A Decade in Books: 2018

In early 2018 G. and I moved to Egypt, where were planning to stay for five or six months, although we were flexible and our future was, to put it casually, uncertain. We rented a flat on the sixteenth floor of a concrete apartment tower in Zamalek, an upscale neighbourhood located at the tip of an island in the Nile, with Cairo on one side and Giza on the other. G. worked on her thesis and visited museums while I entertained a vaguely formed idea to write journalism. I had a completed novel about Alexander the Great’s successors on my computer hard drive. It grew hotter and hotter as the weeks passed, and the AC units in our apartment started to break down one by one, until I spent most of my time in my underwear, either sitting at the ornate dining table sending out pitches to agents and editors, or lying on the sofa, my skin sticking to the dark green leather, reading books.

I read a lot in 2018 because I had time. Naturally, I read books about Egypt, many of which I wrote about in 2018 on this very blog. I discovered Robert Solé and Waguih Ghali and read about the history of Cairo and a novel about the 2011 revolution. I also read books I brought with me to Egypt and which had nothing to do with the country, for example the first books in two acclaimed trilogies, one science fiction and the other fantasy: N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season and Cixian Liu’s The Three Body Problem. I loved both of those books and read the sequels over the next couple of years.

To a degree living abroad means reading whatever you can get your hands on. There’s something charming about the serendipity of buying and reading what’s on offer locally. In Cairo I frequented the Zamalek branch of a bookstore called Diwan, which is well stocked in English-language books. That’s where I picked up, once I had read through the pile of books I had brought with me, LeGuin’s The Lathe of Heaven (surprising and moving) and Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women (earth shattering) and, of all things, Daniel Deronda. Ever since I read Middlemarch when I was twenty years old I’ve had this vague idea of… well, first of all rereading Middlemarch, but also of working my way through all of Eliot’s novels. I’m not sure if I felt that was such a good plan anymore after slogging through Daniel Deronda, but then hanging out in my dusty hot apartment in Cairo without a job was perhaps the only time I’ll ever have in my life to actually read that loose baggy monster without giving it up, or without it taking me months. There are books like that (The Red & the Black comes to mind) where it’s just nice to be able to say that you read them. I can’t say I’m completely put off from Eliot, though; I’d like to pick up The Mill on the Floss someday.

In May my parents came to visit us and we showed them around Cairo before going to Upper Egypt to stay in Aswan and Luxor and see all the beautiful sights. I had heard Lisa Halliday talk on the New York Times Book Review podcast, so I had her book delivered to my parent’s house before their trip so they could bring it to me. I vividly remember devouring Asymmetry on the poolside at the the Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan — which happens to be one of the most beautiful pools I have ever been in. It was a bit too hot but it was a stunning place to read, with the aquamarine pool and the palm trees, the glint of the Nile, the feluccas sailing smoothly past, the rounded rocks and ruins of Elephantine island, and the desert beyond. That view is seared into my mind.

That summer G. and I returned to Quebec for a few months to get our lives in order before setting off to Paris in the fall, where G. had obtained a research fellowship. Our plans were more certain! Looking forward to our move to Paris, a city I had been to a couple of times when I was younger but didn’t really know that well, I reread Parisian favourites like Hemingway and Laurence Cossé, and I read Geoff Dyer’s Paris Trance and A Tale of Two Cities and Hilary Mantel’s great hefty novel about the French Revolution (read as another attempt to help wait for her last book in her Cromwell trilogy), A Place of Greater Safety. But the book I remember the most from that summer, a summer spent in Quebec at family cottages and seeing lots of animals like baby foxes and loons and deer and tadpoles, was Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek — a book about waiting, and watching, about gathering information about the world around you and spending a long time pondering it. It’s a beautiful book and it moved me deeply, in the truest sense of the word: it moved something in me, it shifted the way I think and feel and read and write.

