A growing niche: The rise of English as a literary language in Egypt


This article is part of a series we are running ahead of the Mada Marketplace event to feature the participating vendors.

I was born in Egypt, raised in Egypt, went to a school that mixed both English and Arabic, and yet it’s safe to say I consider English my first language in writing. When I publish an article in Arabic, it is usually a translation, and I post it on Facebook with pride at having achieved the impossible.

But even so, for my generation and the generation or two after mine — of a certain socio-economic background — my Arabic writing is acceptable (with a very skilled editor involved). For many others it would be even more difficult to produce the Arabic content I proudly share.

The educational landscape

The demand for alternative education emerged through the deterioration of Egypt’s state education system and its out-dated modes of learning in the last decades of the 20th century.

Foreign-language schools have existed in Egypt since the 19th century under Mohamed Ali Pasha’s rule, using French, English or German.

Between the 1950s and 1970s their presence was more limited. This was partly due to a more nationalist approach during Egypt’s socialist era under Gamal Abdel Nasser and the pan-Arab movement, which rejected western influences in the wake of colonialism. But it was also because the state curriculum was less old-fashioned, and more successful at fulfilling the needs of Egypt’s students, then a much smaller number.

Egypt’s changing economics and politics in the 1970s, through President Anwar Sadat’s open-door, free-market policies, created a need for a different kind of education. This is when language schools, which follow the state education system with a stronger emphasis on foreign-language study, and international schools, mostly embassy-affiliated, became a sought-after educational option for parents who could afford them.

After the Gulf War in 1991, two international schools moved their operations from Kuwait to Cairo — the American International School (AIS) and the Modern English School (MES) — according to Noha El Hennawy, a journalist and filmmaker who made an in-depth hour-long documentary film on international schools in Egypt last year.

This move opened up the market in the 1990s for schools following international curricula, such as American or British. These curricula were far more progressive in their learning techniques and content than their Egyptian counterparts, but came at a much heftier price.

In the film, Hennawy interviews students and parents who speak highly of their choice of schools: children and young people learn to debate, work on projects collaboratively, write essays, carry out research, ask provocative questions beyond their textbooks, and read.

The Egyptian system, in contrast, is based entirely on mid-year and end-of-year exams, so students end up spending the whole year memorising their texts in order to pass on to the next.

Identity and language

While these international schools only cater to less than one percent of students in Egypt, according to the education ministry, that’s still hundreds of thousands of them. The schools emphasize teaching in foreign languages — predominantly English — and Arabic becomes an elective “pass or fail” course that students don’t take very seriously.

Thus most graduates find themselves fluent in English, highly skilled and capable of innovative thinking, but with one main disadvantage: a disconnect from their mother tongue. This extends to the culture they’re exposed to: they rarely watch Arabic films, read Arabic novels or listen to Arabic music. They consume American and European culture and arts instead, through satellite television, cinemas or the internet.

“Egyptian identity is at high risk,” a parent of an international school student says in Hennawy’s film. “Their aspirations become focused abroad, not in Egypt.”

In the film, Amer Fathy, an Arabic teacher in an international school, says it’s not only the schools that are to blame for the lack of effective Arabic learning — the national curriculum and text books are repulsive to students.

Hennawy agrees, adding that young people graduating from experimental and government schools also have a poor grasp of Arabic, not just international school graduates.

“Education of the Arabic language is in general decline,” she says. “It’s the way the language is taught that is the issue.”

This rings true to me. In my school, I was taught arts and humanities, such as history and social sciences in Arabic, and sciences and maths in English. Yet I could not comprehend why there was such emphasis on memorizing texts and grammar rules, when the key to truly understanding a language is to practice reading, writing your own texts and reciting them.

Rowayat Issue2.jpg


The rise of English publishing

Rowayat, which is one of the vendors at the upcoming Mada Marketplace event, emerged in 2013 as a quarterly literary journal in English. Founder Sherine Elbanhawy tells me that one of Rowayat’s goals is to provide young people with an education like mine a space to relate to their own culture.

