The best Cairo books

3 authors have picked their favorite books about Cairo and why they recommend each book.

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Oleander, Jacaranda

By Penelope Lively,

Book cover of Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived

I've chosen this one not only because it's about growing up in Cairo, where I spent five years of my adult life as a teacher in an international school, but also for its astute analysis of how and why the memories we form in childhood differ fundamentally from those we acquire as adults. Another reason for its inclusion on my list is that it belongs to two childhood memoir subgenres for which I have a particular penchant, those by authors raised by people who were neither their biological nor adoptive parents and those by under-appreciated women novelists.


Who am I?

I became interested in the genre of memoir during the lockdown when I found myself reflecting on my past during the extended solitary periods. Looking through a shoebox of old letters put me in touch with the person I had once been. I then discovered that the act of writing down memories opened up areas that I had forgotten about or that had faded almost to nothing, and suddenly they became quite vivid. I decided to create memoirist.org for writing at a more literary level and only publish highly polished pieces. Memoirist now has many followers and some posts have nearly a thousand views. 


I wrote...

A Young Lady's Miscellany

By Auriel Roe,

Book cover of A Young Lady's Miscellany

What is my book about?

When a young teenager is left to her own devices following the disintegration of the family home, things quickly spiral into dysfunction. Neither parent is inclined to help the heroine negotiate the potholes toward becoming a responsible adult so she flounders again and again, often with humorous effect. It is her Cumbrian grandmother, whose door is always open, who becomes the parental figure she comes to rely on.

"A magical transformation of memory's rags and patches into a coherent story: a wonderful account, perhaps the best I've read, of a female coming into her own." Tony Connor, Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature 

Palace of Desire

By Naguib Mahfouz,

Book cover of Palace of Desire

Palace of Desire came out in 1957 in original Arabic and got translated to English in the early ’90s, and that’s when I read it. I’m not sure why NY waited so long, except that Naguib Mahfouz couldn’t get the right connection for those years. Your request for reasons that I chose this book made me take another look, and I’ll reread it soon. Thumbing through it now, it still flows with classic narrative, a form still vibrant in 1957, before books in English lost that traditional flow and began to read with a sameness, like most authors went to writing seminars or demanded their rights as women with feelings. I.e. Mahfouz reaches for nothing but the moment, which happens to be in a Cairo neighborhood populated with everyday Egyptians carrying on with life. It’s a slice unavailable to readers like me, revealing a reality far away and compelling, sitting…


Who am I?

I’ve written fiction for 60 years, scratching the adventure itch for exotic places, high seas, or converging oddities. I have wandered and taken note. The authors I love have influenced my worldview and my writing. I am a reef conservation activist with five volumes of reef photos and political narratives covering reefs worldwide. And I am an Executive Producer of The Dark Hobby, an award-winning feature film exposing the aquarium trade for its devastating impact on reefs worldwide. I live in Maui with my wife Anita, Cookie the dog, Yoyo, Tootsie, Rocky, Buck, Inez and Coco the cats, and Elizabeth the chicken.


I wrote...

Solomon Kursh

By Robert Wintner,

Book cover of Solomon Kursh

What is my book about?

A promising youth of the 60s veers to LSD and cosmic light. Stepping from university to cult life and pastel jammies, he chants and dances. Passersby laugh, and he laughs back, niched in bliss. Natural intelligence takes him to operational management, as labor and meditation define purpose for years, until...  Harsh truth drops like a turd in the punch bowl, a small one, but still. Would you like a cup?

He’d challenged the elders of his childhood. What did you do, when you had the chance? The question comes back, calling for strange absolution and justice served. Despairing a bleak future and potential wasted, he meditates on a bong like 1969 and phones a friend. The story resolves on endurance and revelation.

Cairo

By Maria Golia,

Book cover of Cairo: City of Sand

Maria Golia’s witty and discerning portrait is -- hands-down -- the best book on Cairo. Golia, the author of acclaimed works on jazz, natural history, photography, and a forthcoming history of tomb raiding (!), writes about the Nile’s megacity with tremendous empathy, erudition, and – after 35 years of living in Cairo – an insider’s nuanced eye. Packed with humor and irony, it’s a book that begs to be read aloud. As I prepare for my own return to Egypt after a decade away, Cairo: City of Sand is first on my list.


Who am I?

I traveled the length of the Nile River from source to sea through Uganda, South Sudan, Sudan, and Egypt to write a book that the Daily Beast called "a masterful narrative of investigative reportage, travel writing, and contemporary history," and that the Village Voice named to its ten best books of the year.


I wrote...

The Black Nile: One Man's Amazing Journey Through Peace and War on the World's Longest River

By Dan Morrison,

Book cover of The Black Nile: One Man's Amazing Journey Through Peace and War on the World's Longest River

What is my book about?

