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A Brief Foray Into African Literature: Egypt

posted: , by Sarah Skawinski
tags: Library Collections | Recommended Reads | Adults | Art & Culture | Readers Writers

Nate, a Reference Staff member, continues his exploration of contemporary African Literature on the blog with a look at Egypt and reviews of The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz and The City Always Wins by Omar Robert Hamilton.

Basma Abdel Aziz, author of The Queue, also works as a psychiatrist and visual artist in her home country of Egypt.  A successful student and lifelong artist, Abdel Aziz was pushed towards the field of medicine by her family and chose to pursue psychiatry as she felt it important to see and understand the entirety of human beings, not simply individual pieces as a surgeon might.  Basma has been an outspoken critic of human rights abuses and torture and was censured at various times during her tenure as a student.  She has published a number of pieces of nonfiction examining the issues and in 2016 was named a Global Thinker by Foreign Policy.  Her novel The Queue was inspired by events and experiences during the Egyptian Revolution of 2011.

Set in an unrevealed country at an undisclosed time, the experiences which have informed and inspired Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue, though never explicitly mentioned, will reveal themselves quickly to anyone who followed news relating to the Arab Spring.

The work examines the lives of a handful of characters following what is referred to as ‘the Disgraceful Events,’ and the rise of the governmental entity known only as ‘The Gate.’  Each character is forced to interact or grapple with a policy or procedure implemented by ‘The Gate’ which sets them off on seemingly unachievable tasks.  The titular Queue is the line in which individuals must wait in order to receive a meeting and potential acquiescence from ‘The Gate’ to move forward with whatever it is they are trying to accomplish.  We learn of individuals seeking approval for surgery to remove a bullet acquired during the aforementioned ‘Disgraceful Events,’ the approval of surgery, however, would indicate ‘The Gate’s’ involvement and use of deadly force in the events, an admission they are unwilling to make.  We follow a young man, seeking acknowledgement that his friend died fighting for ‘The Gate,’ yet this also would implicate the government in ‘The Disgraceful Events.’  We meet a woman who sets out for the queue hoping to receive permission for her daughter to undergo heart surgery for a condition another of her daughters has already died from.  The Queue serves as the common thread, binding all of the novel’s characters together. It develops an economy and community of its own.

As the queue swelled and extended into far-off, practically uninhabited districts, the Gate issued a decree for a wall to be built around everyone waiting.  For their own protection, of course.

The bureaucracy represented by the queue and newly introduced policies prove a formidable adversary for The Queue’s major characters, pitting them against insurmountable odds and causing a fair amount of mental anguish.  This grappling with the absurd calls to mind works by Kafka such as The Trial and seems to rely on the feelings experienced by real life protesters such as those involved in the occupation of Tahrir Square in Egypt in 2011 and the events which followed.

When he arrived, Ehab told him that the road to the queue and even all the sidewalks were closed to cars in both directions, and that the Gate had issued a decree on the matter, recently broadcast in one of its frequent and confusing messages.  In a low voice the others couldn’t hear, Ehab added that the decision would soon apply to pedestrians, too – you’d only be allowed to walk toward the Gate, not away from it.

The postcolonial history of Egypt deserves more space than I can afford it here.  The events of the Arab Spring in Egypt, beginning in the winter of 2011, included protests across the country and protestors from all walks of life.  The demands included increased venues for political expression and for improvements in living standards.  The focal point of these protests became Cairo’s Tahrir Square.  Following two weeks of occupation and multiple violent clashes with governmental forces resulting in hundreds of civilian deaths, Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, acquiesced to the protestors and announced his intentions to step down and schedule elections.  For the first time in many decades the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood was allowed to contest the elections and a year and a half after the start of the protest their candidate, Mohamed Morsi, was elected president.  Following a series of controversial decrees and more protests, Mohamed Morsi was overthrown by the military and Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, the head of the Egyptian Armed Forces, was put temporarily in charge.  Another presidential election was scheduled for 2014, for which El-Sisi resigned from his military role, contested for, and won, though less than half of eligible voters participated in this election.  For more on this period of Egyptian history see Thanassis Cambanis’s Once Upon a Revolution, Bassem Youssef’s Revolution for Dummies, and the documentary We Are Egypt.

The apparent implausibility of the Egyptian Revolution, culminating in the democratic election of a military leader, finds its expression in Abdel Aziz’s depiction of a society and government that appear designed to not function.  The characters’ fates are mostly tragic, representations of a revolutionary hope broken by the current reality.  ‘How could this be? How did it end up like this?’ seems to be the question the author is grappling with in The Queue.  Both poignant in its ability to convey the emotional response to the outcome of the Egyptian Revolution felt by members of the protest and captivating in its use of suspense to carry the story forwards, The Queue is a book to be enjoyed by all.