“They become very disconnected from their culture,” she says. “Everything they’re reading about is coming from other places.”

Rowayat is distributed in Egypt, the US, UK and Canada, so Egyptians who prefer to read in English can express themselves and consume local culture.

One issue, dubbed Gemeza, specifically targeted eight- to 14-year-olds. Much of its content consisted of fairy tales rewritten to bring them into a more Egyptian context.

“We wanted to get the kids to express themselves according to their culture and identity,” says Elbanhawy. “To make a character like Goha [an eighth-century Arabic literary character who has been Egyptianized] for example, appealing to the kids, even if in English.”

Elbanhawy points out that there have always been Egyptians able to write in foreign languages. Waguih Ghali published his famous novel Beer in the Snooker Club in English almost 50 years ago, for example, and Rowayat’s first issue made a tribute to the late writer.

While admitting that English, as the predominant language for a certain segment of society, has become more widespread in the last few decades, Elbanhawy says foreign languages have always been part of Egyptian culture.

“We’ve always had some form of colonialism or foreign regime occupying Egypt,” she explains. “Egypt has a culture that’s strong enough to exist on its own, while always including other cultures. We forget that sometimes.”

“We tend to focus on our Arab identity, which is an integral part of it, but we have a lot more to show. Our hybridity is an interesting way to connect with the West, or with others in general. I believe arts and literature is a more effective way of connecting than through academia or politics,” she continues. “For Rowayat it is really important to show this part of Egypt to the world.”

Rowayat’s journals include short stories, poetry, book reviews, interviews, excerpts and translations. But Rowayat are not the first to focus on English publishing in Egypt. Both Saray publishing and Shabab Books have several English language novels by Egyptian authors under their belts, although the latter is not in business anymore.

Roving eye.jpg


The most established and well-distributed English publisher in Egypt is AUC Press, another Mada Marketplace vendor. With more than 60 years of publishing experience, and operating under the umbrella of the American University in Cairo, AUC Press has published hundreds of books in a wide range of categories, including academic books on arts, architecture, Egyptology, history, politics and economics, travel books, photo books, Arabic language study books and Arabic literature in translation.

“Our number-one priority is the credibility of the quality of the work we publish,” Basma al-Manialawy, the AUC Press marketing manager, tells me. “We have a very strong editorial program, whether in terms of literature or academic books, with a wide array of translators who are very strong in their field.”

AUC Press have been Egypt’s primary English-language literary publisher since 1985, as well as the worldwide agent and translators for Egypt’s most celebrated author, Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz. They publish translations by other established writers such as Alaa al-Aswany and Palestinian author Mourid Barghouti, but also first and second novels by emerging authors.

Maniawly says they are expanding their literature program to target younger readers. “Publishing authors who write in English could be a good starting point to enter this market,” she says. “A lot of people of a certain socio-economic class in Egypt now express themselves better in English than in Arabic. Many of our authors have been older and more traditional, and we think this shift will give our fiction program a younger, more modern feel.”

Besides publishers facilitating the distribution of English-language authors, others are working on the process of helping Egyptian writers find their voice.

Linda Cleary, a British poet and spoken-word artist residing in Egypt, has been teaching creative writing in Cairo since 2010. She teaches in her home, at Diwan BookstoresArt Lounge and previously Darb 1718. Her students vary in age, with her youngest 15 and oldest 85.

Cleary says she’s taught thousands over the years, with an average of 30 new students each month. She connects this literary blossoming to the revolution.

“The writing scene is happening,” she says. “There are many writers here. For those writing in Arabic there is a wide, strong publishing scene, but for those who want to publish in English, their options are still slim. It’s a growing market.”

Read more about why Mada Masr is organizing a marketplace event here

Rowan El Shimi 
Culture journalist

You have a right to access accurate information, be stimulated by innovative and nuanced reporting, and be moved by compelling storytelling.

Subscribe now to become part of the growing community of members who help us maintain our editorial independence.
Know more

Join us

Your support is the only way to ensure independent,
progressive journalism