Giller Prize finalist Noor Naga's debut novel looks at love, class & identity in the wake of the Arab Spring
If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English is on the 2022 Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist
Noor Naga is an Egyptian Canadian writer. She won the 2017 Bronwen Wallace Award for her poem The Mistress and the Ping. She also won the Disquiet Fiction Prize in 2019. In 2020, Noor was named a writer to watch by CBC Books. Her first book, the poetry collection Washes, Prays, was published in 2020. Noor is currently an instructor at the American University in Cairo.
Set shortly after the events of the Arab Spring, If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English is a novel that traces the relationship between two people — a wealthy Egyptian American woman and an unemployed man from the village of Shobrakheit — who meet in a cafe in Cairo. The pair fall in love but must contend with issues of identity, class and violence as they try to build a lasting relationship.
Identity and class
"The main unnamed character doesn't have the stereotypical immigrant story of struggling parents. Her parents are working professionals, they have a lot of money, they're very comfortable. And yet, she's constantly trying to find ways to to minimize that power and maximize all the ways in which she might be a subject of racism or Islamophobia.
What it means to be a minority in Egypt looks very different. Class is really the biggest defining marker.
"So coming back to Cairo, all of that crumbles into the ground — very, very quickly — because this is not the reality. What it means to be a minority in Egypt looks very different. Class is really the biggest defining marker.
"If you're somebody who has lived all your life in the U.S., then you are upper class — that's a fact of your life and [Egyptian] people are very good at reading that."
Reflecting on romance
"I'm very suspicious of romance. The older I get, the more I look back on past relationships and try to understand what happened: 'Why did I do what I did at that time? Why did I fall in love with this person that I now don't admire the way that I used to?'
The same thing goes for my friends around me. Watching the way that we are maturing romantically, I just can't stop thinking about the extent to which when we embark on a new romance, where we are at the time says so much about who we end up choosing.
I'm very suspicious of romance. The older I get, the more I look back on past relationships and try to understand what happened.
"We think of ourselves as having these static personalities. We think about our own desire as something that we know, something we can hold in our hands and say, 'These are the kinds of things I'm looking for, these are the kinds of people I'm attracted to.'
"But apart from the power of chance to throw random people into your path, [consider] also the circumstance that we are in when we meet these people."
"I feel both isolated and deeply connected in all the cities that I call home, which include Cairo and Alexandria, where my grandmother and my extended family live. And then there's Dubai, where my parents and one of my sisters are; Toronto, where two of my other sisters are; and New York also.
I'm not treated as a stranger anywhere or as a newcomer anywhere. And in many ways I belong in all these places and in many ways I don't.
"So in all of these places, I feel that I arrive and I'm immediately assumed to be 'of the place.' I'm not treated as a stranger or as a newcomer anywhere. In many ways, I belong in all these places — and in many ways I don't."
Finding a community
"I feel that writing If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English has been my coming out into the artist and writing communities.
"I have become 'that girl that wrote that book,' just like there's 'the guy that made that film.' Everybody is sort of a character in Cairo's scene and everybody knows everybody. I was always on the periphery— and now I feel that I have a role.
Everybody is sort of a character in Cairo's scene, everybody knows everybody.
"There's more opportunity to meet people. People message me on Twitter or send me a text through a friend and say 'We read your book, let's have tea,' and it's completely normal.
"I really love that."
Noor Naga's comments have been edited for length and clarity.