Upon hearing the news of tenuous peace in Sudan, foreign correspondent Dan Morrison bought a plank-board boat, summoned a friend who'd never left America, and set out from Uganda, paddling the Nile on a quest to reach Cairo-a trip that tyranny and war had made impossible for decades. With the propulsive force of a thriller, Morrison's chronicle is a mash-up of travel narrative and reportage, packed with flights into the frightful and absurd. From the hardscrabble fishing villages on Lake Victoria to the floating nightclubs of Cairo, The Black Nile tracks the snarl of commonalities and conflicts that bleed across the Nile valley, bringing to life a complex region in profound transition.

Ô nuit, ô mes yeux

By Lamia Ziadé,

Book cover of Ô nuit, ô mes yeux: Le Caire / Beyrouth / Damas / Jérusalem

Published in French or Arabic, this richly and attractively illustrated book dives headfirst into nostalgia for the nightlife of the 20th century Middle East. Loaded with short vignettes and stories, accompanied by Ziade’s own drawings, this book takes the reader on a tour of nightclubs in Cairo and across the wider Middle East. It is a beautiful, misty-eyed elegy for a lost age.


Who am I?

I am a writer and an Arabic to English translator, with a PhD in Arabic Theatre from the University of Edinburgh. In recent years, I have gravitated towards the history of popular culture and the demi-monde in the Middle East. The stories of singers and dancers say much more to me than the conventional subjects of histories of the Arab world – politicians, soldiers, etc. Through them, we can see the Middle East in a way that we seldom see in the West means much more to a lot of the people who live there.


I wrote...

Midnight in Cairo: The Divas of Egypt's Roaring '20s

By Raphael Cormack,

Book cover of Midnight in Cairo: The Divas of Egypt's Roaring '20s

What is my book about?

Following the lives of the most powerful, charismatic, and independent female stars of Cairo’s early-twentieth-century nightlife, this book delves into stories that many historians ignore. Away from high parliamentary politics and elite circles, a group of women were defining what it meant to be Egyptian in the modern world. In smoke-filled nightclubs, a new world was being born and the singers, dancers, and cabaret owners of Egypt were its central protagonists.

The Key to Rebecca

By Ken Follett,

Book cover of The Key to Rebecca

This is my top favourite when it comes to choosing a World War 2 spy novel. I read it several times and I never get tired of it. I adored the exotic setting and the colourful cast of characters that feel authentic and so intriguing, for they are all flawed to a certain degree and yet they pursue what, in their view, is the greater good. Follett manages to make the reader care for every single one of them, and that’s what I absolutely love about this writer.

This is a book that also gives a better understanding of what World War 2 was like in the heat of North Africa and is rich in accurate historical details. The rotation of the points of view make it fun to read and the innumerable twists and turns keep you engaged at all time. An edge-of-seat, definitely unbeatable classic by this master…


Who am I?

I am a former journalist and corporate public relations expert with a Ph.D. in Foreign Languages, I’ve always been passionate about World War 2 history and truly fascinated by the deceptions put in place by both the Allies and the Axis. I believe that a story that mixes fiction with history is highly powerful and evocative. I set my debut novel in the Rome in 1942 because I was inspired by the numerous stories heard from both my grandfathers who fought in the war and because Fascist Italy is not as well-known as it should be. As one of the very few female thriller writers in this genre, I wanted to celebrate the contribution of women in World War 2!


I wrote...

Lucifer's Game: An Emotional and Gut-Wrenching World War II Spy Thriller

By Cristina Loggia,

Book cover of Lucifer's Game: An Emotional and Gut-Wrenching World War II Spy Thriller

What is my book about?

Spies, military secrets, and a personal crusade for freedom…Rome, 1942Cordelia Olivieri is a young, determined hotel owner desperate to escape Mussolini’s racial persecution. But as Fascist leaders gather in Rome, Cordelia is suddenly surrounded by the world’s most ruthless and powerful commanders. In an effort to keep her Jewish heritage a secret and secure safe passage out of Italy, Cordelia forms a dangerous alliance with the British army who wants to push the Axis out of North Africa once and for all.

Going undercover, Cordelia begins obtaining and leaking military intelligence to a British agent, hoping the intelligence will secure her freedom. But the more Cordelia uncovers, the greater the risks – especially for one handsome German Afrika Korps officer. How far must Cordelia go to protect her identity and secure passage out of Rome?

