IF AN EGYPTIAN CAN’T SPEAK ENGLISH
By Noor Naga
Noor Naga’s propulsive and philosophical novel, ‘If an Egyptian Can’t Speak English’, begins with a meet-cute. It’s the aftermath of the Arab Spring, and two strangers, who remain nameless for most of the book, sit side by side in a cafe in Cairo.
She is Egyptian-American, from a wealthy family. It’s her first time in the city, but she says her arrival is her return (although she wonders, “Is it arrogant to return to a place you’ve never been?”). She has come to Cairo to reconnect with her roots, as her mother mockingly says. He hails from the village of Shobrakheit and moved to the capital years earlier, after his beloved grandmother used an oven to commit suicide. He was present during the revolution, working as a photographer and documenting what he hoped was the birth of a new order, but now he is embittered, addicted to cocaine and living in a rooftop shack.
They quickly develop a relationship after meeting, and although there is tenderness between them, they also use each other for social and existential purposes – they both try to repair themselves in the wake of personal failures and humiliations. He leaves his cabin and goes to her beautiful apartment, taking some of her privileges through proximity. Meanwhile, he makes her feel less strange by showing her where to buy fresh vegetables and meat without worms. Taking care of him takes away her shame that she missed the revolution.
Through these characters and their relationship to each other, Naga dissects the shifting, slippery forms of belonging and power under global capitalism. What happens when American and Egyptian ideas about identity collide – within a person, within a relationship, within a city? Who belongs to a place – the locals or the people the economy needs to attract?
The novel’s inventive form magnifies these ideas, distorting our understanding of who is speaking and who is being addressed. In the first of the book’s three parts, each chapter begins with a philosophical question. It is unclear who the questions are asked to, which is why they are so effective – the novel invites the reader to think about each question as well. Footnotes appear in the second, providing context about Cairo and Egyptian culture. But they also raise the question: Who are these footnotes for? Is Naga suddenly writing in the direction of the white gaze? The third part changes form again, answers this question and negates any lingering certainties the reader may have. And everywhere the novel is brimming with sparkling prose. Naga’s sentences are precise and rich in bold, complex observations.
The relationship between the two lovers eventually sours precisely because they are initially attracted to each other. He wants her wealth but hates her because she has it. She wants his authenticity, but hates that he is in control of her. She says: “He points to scenes from the revolution as if he is proving his machismo to me, by stringing pearls around my neck.” Later he thinks, “It’s her American show: rolling into my village in a military tank, throwing three-quarters of an apple at my mother’s feet that she only peeled with her teeth.” Their resentment escalates. He eventually becomes violent.
But Naga does not rest the reader in easy notions of good and evil or guilt and innocence. At the beginning of the novel, about her experience with Cairo, the woman thinks: ‘I am out of context, confused about where the margins and the pressure points are. Who has the power? Where is the centre?” Just when you think one character has crossed a line, another reaches out and hits a third rail, leaving the reader wondering, Whose story is this anyway?
This question – whose version of a story, or of history, is being told and why – is at the heart of this exciting debut. “If an Egyptian can’t speak English” asks: When a revolution fails, how do the revolutionaries survive the heartbreak? Who gets to tell the story of what comes next, and even care when the world has stopped watching? This novel has a global, diasporic view; within that we are all involved.