Power, identity and dark love: If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English
If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English starts with an epigram from an Instagram caption posted by Egyptian photographer Hana Gamal in 2016: “I am not what you think I am. You are what you think I am.”
The statement connects identity and the existential sense of self with the reality of our external environment, which is usually beyond our control, and in author, Noor Naga’s chosen epigram, who we are is related specifically to the perception – and often judgment – of the person gazing back at us: the confusion and resentment of seeing a face that is both familiar and foreign.
"As is often true in relationships inflected by power, only one person will survive in the end"
For Naga’s dual villain-protagonists (it is never made clear who is the villain, and who is the hero), the desire, violence and trickery of the mutual gaze spur the entire novel. And as is often true in relationships inflected by power, only one person will survive in the end.
Naga’s hero and heroine are unnamed, diffusing the novel with a noir feel, a thrill not unlike the secrecy and contrasts with which they pursue their romantic affair, a relationship steeped as much in survival as it is in curiosity and the desire for closeness.
The boy from Shobrakheit is a photographer, who has devolved into a cocaine addict after Sisi hijacked the revolution. Living “hand-to-mouth” in Cairo as a camera assistant and shooting commercials (and sometimes porn) after leaving his village when his grandmother commits suicide, the boy from Shobrakheit finds in the Egyptian uprising a sense of dignity and collective self, a regenerative protest against the same poverty and misery that killed his grandmother.
“I was in the square every day, documenting what we were already calling revolution. . . It had never happened before the global epicenter tipped in our direction. Suddenly, America was watching us. In its gaze we became a collective: demonstrative, intentional. We wanted to show them who we were,” he reminisces.
The boy from Shobrakheit’s photography attains a resonance it previously lacked: he sells his photos of Tahrir Square to Reuters, CNN and the BBC. The depression and deprivation after the revolution, the Egyptian pound falling to “a third of what it was worth in 2011”, and the state jailing activists incurs the photographer to use cocaine for relief.
Still, the euphoria of revolution persists in an unresolved past: “If you weren’t there, I couldn’t tell you what it was like.”
And the American girl, who arrives in Egypt in 2018, was not there, an absence rendered conspicuous by her presence in her erstwhile homeland.
“I am too late returning and he knows it,” she reflects; her search for identity will always be undermined by the fact that she did not grow up in Egypt, she did not live in the same hustle and poverty as her compatriots, she had access to a different set of options that denoted not just her privilege, but her brought-up in another world.
She watched the revolution “on television from the comfort of my home on the Upper West Side, a French bulldog on my lap.” She can call herself Egyptian, but she can never truly belong in the country of her parents’ birth, and even if she finds belonging, she will always be haunted by her past in America.
She comes to Egypt ostensibly to learn about her identity, but psychological reasons simmer underneath her stated intention: her parents are getting a divorce, and the home in which she lives is not exactly stable.
A graduate of an Ivy League university, the American girl’s path to political awareness has been significantly different from the awakening of the boy from Shobrakheit, less about economic disparity and dictatorship, housed instead in the sinking quagmire of American identity politics, the illusory power of Twitter clout, and positioning oneself relative to Blackness to gain authenticity.
She describes her ex Elijah, “a bearded, depressive Black man from Philly”, who liked racially ambiguous, light-skinned women he could “name queens before they named themselves”, and subsume in an amorphous idea of Blackness, even if they were not Black themselves.
The American girl wore her hair in “crochet braids” the entire time she dated Elijah, “piled on my head like a basket, or a diadem.” She remembers that even if deep down inside she knew what she was doing was wrong, she wanted to be “let in”, and find acceptance and belonging that she could not discern elsewhere. By the time she gets to Egypt, she is bald, an unwitting spectacle for children on the streets of Cairo.
"The American girl experiences culture shock at this naked display of contempt for the poor, so different from the United States, where classism is sugarcoated by meritocracy and the deceptive idea of equal treatment under democracy"
For the boy from Shobrakheit, the American girl is strange but also beautiful, she is “clean”, which is “code for more than just money; a coveted un-Egyptianness, a combination of first world contact and old-world etiquette.”
They initially bond over a shared sense of injustice when a mutual friend, Sami, refuses a group of girls clad in hijab and layered outfits entry to his father’s restaurant. Café or restaurant? the girls are asked, and “whatever the girls had answered would have been the wrong answer. They were unwelcome.”
The American girl experiences culture shock at this naked display of contempt for the poor, so different from the United States, where classism is sugarcoated by meritocracy and the deceptive idea of equal treatment under democracy (the latter of which Egypt, of course, is not).
The two feel a surprising kinship for each other, which evolves into a relationship. The courtship is more intuitive than romantic, rooted in “habits” and a sense of physical and social protection into which the American girl leans, which in spite of her independence, her American-ness, her outward condemnation of patriarchy, she understands as necessary to survive in Cairo, a fast city, a foreign city, a city that does not provide a given place for women like her.
The boy from Shobrakheit teaches the American girl how to get around the city, how to buy food from the market in black plastic bags so that nobody can see what is inside, shifts her purse to the shoulder that isn’t facing the street so that motorcyclists “cannot snatch it”, and gives her a tour of Cairo, memories of the revolution in his mind: “That is the apartment Al Jazeera used to film [Tahrir] square from. Aren’t you lucky to be here with me? Who else could tell you these things?”
In a way, the boy from Shobrakheit is cultivating the American girl, honing her into the vision of a woman for whom he can take all the credit. And the American girl, alone and in fear, despite her blue passport and privilege and job at the British Council, understands perhaps on a primal level that she needs a man to be considered legitimate in Egyptian society.
