Five novels that show the cultural comeback of rural Egypt

Although Egypt's most famous books tend to be set in the city, many novels centre their plotlines in the countryside

Five very different modern novels with elements of myth, existentialism and nostalgia all have one thing in common: an evocative countryside setting
Lina Jaradat
Five very different modern novels with elements of myth, existentialism and nostalgia all have one thing in common: an evocative countryside setting

Five novels that show the cultural comeback of rural Egypt

A new generation of Egyptian novelists has changed how the country’s writers depict rural life. Although the most famous books tend to be set in the city, many novels have centred their plotlines in the countryside.

In this article, we will examine five pioneering writers. They all channel the traditions of established writers like Taha Hussein, Mohamed Hussein Haykal, and Khairy Shalaby but also include new elements of a modern and changing world.

The renewed focus on the countryside comes from relatively new authors writing their first or second novels. Since writers tend to start their careers in areas they are well versed in, this trend implies that rural Egypt is making a cultural comeback.

The First Paths of Return (Awwal Douroub Al Awda) by Choukri Salama

In his debut novel, Choukri Salama depicts the rich world of his village, brimming with stories and secrets.

The narrative includes characters of various ages. It begins with Grandma Hanem and extends to Zein El-Din Ismail—a young man preoccupied with unearthing his past. In between, we encounter the father figures Mustafa and Zein El-Din Ibrahim, among others.

While Zein El-Din Ibrahim awaits the return of his absent son, Salama, now a sheikh in need of someone to rely on to get around, we journey with him through his childhood and his relationship with his own father.

He later marries Fatima—who is the same age as his children—and searches for meaning in his life. Engrossed in books, he is captivated by his grandmother's stories. Following her passing, he is left to confront the world alone.

Seeking an impossible love, he meets her online through his friend Hajer. He hesitates to meet her, embarking on a peculiar journey to search for his roots in the An Naanaeyah neighbourhood.

The simple detail of Salama’s writing brings the village to life, along with how he portrays the intimate, close-knit relationships among its neighbours. Modern means of communication mean that connections—including romantic ones—are made through the internet, chat apps, and other high-tech means.

However, there is also an element of myth in the story, and Zein El-Din’s journey in An Naanaeyah is reminiscent of Odysseus's time. Larger questions beyond the protagonists' stories and their world also arise—questions about existence itself and the relationship between humans, their origins, and their past.

Five very different modern novels with elements of myth, existentialism and nostalgia all have one thing in common: an evocative countryside setting

Salama succeeds in making the village bigger than its problems and more reminiscent of the broader human condition as his characters reach broader and richer horizons.

The novel touches on the modern plight of humanity everywhere through his realistic depiction of changes in the village in recent years.

This is delivered in an engaging narrative and a polished literary style. The book brings both the village and its writer into the ranks of promising young novelists.

Another Day for Murder (Yawm Akhar Lel Katel) by Hanaa Metwally

In her second novel, Hanaa Metwally weaves together the stories of several women who are, in effect, trapped in the village of Kom El-Deeba.

The book channels the Egyptian legend of En-Naddāha, a naiad-like female spirit who calls men to the Nile, leading to their death or disappearance, one of the most widespread myths in rural Egypt.

Metwally turns it into the curse of the "drowned women" in her book, referring to the bodies of women found dead in the canal. Each woman's story reveals aspects of life in that village and the ignorance and backwardness it suffers from.

Despite all attempts at modernisation, civilisation, and integration into the world of technology and development, the change seems superficial, failing to properly change the essence of the village's inhabitants and their way of life.

The story depicts aspects of modern life.

Girls and women from the village shop for clothes through apps, and many are keen on owning the most expensive mobile phones. But the story also reveals what hasn't changed: they still deworm vegetables in the fields and collect agricultural produce.

Choukri Salama's novel The First Paths of Return touches on the modern plight of humanity through his realistic depiction of changes in the village.

Additionally, each of them plays her role as a mother in the home without any assistance or appreciation.

The main protagonists are Asma, Sara, and Samiya. Events start to unfold when Sara returns to the village after some time away. We gradually learn about her challenging experiences during her absence.

She is surprised by the changes the village has undergone, particularly the incidents that shake its foundations and families alike.

Asma has a tumultuous relationship with her husband, Sameeh, and their daughters. Samiya is the boldest of them all. She is in a romantic relationship with Mahmoud and seeks to break free from her family.

The reader is taken aback by her disappearance. As the author recounts the tales of the village women and their world, we discover the challenges and conflicts surrounding them—from realms of myths and legends to marital and reproductive issues and the fear of scandal.

The struggle for male dominance and the imposition of their guardianship over women is also a prominent theme.

The tragic incidents of the drowned women bring them together to expose the dangers facing the village that have been left unaddressed. The situation appears bleak, with some characters striving to break free from the cycle of despair while others succumb to it.

The author's conclusion brings us back to the opening scene: "The women of the village flow out of their homes, like water, in an instant, ascending to the rooftops, clad in black garments, heads bowed."

"They head upward, where nothing separates them from the sky, breathing in pure air unaffected by men, exhaling it angrily, tearing their robes until their chests are free from fear. Their screams and wails pierce hearts, alarming all creatures."

Metwally portrays the world of the village and its conflicts, revealing the pain and hopes of the main characters, along with their relentless efforts to change the rural community's perception of women.

Nubian village in Aswan

This change seems genuinely challenging despite all the progress villages have witnessed, with deeply entrenched ideas continuing to influence many.

The novel has a detective-like style, marked by the presence of bodies and the quest to uncover the reasons behind their murder or disappearance. 

Revealing the motive behind those incidents is no longer the goal; it is rather exposing the methods and means of controlling women of the village in general.

