If an Egyptian cannot speak English, by Noor Naga

Cover Noor NagaRES

In post-Arab Spring Cairo, two strangers meet and fall in love. If an Egyptian cannot speak English is a story of two people dislocated from their home environments, one by intent and one by necessity. The woman, from a wealthy background, comes to Cairo from the States to connect with her roots. The boy is forced to leave the familiar village of Shobrakheit after a family tragedy and ends up unemployed, addicted to cocaine and living in a shack. He was present during the revolution, hoping for a new order, but now he is bitter. Gradually their love becomes resentment and a source for violence.

The novel is philosophical, questioning who belongs to which place: is it the locals or the people the economy is designed to attract? What happens when there are two different views of belonging and identity? The novel by Noor Naga explores identity politics and presents ideas on otherness, gender, and race, as well as notions of power: who gets to tell the story and who gets to read it.

A love story
There are three parts to the novel. The first part covers the buildup of the story of their doomed romance, as well as the consequences of their difference in privilege and circumstances. The second part is about the aftermath of their relationship when their resentments come to a head. The Egyptian-American woman returns to speaking in English and her familiar setting, and falls back into her class privilege. The boy from Shobrakheit stalks her and falls into a downwards spiral. The second part of the novel ends violently after a plan to be with her and to get into her world fails. It also sees the ending of the active part of the novel. The third part is totally different, distancing the reader from the novel by shifting the focus yet again in a metafictional way.

Structure of the novel
Apart from being philosophical, the novel is also an experimental one. The experiment is one of structure and perspective. It is unclear who says what: who is speaking and who is being addressed? The first part is the longest and is in a question/answer construction. It is told in short, single-paragraph chapters, each beginning with a riddle-like question (“If you are competing to lose, what do you win if you win?”), and alternating between the perspectives of the two characters. The second part is still from alternating perspectives but in the singular form and with lots of footnotes regarding Egyptian cultural ways and facts about the country. Whom are these footnotes for? The third and final part is formed as a play script. The play is set as a creative writing class and the students criticize the novel which is portrayed as a memoir by the class’s instructor, Naga herself. The students ridicule the writing, finding the story of the romance more important than the themes of belonging, privilege and class. Through the alternating style of narration and continually shifting the focus, the author asks the reader: who is what, and whose version of a story (or history) gets told and why?

Noor Naga is an Alexandrian writer who was born in Philadelphia, raised in Dubai, studied in Toronto, and now lives in Cairo. Her verse-novel Washes, Prays won the Pat Lowther Memorial Award and an Arab American Book Award. If an Egyptian cannot speak English, her debut novel, won the Graywolf Press Africa Prize. Noor Naga is also a recipient of the Bronwen Wallace Award, the RBC/PEN Canada Award, and the Disquiet Fiction Prize. She teaches at the American University in Cairo.

Angela Robson