their desire--for one another, for the selves they want to become through the other--takes a violent turn that neither of them expected.… (mais)
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Noor Naga’s If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English is a novella set in post-Arab-Spring Cairo, where an unnamed Egyptian-American woman and an unnamed Egyptian man have a brief but toxic relationship. I’m torn about this one. For every lovely turn of phrase or bit of character work here, there were some clunky bits (“watery breasts” made me grimace irl) and trite aphorisms. (And then there’s the third act of the book, in which everything that came before is “actually” a non-fiction memoir being commented on by the American fellow students in a creative writing class that Naga’s taking. This just piles on too many layers of smug tongue-in-cheekness for the book to be able to support: all of the novel’s issues are intentional (with class, culture, gender, sexuality, POV, etc) and if you point them out or critique them well you, the reader, just Didn’t Get It! These are strategies a writer can use to a certain extent, but irony has its limits as an authorial device. Whatever Naga thought she was doing with her depiction of a Black woman in the third part, it didn’t work. Though there again, I’m sure she’d say I just Didn’t Get It.) Naga is clearly a talented writer, but not one who yet seems to have true confidence in what she wants to say. ( )
  siriaeve | Apr 9, 2024 |
A quite brilliant novel discussing a relationship between an Egyptian expat with a native Egyptian. It plays with narrative form, but quite gently in my view, asking not too much of readers. Naga writes exceptionally well and reading this was pure pleasure. ( )
  TomMcGreevy | Feb 23, 2024 |
There is some beautiful prose here and questioning of ideals and culture, but it's messy, weird, and at times disturbing. It sprints constantly from poignant to "fake deep FB caption" to poetic or clever, but it never stops being engaging.

Our main character is in a "what's understood need not be explained" sometimes toxic relationship with a once bright-eyed, but deeply troubled former photographer, revolutionary, and recovering drug addict. Neither is named in the story. Neither need to be with the other before some intense therapy. No woman can heal a broken man; he has to want it for himself. Both fetishize, condescend, underestimate, and pleasantly surprise each other.

There are side characters, but the focus is on these two. Ms. Lady wants a soul-searching journey and to reclaim her roots. She acknowledges she had a diluted version of her culture from wanting to fit in or sell the best version of herself.

Her father had his own experience with that. On his part, he used his heritage as a way to market and differentiate himself. For example, changing his actual name from Freddy to Fouad to better sell his holistic expertise to foreigners seeking to exotify him. The relationship between Ms. Lady, her father, and her mother (they're getting divorced) is just as interesting as the relationship between Lady's western values and Egyptian cultures colliding and meshing, and the equally tumultuous relationship with Guy from Shobrakheit. Guy from Shobrakheit has issues and demons, but you understand why he does until he becomes increasingly too abusive to have sympathy for.

Unlike most though Ms Lady has a claim to her roots and wants to fully explore it. It happens clumsily along the way from some struggles from being an outsider, a woman, or her western upbringing. Beyond that, the bits about the revolution and the fallout afterward are disheartening. You see how it affects Guy from Shobrakheit, the people of the city, and even Ms Lady who can only chase the ghost, never having been there to experience the dashed dreams. The author beautifully describes the second-guessing of everything once you THINK you've overcome culture shock or expertly learned something only to find a new layer.

Part 3 is an absolute doozy! Ending spoiler: the gut punch this threw me though from being a memoir!!! this does bring up the question if the author is romanticizing the guy or hoping he made the conclusions she did... because it's no longer fiction, we've no idea what that guy was thinking if he were ever so self-aware

I'm not often interested in analyzing a book critically now that I've finished school, but I wouldn't mind trying to dissect this. All its moving pieces and parts. I enjoyed the reading experience. And the bite-sized chapters!

3.5 ( )
  DestDest | Nov 28, 2023 |
Great book,dreadful last section. What was she thinking? ( )
  alans | Nov 9, 2023 |
I am not sure if I would recommend this book.
Spoilers absolutely abound.
Absolutely.

It is a book told from two different perspectives and somehow the man doesn't come off as awful. Because I'm a romantic. Because the woman is a romantic?
He's broken already, from the failure of the revolution. She comes from America and doesn't see it because she doesn't know and can't see. And so she destroys him.
But his destruction is within him already, and he's abusive and violent.
I think there's the theme of women finding excuses for oppressed men being abusive and violent.
But it isn't clear that she even sees him.
What is she doing? Keeping him in her house and not giving him a key?
What is she doing? Taking up with the other guy who is maybe not broken inside but reflects the broken exploitative, unjust world.

I guess it takes them, the ideas of them, and puts them onto a path and sees it through.

But the watery breasts. I don't understand what are watery breasts. And why would this man have such knowledge?
And, is his story true. His narrative talks about women who come to Egypt and use men like him for sex and access to people in revolt. Did that happen to him or is it what he read about, fantasized about?
  franoscar | May 18, 2023 |
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In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, an Egyptian American woman and a man from the village of Shobrakheit meet at a caf in Cairo. He was a photographer of the revolution, but now finds himself unemployed and addicted to cocaine, living in a rooftop shack. She is a nostalgic daughter of immigrants "returning" to a country she's never been to before, teaching English and living in a light-filled flat with balconies on all sides. They fall in love and he moves in. But soon their desire--for one another, for the selves they want to become through the other--takes a violent turn that neither of them expected.

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