Meet the Press: May 2016

  • By Audrey Bastian
  • May 19, 2016

Hoopoe specializes in stories from the Middle East and North Africa


Discover the Arab world’s most dynamic novels now available in English thanks to Hoopoe — from the American University in Cairo (AUC) Press — a new imprint spotlighting Arab novels, the kind that already top the stacks on nightstands across the Middle East.

The genres offered fit into familiar niches in the West, yet not quite: historical fiction, thrillers, crime fiction, dystopian, noir, but all are set in the deserts, watering holes, mountains, farms, or cities of a diverse region. Bringing to the United States these pieces of fiction offers the warm welcome of an Arab hello, Al-Salaamu Alikum, yet these stories are just non-conformist enough to spur you on to the next unpredictable page.

Western intellectuals already rattle off the name of Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz, also published by AUC Press, whose blunt expression and sensual undercurrents won him the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature. Now savvy readers can seductively drop another term into the milieu: Hoopoe, which is both the title of the imprint and the name of a bird found across the region known for its distinctive sound and crown of chestnut and black feathers.

According to the Koran, the hoopoe carried messages between the Queen of Sheba and Solomon. In ancient Egypt, the bird signaled the heir apparent to the throne. Sufi poet Farid ud-Din Attar uses the hoopoe in his writings to represent a leader and storyteller on a path to enlightenment. AUC Press chose the hoopoe to symbolize its new literary outreach, hoping the novels might breathe a human dynamic — one that goes beyond the headlines — into Western readers’ understanding of the Arab world.

AUC Press occupies a second floor above their bookstore overlooking Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where, in 2011, Americans watched a growing flood of protestors dethrone President Hosni Mubarak during the Arab Spring. Situated on prime real estate, the press neighbors the Egyptian museum, home to coveted antiquities that lure tourists from all over the world, and the headquarters of the Arab League, which provides space for the region’s luminaries to resolve contested issues of the day.

Indeed, for many Americans, entangled politics may be their only impression of Cairo and the region generally. Unlike news reports, where the spotlight hovers around the breaking and the flashy, the novels published by Hoopoe are meant to reach beyond the dusty streets of the square. They will take you into the soul of the Arab world.

Works in translation, though, inevitably lose meaning. Missed social nuances and subtle humor may land the pages flat on the chest in a moment of dozy slumber rather than pierce like they would in Arabic. Yet for a growing number of Westerners, the Middle East is moving in next door as refugees flood through Europe and into the United States, altering what may have seemed irrelevant in the past. In October 2016, for example, No Knives in the Kitchens of This City, by Syrian Khaled Khalifa, will release under the Hoopoe imprint. In it, Khalifa writes a raw, exquisite account of the Assad regime’s loosening grip on the country and the accompanying chaos.

Hoopoe’s commission editor, Nadine El-Hadi, grew up in London with an Egyptian father. She chooses books for the imprint that will resonate with English-speaking audiences. “I feel quite connected to this idea of crossing or breaking down barriers,” she says. She describes some of the upcoming novels:

  • The Televangelist by Ibrahim Essa is a biting critique of modern Egyptian society that takes us into the world of TV preaching. It is squarely situated at that murky point where religion, politics, money, and media meet. The central character is a preacher named Hatem who is caught between his dual identity as celebrity and man of religion. He has earned riches, fame, and friends in high places, but is drawn into a political scandal at the very center of government that threatens to ruin him and could tip the country into chaos.
  • A Rare Blue Bird Flies with Me by Youssef Fadel is a far darker piece of writing, set in Morocco’s Years of Lead in the 1970s and 1980s, when hundreds of political prisoners were locked up in secret jails. Fadel draws on the memoirs of survivors, along with his own experience as a political prisoner in the early 1970s, to create this arresting work of fiction. In the novel, army pilot Aziz disappears the day after his wedding. His wife, Zina, never gives up her search for him, and the story takes us on her final journey to the Kasbah, where Aziz has been held for 20 years in grim solitary confinement.
  • Time of White Horses by Ibrahim Nasrallah unfolds in Palestine over three generations of a single family during the eras of the Ottoman Empire and the British Mandate. With the Nakba looming on the horizon, and through Nasrallah’s lyrical voice, we experience Palestine in the lives of Hajj Mahmud and his family, plus their “magical white mare.”

These and other Hoopoe titles are available on Amazon and through Oxford University Press in North America’s distribution network, as well as at many bookstores. Seek them out for a fuller sense of a region that deserves to be understood.

Audrey Bastian is a writer in Silver Spring, MD. Her master’s degree is in international law and world order from Reading University in England. She holds a minor in Arabic and has lived in the Middle East, including Egypt, Palestine, and Jordan. She published an article about Egyptian women’s usage of social media during the Arab Spring, “Double Facebook Profile: Egyptian Women Online” in the Eurasia Review. She is now working on a book project about a letter that impacted Thai-Western relations in the 1850s.

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