In September we moved to Paris and, to our surprise, we fell in love with our neighbourhood, with the city. We hadn’t expected to be so charmed. I found a job within a month or two but in the meantime I had a few precious weeks of free time left to read great European novelists. I swallowed up books by Rachel Cusk and Patrick Modiano and W. G. Sebald. I reread The Ambassadors, one of the best novels ever written about Paris, which I had discovered 8 years earlier in a seminar on Henry James at the University of Bristol, and found just that little bit more dull the second time around. And I got to writing seriously again: I started a new novel set in different key periods in the 20th century, so I read about the 1919 Peace Conference and about how France and Britain divided up the Middle East in the wake of World War I. I picked up Colm Toibin’s beautiful novel Brooklyn in a used bookstore on the Left Bank (there is such a joy to buying and reading books that you’ve heard about for years and that you already know that you will enjoy). And then, when I did have a job and the weather cooled and autumn was dwindling to short, dark days, I read Elif Batuman’s extraordinary, loose, messy, hilarious novel The Idiot in the Metro on the way to and from work. And I finished the year almost as I had started it, reading Robert Solé, and dreaming about a hot dusty city baking under the sun.

Reading List: 2018

Laurent Binet, La septième fonction du language

Robert Solé, Une soirée au Caire

N. K. Jemisin, The Fifth Season

Oman Robert Hamilton, The City Always Wins

Amin Maalouf, Un fauteuil sur la Seine

Sebastian Barry, Days Without End

Diaries of Waguih Ghali: Volume 1 1964-1966

Joe M. McDermott, The Fortress at the End of Time

Emmanuel Carrère, D’autres vies que la mienne

Waguih Ghali, Beer in the Snooker Club

Salima Ikram, Ancient Egypt: An Introduction

Diaries of Waguih Ghali, Volume 2 1966-1968

Cixin Liu, The Three-Body Problem

Robert Solé, Le Tarbouche

The Essential Tawfiq Al-Hakim

George Eliot, Daniel Deronda

Ursula K. LeGuin, The Lathe of Heaven

Maurice Leblanc, La comtesse de Cagliostro

Alice Munro, Lives of Girls and Women

Lisa Halliday, Asymmetry

Max Rodenbeck, Cairo: The City Victorious

Julian Barnes, Levels of Life

Cixin Liu, The Dark Forest

Alberto Manguel, Packing my Library

Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

Laurence Cossé, Au bon roman

Natalie Morrill, The Ghost Keeper

Laurent Gaudé, Le tigre bleu de l’Euphrate

Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Hilary Mantel, A Place of Greater Safety

Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Frank L. Holt, The Treasures of Alexander the Great

Geoff Dyer, Paris Trance

Robert Garland, Daily Life of the Ancient Greeks

Katherine Dunn, Geek Love

James Baldwin, If Beale Street Could Talk

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Rachel Cusk, Outline

James Barr, A Line in the Sand

W. G. Sebald, Austerlitz

Rachel Cusk, Transit

Patrick Modiano, Dora Bruder

Craig Brown, Ma’am Darling

Margaret MacMillan, Paris 1919

Laurence Cossé, Nuit sur la neige

Colm Tóibín, Brooklyn

Henry James, The Ambassadors

Patrick Modiano, Un pedigree

Elif Batuman, The Idiot

Robert Solé, Le sémaphore d’Alexandrie

Peter Hessler’s Cat

Journalist Peter Hessler spent five years living in Cairo with his wife and twin daughters, from 2011 to 2016. He’s been writing excellent pieces in the New Yorker about his experiences in Cairo, for example one about his neighbourhood garbage collector (the piece ends up being about the broader social, political, and cultural implications of the garbage business in Egypt, as well as men-women relations in the country), and another about Chinese expats who sell kinky underwear in Egypt. I highly recommend his writing, which, as the best non-fiction often does, starts by describing something small and then expands to encompass larger questions.

Last week, the New Yorker published a new piece by Hessler, which is, among other things, about the cat he got while he lived in Zamalek in order to keep rodents at bay (he lived on the ground floor and, rather frighteningly, his baby daughters were getting bitten by mysterious rodents). The cat in question is a traditional Egyptian breed called Mau, and he called his Morsi, after the Egyptian president who’d just been elected at the time. Before the year was out, the president had been deposed, but the cat remained. Hilarious adventures ensue when the cat runs away and the expat has to run around the neighbourhood calling after him.

