Reading Arabic Literature in Hebrew: New Translation of Egyptian Bestseller Opens the Door for Burgeoning Industry

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A cafe in Cairo, the beginning of the 20th century.
A cafe in Cairo, the beginning of the 20th century. Credit: LL / Roger-Viollet / AFP
Eness Elias
Eness Elias
Eness Elias
Eness Elias

Some weeks ago, I happened to be sitting in a café on Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Street, when rocket sirens blared in central and southern Israel. It was early in the morning, the place was full, and everyone was drinking coffee, having a bite to eat, chatting.

Suddenly, a air-raid siren sounded – a rare occurrence in that city. No one got up from their tables: Everyone, myself included, stayed in their seats and ignored it. On the street, too, people kept walking or riding their scooters and bikes without stopping.

Those blasé Tel Aviv types with their coffee shops, I thought to myself. And yet, although the local café culture is typically derided for its supposed vacuousness and disconnect from reality, what I really saw was just the opposite: an uncompromising effort to keep on with life as usual. This is the dynamic of a big city, and its strength as well.

It’s that same dynamic and strength we see reflected in Naguib Mahfouz’s novel, “The Coffeehouse,” just published in a Hebrew translation by Idan Barir and Sasson Somekh, from Kinneret-Zmora press. (Originally published in Arabic in 1988, the same year the great Egyptian writer won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the book appeared in an English translation in 2010.) It’s the tale of five lifelong friends living in Cairo’s Abbasiya quarter, and stretches from the early 20th century through the aftermath of the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981. For the five, the coffeehouse they frequent is the center of life – the place where the friends experience “our parting from youth and our first steps into manhood,” as one of them puts it.

Cairo’s café culture also serves as a backdrop for the historic upheavals that racked Egypt during the last century. The changes that the Abbasiya quarter went through are similar to those occurring in many other neighborhoods, both in Egypt and around the world, in general: From small, family-dominated residential areas they morphed into large, modern neighborhoods with boulevards, high-rises and large shops. The coffeehouse essentially takes the place of the lost communal feel of the neighborhood.

Mahfouz’s works were first published in Hebrew in 1981, when a translation of his “Cairo Trilogy” by Sami Michael came out. That was followed by another eight of his books, including “Children of Gebelawi” (aka “Children of the Alley”), which was banned from publication in many Arab countries – due to alleged blasphemy against the three monotheistic Abrahamic faiths – and “Midaq Alley.” Arabic literature professor Sasson Somekh was one of the key people responsible for ensuring that Mahfouz’s writings were published in Hebrew. Somekh, who died this past August, published four books about Mahfouz’s literary work and style in Arabic and English, and beyond their professional relationship, the two also developed a deep friendship. Mahfouz himself died in 2006 at age 94.

Books and diplomacy

Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz. A new Hebrew translation of his book 'The Coffehouse' has just been released.Credit: alaraby

Diplomatic ties between Israel and Egypt have helped facilitate the development of literary relations between the countries. Says Tami Chapnik, editor of a series of translations of Arabic literature at Kinneret-Zmora imprint: “Just this past August, Farouk Hosni, the culture minister under [President Hosni] Mubarak and a leader of the boycott of cultural contact with Israel, said that the boycott of Israel is not working in Cairo’s favor. And in fact, most of the books translated from Arabic to Hebrew come from Egypt, like those of Alaa Al-Aswany and Youssef Ziedan – the latter of whom is now the main voice in Egypt in favor of normalization with Israel.”

Chapnik notes further that, “since the Arab Spring, literature has been the main arena in which the struggle over individual liberties takes place. In the last few years, there has been an increase in the number of titles from Arab countries that are being published in Israel – eight to 10 titles a year – and the audience of readers has expanded. One can begin to talk about a genuine industry. Since 2012-13, writers from Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Algeria, Yemen and Syria, and works by Palestinian writers, have been translated into Hebrew.” In total, 45 novels and collections of short stories and poetry have appeared in Hebrew during that period, brought out by a wide variety of publishers. Chapnik adds that another 11 books are in various stages of production, including works from Iraq and Lebanon.

How does that fit in with Arab countries’ cultural boycott of Israel?

Chapnik: “The boycott is collective ... and frustrating, but ultimately it’s a personal issue: It all depends on the personality and the standing of the author, on the specific country they come from and on the kind of pressure that is brought to bear on them. From my contacts with writers in Arab countries, my impression is that for the most part there’s no problem of desire. Quite the opposite: After many years of political restrictions, more writers in Arab countries are ready to give a green light to Hebrew translations of their work. These authors are private citizens, intellectuals, and the government has less control over them. They needn’t travel to Israel in order to collaborate on the translations, and they can also do so through a third party.

“The authorities also find it beneficial to maintain a narrow opening that makes them appear to be more tolerant. As has been proved, reality is dynamic, I hope and expect that the day is not far off when we’ll also see contemporary literature from the Gulf States and Morocco [being translated] here.”

Egyptian playwright and novelist Yusuf Idris. His work has also been translated into Hebrew

Regarding the popularity of books originating in the Arab world, Chapnik notes that the Hebrew version of Alaa Al-Aswany’s “The Yacoubian Building” has sold 25,000 copies since it was published here in 2016, while Rajaa Alsanea’s “Girls of Riyadh” and Youssef Ziedan’s “Azazel” have each sold 8,000 copies. To date, the editor adds, more than 3,000 Israelis have purchased the new Hebrew edition of “The Coffeehouse” since it’s come out.

Chapnik believes that literature has the power to bring about political change, as she noted in a letter to the Egyptian ambassador in Israel, when she sent him a copy of the translated novel.

“Mahfouz himself gave apt expression to the importance of literature and culture in these contexts,” she continues. “Following the [near-fatal] attempt on his life in 1994, due to the allegedly heretical content of his novel ‘Children of Gebelawi,’ he sent three of his books to the suspects, with this dedication: ‘To those who oppose my point of view, I dedicate these lines of mine to the well-being of a society that can only be reformed through culture.’”

Feelings of belonging

The five friends in the novel meet at first in public places or at the home of one of them, which always causes a certain sense of discomfort, largely due to the class differences among them. But once they begin to gather in the coffeehouse, they have a place where everyone shares a feeling of equality and belonging – a sort of home where they can live life both independently and together, without external judgment. From this place of theirs, they see everything: two world wars, revolutions, political and cultural upheavals. Their fates and daily life in the coffeehouse are intertwined with the major historic events of their time and with existence in the big, burgeoning city of Cairo – and there is also much criticism of the country’s leaders. Political discussion arises from everyday conversation, from simple speech. One may dismiss such speech as meaningless, but it provokes thought and reverberates in the fields of culture and art.

People sitting at a cafe in south Tel Aviv's Levinsky Market.Credit: Moti Milrod

Back to Tel Aviv: There are many cultural similarities that arise here with the local “bubble,” with the Tel Avivians who want nothing more than to sit at their local café. But there is something else about this coffeehouse culture, too. In Mahfouz’s Cairo as well as in Tel Aviv, it seems like everyone is really a nomad searching for a home in a place that is not always kind to them, in a world full of upheaval and violence and suffering. So what’s so terrible about a person finding their place in the world? A place that speaks their language, that embodies their values, that allows them to relax and think clearly. Their coffeehouse.   

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