By: Nadine El-Hadi
Hoopoe (the fiction imprint of the American University in Cairo Press) has just celebrated its first birthday. In the past year, we have released a wide range of fiction, and this spring we continue in this vein, publishing authors from Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq and America, writing in distinct genres and across vastly differing experiences and subjects.
As well as showcasing the diversity of writing in this region, it has been central to Hoopoe to offer alternative narratives. Publishing from a region so often in the news, for all the wrong reasons, our books reach behind headlines to offer fresh, unexpected stories that will move, entertain and engage readers across the world.
Last October we released Khaled Khalifa’s acclaimed No Knives in the Kitchens of This City. Set between the 1960s and 2000s, it tells the story of the disintegration of one family from Aleppo under the weight of Assad’s cruel regime, and in so doing speaks to the wider persecution of society as a whole. This book was released just as the destruction of this historic city hit international news headlines, and Khalifa’s lyrical and eloquent prose provided a startling window into Aleppo’s collapse, one that began many years ago and that presaged the current war.
Two of our spring books (both released this month in Egypt) have also revealed themselves to be, sadly, topical. The Baghdad Eucharist by Iraqi–American writer Sinan Antoon (originally published in Arabic as Ya Maryam) charts 24 hours in the life of a Christian family in Baghdad, amid the onslaught of extremist sectarian violence that was unleashed by the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Although set in 2010, it remains relevant today, and seems to foreshadow the rise of ISIS in Iraq, not to mention its echoes of the recent attacks on churches in Egypt.
It is not a book without hope though, as the brutality of the current era is tempered by the voice of the elderly Youssef, from whose perspective the first half of the book is told. While aware of all that has been lost, he has not despaired and looks back on peaceful, happier times—before war, before sanctions, before Saddam. He refuses to leave the house that he grew up in, and the memories of his beloved city, despite attempts from his younger relatives (who have lived only through the bad years) to persuade him that there is nothing left for him.
The second book to recall this year’s headlines is Embrace on Brooklyn Bridge by Egyptian author Ezzedine C. Fishere, which tackles the immigrant experience in the US. Set mainly between Cairo and the US, it tracks the interwoven lives of eight Arab–American characters as they struggle with all the complications of a life lived in exile.
We first meet Darwish, now an old man looking back on the life that he has made for himself in New York, far away from his native Cairo, as he prepares for his granddaughter Salma’s 21st birthday party. Each chapter is told by a different guest of this celebration, all of whom revisit old memories, struggles and conflicts as they make their way there. It is a story of alienation and the search for home and belonging, but also of love in unlikely places.
As with Khalifa’s novel, both of these books offer particular, individual insights into much-discussed, much-debated, but possibly little-understood subjects. But what should really recommend them is the quality of their writing and the humanity of the stories that they tell—all are intimate tales of families, relationships, love and loss, hope and fear set against the backdrop of big-picture politics and social upheavals.
These authors are also all acclaimed writers in their own right and masters of their trade: No Knives in the Kitchens of This City, The Baghdad Eucharist, and Embrace on Brooklyn Bridge have all been shortlisted for the prestigious International Prize for Arabic Fiction (commonly referred to as the Arabic Booker) when first released. No Knives in the Kitchens of This City also won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for literature.
And these are not the only prizewinning books in Hoopoe’s latest lineup, with two other Mahfouz Medal winners released this spring. First is a new edition of Latifa al-Zayyat’s influential feminist work The Open Door, a book that continues to captivate audiences decades after it was originally published in Arabic in 1960. The Arabic edition is still in print (recently reissued by Dar al-Karma) and many will know the story from the classic movie of the same name, starring Fatin Hamama. In it, we follow Layla through her political and social awakening, as she navigates and rebels against the conservative mores of the time—just as Egypt rebels against British imperialist rule. This coming-of-age story broke new ground in the sixties, and has earned its place as a landmark in Arabic literature—in the words of the illustrious Naguib Mahfouz, “Latifa al-Zayyat greatly helped all of us Egyptian writers.”
Second is renowned Lebanese author Hassan Daoud’s introspective novel No Road to Paradise, which tells of one man’s struggle with religion and tradition. This sparse and elegant novel lays bare the innermost thoughts of the disillusioned imam of a small village, who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. Having always done what was expected of him, he must now face up to the life choices he has made and that have left him unfulfilled and disenchanted.
Last but not least, we add to this mix two distinct stories set in modern Egypt. The Book of Safety by Yasser Abdel-Hafez is a quirky and intriguing narrative of Cairo, set around a young man, Khaled, who works in a mysterious government office called the Palace of Confessions, where his role is to mutely transcribe interrogations. In one such session, he comes across Mustafa Ismail, university professor turned master thief and blackmailer, whose life’s work is The Book of Safety, the ultimate handbook to his murky trade. As Khaled gradually descends into obsession with him, we meet a cast of colorful and outlandish characters—from the regulars at his local ahwa to Ismail’s eccentric daughter.
Meanwhile, Menorahs and Minarets is the third book in Kamal Ruhayyim’s trilogy set in Egypt’s Jewish community. It sees the return of Galal, after ten years in Paris, to a city that he hardly recognizes. Still caught between his dual identity—his mother’s Cairene Jewish family and his father’s Muslim family from the Delta—he struggles to find a place for himself.
We hope that this eclectic mix of books will provide something for everyone—whether it’s a feminist classic from 1950s Cairo, a family saga in modern Baghdad or an immigrant novel in New York that you are after.
For more information on Hoopoe titles, visit: http://hoopoefiction.com/
Nadine El-Hadi is managing editor of AUC Press and acquisitions editor for Hoopoe