Khan Al-Khalili

By Naguib Mahfouz,

Book cover of Khan Al-Khalili

Khan al-Khalili is a famous bazaar in the historic heart of Cairo, and the setting of this powerful and thought-provoking novel by Naguib Mahfouz. One of the most important Egyptian and Arab authors of the Twentieth century, in 1988, Mahfouz became the first Arabic-language writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Mahfouz spent much of his life in and around Khan al-Khalili, which gives this novel an intimacy and sense of place akin to Dicken's writing about Victorian London. It is 1942, and Egypt is tense as the war moves closer and closer to the capital, and Cairenes from different generations thrust together in the crowded neighborhood variously argue for and against tradition, modernity, religious faith, and secularism. This is a great read, and even better if you’re able to read it while sitting in a café in Khan al-Khalili. 


Who am I?

Virtually my entire professional life has involved the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). As an author, teacher, public speaker, and historian, I’ve worked with everyone from school children to retirees, via university students and hundreds of American and British diplomats. One era I'm still in thrall to is the first half of the Twentieth century in Egypt, from Cairo to the Sahara. In part because of European involvement in the country at this time, this was a very important period for the country, the wider Middle East, and the post-war trajectory of the region. Taken together, the five books I recommend offer different but complementary sides of a fascinating, multi-faced place and time.  


I wrote...

The Sahara: A Cultural History

By Eamonn Gearon,

Book cover of The Sahara: A Cultural History

What is my book about?

The Sahara is my attempt to produce as accessible a book about the world’s greatest desert as possible. After discussing the history of the desert itself, my work considers how it has inspired and influenced poets, authors, artists, filmmakers, explorers, and a few cranks, from the earliest examples of rock art to empires of Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, and on through the Arab invasions, to the modern European incursions, from Napoleon to the Second World War and beyond. 

The best books about Egypt and the Sahara before and during WWII all feature in The Sahara, and while each is great in its own right they also complement each other very nicely, from travel and exploration to memoir, two novels, one in English and one by the Arab world’s first winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Cairo in the War, 1939-45

By Artemis Cooper,

Book cover of Cairo in the War, 1939-45

Cairo in the War, 1939–1945 is a brilliant, fast-moving, narrative-driven piece of historical writing focussed on the British ruling elite in Egypt, before they won the war and subsequently lost this once vital North African imperial land-holding. The cast of characters reads like a Who’s Who of mid-century literary heavyweights, political operators, and military strategists, including everyone from Lawrence Durrell (whose Alexandria Quartet is also set in this period), Evelyn Waugh, Fitzroy Maclean, Olivia Manning, the brilliant Alexandrian Greek poet C.P. Cavafy, and Paddy Leigh Fermor. While much of the rest of the world burned, the British elite in Cairo partied, and in the process managed to annoy many American, Australian, and New Zealand allies and Egyptian foes alike, while sowing the seeds of an anti-monarchical feeling that eventually saw King Farouk toppled in 1952.


Who am I?

Virtually my entire professional life has involved the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). As an author, teacher, public speaker, and historian, I’ve worked with everyone from school children to retirees, via university students and hundreds of American and British diplomats. One era I'm still in thrall to is the first half of the Twentieth century in Egypt, from Cairo to the Sahara. In part because of European involvement in the country at this time, this was a very important period for the country, the wider Middle East, and the post-war trajectory of the region. Taken together, the five books I recommend offer different but complementary sides of a fascinating, multi-faced place and time.  


I wrote...

The Sahara: A Cultural History

By Eamonn Gearon,

Book cover of The Sahara: A Cultural History

What is my book about?

The Sahara is my attempt to produce as accessible a book about the world’s greatest desert as possible. After discussing the history of the desert itself, my work considers how it has inspired and influenced poets, authors, artists, filmmakers, explorers, and a few cranks, from the earliest examples of rock art to empires of Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, and on through the Arab invasions, to the modern European incursions, from Napoleon to the Second World War and beyond. 

The best books about Egypt and the Sahara before and during WWII all feature in The Sahara, and while each is great in its own right they also complement each other very nicely, from travel and exploration to memoir, two novels, one in English and one by the Arab world’s first winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Season of Migration to the North

By Tayeb Salih, Denys Johnson-Davies,

Book cover of Season of Migration to the North

As much as I love Cairo, I am happiest on the Nile in Sudan, Egypt’s tumultuous, less-trammeled neighbor. It’s in Sudan, at Omdurman, where the Blue Nile and White Nile meet in a sturdy, 30-million-year-old marriage that birthed and has sustained both Egyptian and Sudanese civilization. Set in a Nile village in 1960s Sudan, Tayeb Salih’s classic novella is a wistful, affecting story of post-colonial exile that’s been compared with the works of Franz Fanon and Joseph Conrad. Season of Migration to the North is packed with references to Shakespeare, Islamic history, Arabic poetry, Freud, and contemporary fiction. You feel at the end as if you’re coming out of a melancholy, satisfying dream.


