- Focus on Egypt: African Literature Today 35 ed. by Ernest N. Emenyonou
‘Is Egypt in Africa, Professor?’ asks the title of the opening editorial of the thirty-fifth issue of African Literature Today, which, as a whole, aims to recentre Egyptian literature as part of African literature. This is a question that has always been complex, both culturally and politically. This is largely because ‘Africa’ is much more than a geographical concept (if it were, there would be no debate over whether Egypt is in Africa); it comes loaded with several layers of colonial, neocolonial and racial undertones and a long history of Western knowledge production.
People in the West, this book argues, have attempted to disconnect Egypt from Africa because of the racist view that Egypt is too ‘civilized’ to be in Africa. ‘In their minds perhaps, the place and contributions of Egypt in world history and civilization are too spectacularly glorious to be identified or associated with Africa, a continent persistently described as “the heart of darkness”’ (p. 2).
Another reason for this desire to separate Egypt from Africa, which is not taken up as a central theme in this book, comes from Egypt itself. There is a history of Egyptian colonialism in Africa – particularly in Sudan and Ethiopia – and also a history of racialized slavery, which has also contributed to racism in Egypt and a [End Page 984] desire not to be associated with ‘Africa’. In her foreword, the feminist writer Nawal El Saadawi laments that people have turned their back on their Africanness: ‘Africa has become a source of shame and … black skin a sign of slavery’ (p. xv). The relationship between ‘Egypt’ and ‘Africa’ has been complicated for a long time. In the late nineteenth century, the ruler of Egypt, Khedive Ismail, could proudly declare that ‘Egypt is no longer part of Africa; we are now Europe’.
This collection of essays seeks to right the wrongs of the past and to incorporate Egyptian writers into the cannon of African literature. This approach opens up several new and exciting interpretative possibilities for a number of texts. One essay by Temitope Abisoye Noah gets much mileage from reading Sonallah Ibrahim’s The Committee [al-Lajna] alongside Fanon’s influential anti-colonial work The Wretched of the Earth. Likewise, the invitation by Khalid Abouel-Lail to read the Arabic oral epic Al-Sirah al-Hilaliyya alongside the Malian Sundiata leads to some fascinating conclusions. James Hodapp and Deema Nasser’s essay on Magdy al-Shafee’s Metro, ‘The complications of reading Egypt as Africa’, incisively shows the benefits – but also some of the difficulties – of this comparative approach.
Beyond the specific examples that are discussed, the broader invitation to read Egyptian literature alongside a new set of intertextual considerations is exciting. This approach is a welcome corrective to the previously held beliefs, considered by the collection’s editor to be rooted in the racist denigration of Africa, that Northern and sub-Saharan African literatures should not mix.
However, the question of what makes Egypt ‘African’ is more complex than reading Arabic texts as African. Of course, ‘Arabic’ culture has a long and important history in Africa, but North Africa is more diverse than is often assumed and Egypt is not only Arabic; it has other African cultures within it. Only a few of the essays in the collection engage with this, but they are among the best. One of the most stimulating articles in this collection is Christine Gilmore’s ‘Narratives of the “Nubian Awakening”’. This ‘argues that Nubian literature contests the unitary fiction of Egypt’s Arab identity postulated during the heyday of Arab nationalism by highlighting the nation’s marginalised African identity’ (p. 39). Recent Nubian history, in particular the destruction of Nubian villages by the Aswan Dam, can be read as tragic metaphor for Arab nationalism’s erasure of difference in Egypt. The solution to this, according to the writer Haggag Hassan Oddoul, the main subject of the article, is not to try to separate Nubianness...