If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English

Graywolf. Apr. 2022. 192p. ISBN 9781644450819. pap. $16. F
The two protagonists in Noor’s (Washes, Prays) unusually structured novel, winner of the Graywolf Press African Fiction Prize, are referred to only as “the boy from Shobrakheit” and “the American girl.” In short, alternating-perspective chapters (most only one or two pages long), readers learn that the boy left his home village for Cairo just before the 2011 revolution and made money selling photographs of the events to the Western press. He’s now suffering from depression and drug addiction by the time he meets the girl, an American of Egyptian heritage. Their relationship is complicated by severe cultural and class differences, and misunderstandings lead to eventual tragedy. The novel’s third section takes the form of a transcript of a memoir-writing workshop, in which a manuscript (presumably written by the girl but not seen by readers) is dissected by the class.
VERDICT The short chapters keep the pages turning during the first two sections as the narrative heads toward the inevitable catastrophe, and the meta-fictional third section helps readers process what may have disturbed or offended in the story itself and its depiction of the characters, addressing current conversations about authorial voice, consent, and cultural appropriation. Extraordinary.
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