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Audiobook Review: If An Egyptian Cannot Speak English by Noor Naga

Title: If An Egyptian Cannot Speak English

Author: Noor Naga (narrated by Amin El Gamal and Noor Naga)
Year published: 2022
Category: Adult fiction
Pages: 384 pages
Rating: 4 out of 5

Location: (my 2023 Google Reading map)Egypt

SummaryIn the aftermath of the Arab Spring, an Egyptian American woman and a man from the village of Shobrakheit meet at a café 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.  

A dark romance exposing the gaps in American identity politics, especially when exported overseas, If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English is at once ravishing and wry, scathing and tender. Told in alternating perspectives, Noor Naga’s experimental debut examines the ethics of fetishizing the homeland and punishing the beloved . . . and vice versa. In our globalized twenty-first-century world, what are the new faces (and races) of empire? When the revolution fails, how long can someone survive the disappointment? Who suffers and, more crucially, who gets to tell about it?

Review: My daughter put this one in the library of our Audible account and it was only 5 hours so I thought I'd give it a try. I am glad I listened to it since there are two narrators: one for the man's and one for the woman's chapters.

Each chapter is titled "Question" followed by a philosophical question. I kind of like this repetition with the question letting the reader know what is coming (mostly) in the short chapters. The book starts out with each character experiencing Cairo through their eyes (she an American, he from a rural village in Egypt), their early relationship, and progresses about half way through to an abusive relationship. Power is the theme of the book. Who has it, who wants it, and how it controls people.

From this description one would assume the man has power over the woman. But, really, the power shifts back and forth throughout the novel. She, the English teacher and wealthier of the two often has power at some points and he, the poor former addict has it at other times.

The novel won the Graywolf Press African Fiction Prize. It's not an easy read/listen but I couldn't pull myself away. I see why my daughter liked this book, it's philosophical, poetic and has themes throughout the book such as nationality, gender, class, culture, colorism, and self identity. 

Part three is really clever: analysis of parts 1 and 2 by multiple new characters. Did not see that coming, but enjoyed it.

Challenges for which this counts: 
  • Literary Escapes--Egypt

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