Noor Naga. If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English. Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 2022. 208pp. $16.00 USD
Noor Naga’s debut novel follows along the journey of a young Egyptian-American’s temporary return migration to Cairo and beautifully explores the nuances of identity, class, and culture. She dexterously investigates dichotomies of being American vs. Egyptian, diasporan vs. local, and exoticizer vs. being exoticized. The story also highlights language and cultural barriers, as well as a vivid account of class, critiquing the mobility of the privileged and the prisons of poverty.
The book is set in 2017, six years after the Egyptian Revolution, and oscillates between the point of view of the diasporan—introduced as the “American girl with shaved head”—and the local, referenced as “the boy from Shobrakheit.” The narrative is divided into three parts. The first part consists of short single-paragraph vignettes with varying lengths that read like flash fiction pieces. The vignettes begin with whimsical unanswered questions—such as, “Can a home be passed from one body to the next, like a secret whispered in the ear?”—which act as chapter titles.
This first part opens at the airport, where the “American girl” enters Cairo after she accepts a job at the British Council to teach English. The reader is introduced to the country, then the capital, Cairo, where the novel’s characters walk around and explore the city. We are then taken to the characters’ favorite café, Café Riche, where the “American girl” meets the Egyptian man. From then on, the narrative is confined to the girl’s apartment. As the setting of the novel is restricted to the apartment, so is the relationship between the “American girl” and the “boy from Shobrakheit.” The structure of the first part conveys the sense of confinement, of being trapped in the apartment in much the same way the girl becomes trapped in the relationship.
As we learn more about the two main characters’ histories, we also learn about the undeniable contradictions that make it impossible for them to live harmoniously together. Here, Naga delves into the ways the main characters’ positionalities inform their presence in society. The boy “cringes” as the girl generously gives her money away to giggling children on the street, patronizing them, and in his mind, asserting her “foreignness.” The girl also gives the boy a pass every time he acts violently, thinking that his patriarchal upbringing makes it alright for him to behave brutishly. At the heart of the misconnection, there is a palpable language barrier between the two. The boy speaks poetic Arabic and the girl attempts to utilize her broken Arabic to express herself. It is in this first instance that the reader begins to understand the true meaning of the novel’s title; the Egyptian boy cannot speak English just as the Egyptian-American girl cannot speak English with her partner.
Part two follows the two characters after their inevitable break up. The writing style changes, the narrative more fluid and traditionally presented. This part is accompanied with footnotes, highlighting cultural nuances, such as the definition of “kherty,” “fino” bread, and “hasad,” or offering “insider” information into Arab superstitions about love, local ingenuities to get rid of fish stink with coconut oil, and street names for the opiate, Tramadol.
During the breakup, the “American girl” returns to the comfort of the English language and begins to have sexual relations with William, a Brit from the Council. It is here when she realizes that even though she believed she was settling into her “Arabness” while being with the “boy from Shobrakheit,” she had been slowly losing herself in the crevices of language and cultural barriers. We find that the boy is equally conflicted after the breakup. He loiters around the streets that lead up to the girl’s apartment, hoping to catch a glimpse of her. It is as though the boy had lost himself after the 2011 Revolution and longed to find meaning through his connection to the “American girl.” As we read about how the two characters still long for each other, the second part reaches a climactic moment when the “boy from Shobrakheit” invites himself into the girl’s apartment. The girl, having just had sex with William—one of the very few characters who were assigned a name—panics at the sight of the boy. After a shocking turn of events, the second part comes to a haunting stop.
In the third and final part, the reader finds yet another change in structure. These changes reflect the fluidity and chaos of everyday life and force the reader to be equally flexible and adaptable. The final part reads like a play, taking place at a creative writing workshop where the author’s book manuscript is being critiqued, not as a work of fiction, but as a memoir. The workshop is another setting where we find cultural barriers. The critiques are often “uncultured,” as the author’s peers keep mispronouncing “Shobrakheit” and reduce the characters to pure good or evil. During this section, the reader is once again reminded of the novel’s title. As her work is being critiqued, the Egyptian-American author is barred from speaking and has to allow her workshop peers to assign their own meaning to the main characters and their life histories.
This wonderfully smart novel does not miss a chance to critique the rigid boundaries of our societies. It moves between spaces and concepts like no other I’ve read and invites the reader to see beyond black and white. Naga shows immense writing skills and a level of comfort with structure and form that only comes with a life-long commitment to the craft of writing. As a fan, I cannot wait to see what she has in store next for us.
Noor Naga is an Alexandrian writer who was born in Philadelphia, raised in Dubai, studied in Toronto, and now lives in Cairo. Her verse-novel Washes, Prays, which won the Pat Lowther Memorial Award and an Arab American Book Award, was published by McClelland & Stewart in 2020. Her debut novel If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English won the Graywolf Press Africa Prize and was published in April 2022 from Graywolf Press. She is also a recipient of the Bronwen Wallace Award, the RBC/PEN Canada Award, and the Disquiet Fiction Prize, and her work has been published in Granta, POETRY, The Walrus, The Common, and more. She teaches at the American University in Cairo.
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Leila Zonouzi is a PhD Candidate in Global Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her dissertation research is a comparative diasporic study between Iran, Egypt, and Turkey, where she looks at the new wave of academic mass-migration from the MENA region to the Global North in the 21st century. She’s currently the editor at Egypt Migrations.