The presence of a man at her side when she leaves her apartment, and his closeness and touch within the parameters of her home, provide safety, comfort and protection she’d fundamentally lack if she survived on her own.
And yet, beyond survival, the boy from Shobrakheit’s presence in the life of the American girl can only provide so much “usefulness” or, even resonance; love, which is hardly mentioned, is subjective.
"The presence of a man at her side when she leaves her apartment, and his closeness and touch within the parameters of her home, provide safety, comfort and protection she’d fundamentally lack if she survived on her own"
He is an addict, and he is poor. He is also using her for survival, as he struggles to pay rent and looks for his next high, and as he avoids picking up the camera again, still disillusioned and depressed with the violent state repression that occurred after the revolution.
When he lashes out – shattering a glass, breaking furniture, and screaming at her unprovoked – the American girl withstands it, even if she knows what is happening to her, even if she knows it is wrong. She is, in her mind, Egyptian at last: “He is weaponizing all his losses against me, and I am accepting it. After years of claiming Arab-ness, I feel I am earning it at last.”
And when faced with a man who has lived in Cairo much longer than she has, who made the impossible journey to the city from the village, and who has witnessed the rise and fall of dictators, her guilt and identity confusions present the perfect opportunity for manipulation, an impulse buried in the boy from Shobrakheit that is not even deliberate or calculated, but upon which his survival depends.
Noor Naga, the author, has chosen to write the novel in an experimental fashion, but in a way that does not elude comprehension or the scintillating enjoyment the reader feels at her compact, sensuous sentences, suffused with the succulent detail and the seductiveness of latent, unspoken feelings, which capture not just the dualities and complexities of the relationship between the primary characters, but also the sights and sounds of Cairo.
Naga draws the reader into the emotional life of both the boy and the girl, who are guided by memories of their family and childhood at opposite ends of the world, and the ways in which the awakening of their political consciousness leads them to the present tense in the biggest city in the Middle East.
Street details about life in Cairo are also casually littered throughout the prose, lending the novel the authenticity of lived experience.
The boy from Shobrakheit brings ful (fava beans) from a roadside stall to the American girl, a type of common street food in Egypt that can be a breakfast or a snack; euphemistic street names for opiate-based painkillers are recounted in a footnote; the American girl confusedly gives directions to the stylish neighbourhood of Zamalek to a taxi driver; “Famous” boys, an urban subculture of young Egyptian men who wear “form-fitting” clothes and eyeliner in the hope of attaining social media stardom, appear more than once in the novel, and at one point sexually harass the American girl when she has finally split from her lover-not-quite-lover, and she has to navigate the streets of Cairo in the solitude of single womanhood.
"Noor Naga draws the reader into the emotional life of both the boy and the girl, who are guided by memories of their family and childhood at opposite ends of the world, and the ways in which the awakening of their political consciousness leads them to the present tense in the biggest city in the Middle East"
As the American girl’s relationship with the boy from Shobrakheit unravels, so does he: he sits at an ahwah (an “outdoor café”, Naga writes, serving coffee or hookah, and which is frequented mostly by men), and unsuccessfully calls her number. He asks Saeed, a friend, to dial her number; when it rings, he comes to the morose realisation that he has been blocked.
Poetry, as always, rises in the heat and dust of Cairo, the coping mechanism that makes the highs and lows of life in the East more bearable, if never better. “You’re lucky if your beloved is also your destiny,” Saeed says as he wipes down plastic tables, words meant with kindness that only reinforce the grief and anger of the spurned photographer.
Meanwhile, the American girl is turning to her own coping mechanisms: partying, smoking joints with her friends, finding a sexual partner in William, a white foreigner who is an easy distraction and does not hold the loaded cultural baggage of an Egyptian man, and watching “eight seasons straight of RuPaul’s drag race” in her pyjamas.
The innocent vision she had of her homeland has inevitably shattered; she video-calls her mother, homesick, and asks why shopkeepers splash water outside their buildings; why people wear warm clothing in burning hot weather; why Egypt is the way it is, the lived reality a shock to the fantasy she’d constructed in her head, a retaliatory reflex against white supremacy and an expression for the need for belonging that, after all, proves to be more complicated than the singularity of an identity asserted in the United States. Her mother answers her questions with a question of her own: When are you coming home?
And yet, even when apart, the boy from Shobrakheit has not abandoned hopes of getting back together, of ‘saving’ the American girl from some unanticipated, unimaginable catastrophe.
"The protection and possession with which he imagines their reunion is precisely the condition on which the abuse exists"
He follows her, a gesture which he conceives as romantic, but is in fact stalking. He constructs scenarios in his mind of beating up strangers who bother her, a pretext that will pressure her to admit him in her life again with open arms.
The protection and possession with which he imagines their reunion is precisely the condition on which the abuse exists: the desire for control, so that the boy from Shobrakheit, who has nothing material to his name and is at one point sleeping in a mosque, can feel as if he has control over a woman if nothing else.
The American girl becomes the receptacle of his insecurities, shaped by the irreversible fact of socioeconomic disparity, origins that cannot be undone, and life trajectories that cannot be changed.
If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English is a haunting, tragic novel about the monstrous proportions identity crises can attain when they are not tended to, and how the thirst for acceptance and belonging can drive us into dark, self-destructive situations.
Most of all, it is about love: not as a force of goodness or redemption, but the more realistic iteration of power and control.
The novel, and the two characters, resist easy, simple labels, and provoke within the reader’s mind a gnawing cycle, allowing anyone who picks up this book to turn it over in their mind, again and again.
Iman Sultan is a writer and journalist on politics and culture. She grew up in Philadelphia and now resides in Karachi, Pakistan.
Follow her on Twitter: @karachiiite