Who am I?

I traveled the length of the Nile River from source to sea through Uganda, South Sudan, Sudan, and Egypt to write a book that the Daily Beast called "a masterful narrative of investigative reportage, travel writing, and contemporary history," and that the Village Voice named to its ten best books of the year.


I wrote...

The Black Nile: One Man's Amazing Journey Through Peace and War on the World's Longest River

By Dan Morrison,

Book cover of The Black Nile: One Man's Amazing Journey Through Peace and War on the World's Longest River

What is my book about?

Upon hearing the news of tenuous peace in Sudan, foreign correspondent Dan Morrison bought a plank-board boat, summoned a friend who'd never left America, and set out from Uganda, paddling the Nile on a quest to reach Cairo-a trip that tyranny and war had made impossible for decades. With the propulsive force of a thriller, Morrison's chronicle is a mash-up of travel narrative and reportage, packed with flights into the frightful and absurd. From the hardscrabble fishing villages on Lake Victoria to the floating nightclubs of Cairo, The Black Nile tracks the snarl of commonalities and conflicts that bleed across the Nile valley, bringing to life a complex region in profound transition.

The Egyptian Museum Cairo

By Mohamed Saleh, Hourig Sourouzian, Jurgen Liepe (photographer)

Book cover of The Egyptian Museum Cairo: Official Catalogue

I bought this catalogue many years ago in the crowded, chaotic store that used to sell books just inside the front door of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

It remains one of the best sources for descriptions of artifacts displayed in the museum for many decades—everything from King Tut’s gold mask to lifelike statues of scribes, detailed models of boats, and illustrated passages from the Book of the Dead on sheets of papyrus.

Many of these artifacts have recently been transferred to the new Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) and other state-of-the-art facilities. I’m going to have to start noting in this book where my favorite things have ended up.


Who am I?

I’m an archaeologist by training and a journalist by profession. During my long career as a staff writer at National Geographic magazine, and now as a freelance Nat Geo book editor and author, I have often written about the ancient world and cultural heritage preservation. I was very lucky to be sent to Egypt on a number of occasions to write stories about sites and discoveries, and I have now come to specialize in Egyptology. I recently took an online course that taught me how to read ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. I’m still in glyph kindergarten, but every new sign I learn is allowing me to better understand—and interpret—the culture of the pharaohs.


I wrote...

Lost Cities, Ancient Tombs: 100 Discoveries That Changed the World

By Ann R. Williams (editor),

Book cover of Lost Cities, Ancient Tombs: 100 Discoveries That Changed the World

What is my book about?

Archaeology is the key that unlocks our deepest history. Lost Cities, Ancient Tombs reveals the stories behind the most intriguing and impactful of those finds and showcases the people who first presented them to the world.

Blending high adventure with history, this book chronicles 100 astonishing archaeological discoveries dating from 50,000 million years ago until modern times. Each account in this book relies on firsthand reports from explorers, antiquarians, and scientists as they crack secret codes, evade looters and political suppression, fall in love, commit a litany of blunders, and uncover ancient curses. Spanning six continents, this enlightening narrative tells the story of human civilization.

Memoirs of a Woman Doctor

By Nawal El Saadawi, Catherine Cobham (translator),

Book cover of Memoirs of a Woman Doctor

Translated from Arabic and 101 pages in length, this wonderful 1958 short novel is the first longer work of this legendary Egyptian writer, activist, and feminist. If you like it, you are in for a wonderful exploration of the life and work of this astounding writer and thinker. Trained as a doctor in Cairo, El Saadawi is also a riveting reporter of her experiences in a world where doctors were almost always men.


Who am I?

My writing career has been in middle grade and YA, but as a reader I’m always trying to branch out. When I was a kid, literature opened the door to the whole world, and as an adult, I’m still exploring. When I read work in translation I can feel the literary connection to other writers and thinkers and simultaneously appreciate the differences that arise through geographic and cultural heritage. I hope my selections here might help readers like myself who enjoy reaching out to new voices and places.


I wrote...

The Wikkeling

By Steven Arntson,

Book cover of The Wikkeling

What is my book about?

In the futuristic city of The Addition, children are raised safely and efficiently. Their diets are standardized. Their schoolwork is synchronized. Even their sleep is quantized and analyzed. Yes, it’s all figured out . . . but the results aren’t quite as advertised. At least, not for Henrietta Gad-Fly, who lives in a rundown old house, gets bad headaches, and is on the verge of being expelled from school for poor grades. Henrietta is fortunate in one regard, though—she’s got really great friends in her schoolmates Gary and Rose. Friendship can help a person even in the weirdest situations. For instance, let’s say you find a hidden attic above your bedroom in which a mortally wounded magical cat has taken refuge . . .

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