Bayad Ala Mad Al Basar (White As Far As The Eye Can See) by Mohamed Abdelrazek

In his second novel, White As Far As The Eye Can See, Mohamed Abdelrazek writes about a young girl's death. A family's hidden secrets are exposed as it remains unclear whether the girl committed suicide or was murdered.

Despite the family members' attempts to transition to and immerse themselves in city life, the rural world continues to dominate the novel's characters and their destinies. Abdelrazek portrays each with their own weakness or set of problems and complexities that entrap them.

Even the police officer investigating the crime struggles with his own issues, as does the village doctor, who, despite seeming distant from the village's world, appears to be implicated.

The female characters—the mother, Hala, and the daughter/victim, Yasmin—bear the brunt of tragic outcomes caused by their grandmother, Halima, who, despite having a strong presence and being heard, ultimately leads her daughters and family members to their sad fate.

Meanwhile, the father, Massoud, finds himself trapped between personal weakness and his work in a factory that fails to provide him with the significant status he once desired.

Even the youngest son, Rida, is not spared from involvement as he navigates through bullying classmates and attempts to explore the adult world in his stumbling adolescence.

The book's title, White As Far As The Eye Can See, is apt. The whiteness of the cotton fields symbolises purity, which stands in stark contrast to the harsh world of today.

Abdulrazek does not confine himself to presenting the characters from his village world; rather, he seems to be clearly interested in juxtaposing that world of tranquillity and serenity with the city—which he describes as "lifeless, its streets resembling each other with grey buildings, and thus it never made him feel any affection."

The reader is faced with the dilemma of fragmentation between two worlds. These worlds had the greatest impact on the crime being investigated and were one reason for the constant conflict between Masoud's father and his wife, Hala.

Their marriage and departure from the village are poetically explained. Hala is described as a girl who "...adores the bright yellow cotton flowers, and its almonds with their dazzling white colour, soft intertwined fuzz wrapped around the kernel."

"She becomes enchanted by those white almonds as they bloom on the branches, then as they burst and fall into the hands of their gatherers..."

Abdulrazek does not specify the novel's time period, but based on some of the details, the storyline appears to be set in contemporary times. While there is no trace of technology or the internet, it seems to be the late 1990s or early 2000s.

The writer focuses more on the village world, so the book's title is apt. It describes the cotton fields as "whiteness as far as the eye can see," with all the connotations of softness, tranquillity, and purity that it carries.

This whiteness stands in stark contrast to the harsh world of today. We also notice that Abdelrazek does not specify the village's name, which perhaps makes the events and details applicable to any Egyptian village.

He mentions this in one of the dialogues in the book, stating that he intentionally did so to avoid harsh backlash from society regarding the shocking events of the novel.

An Egyptian village

Village of a Hundred (Qaryat Al Mi'a) by Rehab Loai

Rehab Loai's novel Village of a Hundred won the Khairy Shalaby Award for Best Debut Novel, sponsored by Dar El-Shorouk.

The writer portrays a different image of village life, blending reality with mythology in her tale of a unique place where no one ever goes hungry or complains of poverty.

It consists of exactly 100 people, and whenever a new baby is born, people wait for the disappearance or absence of another community member, who becomes the "chosen one."

In this village, we encounter simple families who believe in this myth and adhere to its laws. They all submit to the sage, Tawfiq, whom they consider the village leader. He gathers the 100 chosen ones at a high mound on the Nile, where no one dares to approach them.

Loai adds another legend to the narrative through the story of Awad, who was blessed with seven sons and believed he could only father boys until his wife gave birth to a daughter.

He first objects to her presence but cannot harm or kill her, so he names her "Little Awad" and leaves her and his wife to fend for themselves. The women of the village breastfed her, becoming the de facto daughter of every household.

The novel spans 120 pages but is tightly written and full of suspense, keeping the reader hooked. It is structured in short, intersecting sections, with the story of the mayor's family and the story of the Awad family interspersed.

Through this, the author presents an important aspect of village life in concise and agile language, raising questions about the relationships that emerge between various figures of material and moral authority in rural communities.

This includes the mayor—who imposes his control and is feared by all—and characters like Tawfiq, who are silently influential. It also delves into their relationships with each other and their daily struggles, with ongoing attempts to survive.

The Days of the Big Family (Ayyam Al Aa'ila Al Kabira) by Ahmed Wali

Ahmed Wali has written several works—from novels to short stories—before publishing his most recent novel after a 15-year hiatus.

In The Days of the Big Family, he narrates the story of the Wali family and takes us back to the time of the Egyptian village in the 1960s and beyond.

Village and palm trees along the Nile River, Egypt

He portrays the conditions of the poor and the simple in that time, which is described as the "beautiful" era. We see a different image of the village: one that is extremely simple and intimate, capable of overcoming problems and difficulties with patience and contentment.

The details of the novel evoke a sense of nostalgia for the past. It tells the stories of characters who hear Umm Kulthum's voice on the radio for the first time and listen to speeches by then-Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

The author describes the gatherings of small families around the oven to prepare biscuits and pastries on the last days of Ramadan, weaving the stories of children and their adventures with tales of adolescence and the discovery of the differences between men and women.

He also illustrates how a major calamity—for example, when a boy and a girl are found together without clothes—later turns into village gossip between two families.

The reader is transported from one tale to another in 16 separate but interconnected chapters until the story comes full circle. Ultimately, the reader discovers that the novel was not written in one go, but Wali had compiled these short stories over a span of 40 years. 

One short story published in Majallat Al Thakafa Al Jadeeda, or New Culture Magazine, received considerable praise. Critics told Wali that the story could function as a chapter of a full-fledged novel.

In his latest novel, Wali presents another intensely beautiful and unique portrayal of Egyptian village life as it was years ago: with simplicity, sincerity, and clarity.

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