Hessler mentions that the apartment building he lived in had distinctive railings of wrought iron made to look like spider webs. G. and I both took a short walk in Zamalek after our Arabic lessons the other day, looking to see if we could spot it. G.’s hunch led us down a street we’d never walked on before, and we came face to face with the building we were looking for at the end of it. There’s now some construction on the street right in front of the building, which probably wasn’t there when Hessler lived here.

It’s always nice to see a place in real life after you’ve read about it, and we had a good time imagining some of the scenes from the piece and trying to figure out which unit Hessler and his family probably lived in. Although that elevator shaft will probably give us nightmares for weeks to come (I won’t give it away, so you’ll just have to read Hessler’s article yourself if you want to know).

Hessler has a book on the way titled The Buried: An Archaeology of the Egyptian Revolution, and I look forward to reading it when it comes out next year!

Where to Eat in Cairo? Zööba!

Zööba doesn’t particularly need additional advertising: the place is always packed, you can see their delivery mopeds everywhere, and it boasts six locations throughout Greater Cairo. Still, it’s the restaurant we keep going back to (and ordering in from) again and again, so it deserves to be celebrated a little here.

We love Zööba because they serve dishes rooted in traditional Egyptian street food and made with fresh ingredients, but modernized with a little bit of zing. People come here for their takes on local classic dishes such as pickles, salad, koshari (Egypt’s national dish of pasta, rice, lentils, chickpeas, tomato sauce, and fried onions), the fuhl (warm bean stew served with bread), and tameya (Cairene word for falafel). Everything is delicious.

G. usually gets a tameya sandwich, served in baladi (local) flatbreads and offered in different flavours such as spicy pepper, eggplant, or pickled lemon. I can’t get enough of their chicken shawarma plate, which is served on perfumed rice with fresh argula, pickled beetroot, lightly pickled cucumbers, lots of veggies, and tahina sauce.

The Zamalek location is stylish but small—you sit down at a shared zinc table in the middle of the restaurant and try not to elbow the other diners in the face. I love the counter at the front, which is where the koshari gets made: a giant beaten metal bowl of carbs, smaller pots over bricks and flames to keep the spicy tomato sauce nice and hot.

If you want to try out delicious, quality Egyptian street food without any risk of indigestion, this is definitely the place to go.

Zamalek

Since we arrived in Cairo, we’ve spent a lot of our time in Zamalek, a central neighbourhood located on Gezira Island. Gezira means island in Arabic, so Gezira Island basically means Island Island. At least it’s straightforward!

Gezira Island is sliced in half by the 26th July flyover and the corridor underneath it. The top half of the island is occupied by a district called Zamalek, while the lower half is dotted with many famous Cairo landmarks, such as the Marriott Hotel (on which more at a later date), Cairo tower, the Cairo Opera House, and the legendary Gezira Sporting Club.

Zamalek is a leafy, upscale neighbourhood, somewhat quieter than other parts of the city, although you still get lots of local flavour (read: honking). Many foreign embassies are located in beautiful mansions in the area, often surrounded by gardens, and sometimes impressive concrete walls, which means that many expats call the area home. They’re usually at work during the week, but on Friday afternoon and Saturday you can spot them walking about or going to the grocery store. There are several supermarkets in Zamalek that are popular with expats because they offer a good selection of foreign products.

A couple of things I like about Zamalek: Helwan University’s Faculty of Fine Arts is located on the corner of two main streets, so during the week the nearby sidewalks are flooded with art students carrying their rolled-up works. One of my favourite places nearby is a traditional ice cream and pastry shop called Madarine Koueider, where the service is a little mad (you have to order, pay, and get your pastries wrapped at three different counters) but the sweets are delicious, chock-full of butter, nuts, and honey.

For tourists visiting Cairo, there might not be many things to see or do in Zamalek, but it’s a nice place to walk around, shop in fancy boutiques, snoop in the numerous art galleries, and stop for a coffee or a meal. One of the best places to go is Pottery Café, where expats and well-off Cairenes come to drink mint lemonades and suck on shishas by the Nile.