If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English, by Noor Naga

This novel was on the Giller Prize shortlist and is a short but compelling story about a young woman who is Egyptian by heritage but raised in the US, who goes to live in Egypt and starts a relationship with a young man who was a photographer during the Arab Spring uprisings (this story is set a few years later) and has since struggled to find regular work and is also dealing with a drug addiction. Through the course of their brief affair, told in alternating point-of-view chapters, the novel explores the cultural gaps between them, the experience of Egyptians who participated in the uprisings only to find the hoped-for freedom did not follow, and the difficulty of navigating gender, culture, and class differences in a relationship where two people do not share a common first language.

I’ve seen some readers criticize this book for the ending, which, after a shocking end to the affair, suddenly turns very meta, with the first-person “author” having the work critiqued in a writing seminar. She has written an epilogue to the story that is not in the text we have before us, and the other writing students are critiquing that ending, in an extended scene that seems to suggest there is no “right” way to end this story. I liked the metafictional twist, and found the story overall thought-provoking and insightful.


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