The gravity of Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue is dependent upon her skillful use of metaphor, as this often-opaque tale of the rise of authoritarianism leaves much to the imagination, where the mood is characterized by a feeling of disorientation.  Consequently, the fear emanating from the story’s central characters is a result of the mind’s ability to wander in the face of a lack of outright consequences, of befuddlement surrounding the size, shape, or capacity of ‘The Gate’.

In contrast, Omar Robert Hamilton’s ‘The City Always Wins’ confronts the failures and misgivings of the Egyptian revolution in a much more outright, visceral way.  In this story feelings of anger are created and framed through vivid descriptions of violence perpetrated by state actors over the course of multiple years of protest.  Whereas The Queue quite literally shuffles towards a conclusion, slowing picking up steam as more and more disparate pieces of information are stitched together, The City Always Wins barrels ahead, jumping between characters and chapters at a breakneck speed, often substituting Twitter feeds for dialogue and description.

The hospital is all burning and weeping.  Bodies being carried bleeding and moaning, the index finger of a right hand up, blood trailing thick and shining behind them, the high voice screeching out of the speakers on the stage again and again.

Antagonists are named outright, the main characters Mariam, Khalil, Hafez, and Malik, are working to first overthrow Hosni Mubarak, and then Mohamed Morsi, and then Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, and this much is made abundantly clear.  The story flows between first person narratives from the different major characters, rarely taking the time to distinguish who is speaking, which often leaves the reader in a dream-like state.

There are days, minutes, moments I will circle around forever.  The late-afternoon sun dipping over a shimmering lake of people and banners and babies on shoulders and I’m up on the balcony at the One’s.  The one, whose apartment was always overflowing with people.  People on computers, charging cameras, smoking cigarettes, lining up for the toilet, making plans, preparing sandwiches, changing clothes, breaking down, doing interviews, taking naps, calling home.  Everything still so new in those first eighteen days.  In the dining room a group of people are gathered around a table, voices indecipherable from one another.

This seems a deliberate attempt to impart a generality among the activist protagonists.  Their fight, their desires, their ideas all much the same; a free Egypt.  As the story moves through the toppling of the Hosni Mubarak regime, the subsequent rise and precipitous fall of Mohamed Morsi, and finally the rise of Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, the highs and lows of Hafez, Miriam, and Khalil are palpable.  The resignation of Mubarak imparts on them a sense of invincibility, of inevitability.  Only for this to be crushed by the election of the Muslim-Brotherhood-backed Mohamed Morsi.  This event forces them into a conundrum; how can their choices be between a religious, authoritarian-leaning, newly-elected government and a coup d’etat by the army? Two completely unpalatable outcomes.  The story winds down in a state of muted despair as more and more of the population moves to back El-Sisi, largely in response to the instability the country has withstood over the preceding years.

Hamilton’s strengths lie in the emotionality of his writing.  His direct connection to the events playing out on the pages of ‘The City Always Wins’ is unmissable.

A stone river of blood drags through the asphalt of Tahrir.  On its banks the mourners.  The stain of a life slipping away.  He walks silently along it.  The square is empty now, dark and cold.  This new battle has been long.  Khalil follows the bloodline, follows the careful stones lining this new holiness.

And indeed, in the Author blurb it is revealed that Hamilton and members of his family took part in a large number of demonstrations in Egypt throughout 2011-2014.  Some ended up detained and remain so currently.  Although at times The City Always Wins feels somewhat overly dramatic or glorifying of the protestors, leaving little to the imagination, the author’s proximity to the events at least suggest his attachment to the cause and the people taking part is candidly anchored in experience.  In the end, this book offers a compelling narrative set into strikingly important and historically accurate events which will provide the reader with a basic understanding of how the Arab Spring played out in Egypt.

January 15th: Let Us Remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

posted: , by Patti DeLois
tags: Library Collections | Adults | Seniors | Art & Culture

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., center, leads a group of civil rights workers and Selma black people in prayer on Feb. 1, 1965 in Selma, Alabama after they were arrested on charges of parading without a permit. More than 250 persons were arrested as they marched to the Dallas County courthouse as part of a voter registration drive. (AP Photo/BH)

This month, we celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with the Civil Rights Film Series, Thursday nights at 6:30 pm.

Also, check out this list of films about civil rights.


December Staff Picks: Favorite Recipes

posted: , by Elizabeth Hartsig
tags: Library Collections | Recommended Reads | Adults | Seniors | Art & Culture

Visions of sugar plums may or may not be dancing in our heads…but with the arrival of winter this month, we’re thinking of a few of our favorite recipes and cookbooks from the stacks! Here are some ideas for comfort food, holiday dishes to share, or a simple recipe to warm a snowy eve.


Carrie’s Picks 

I love cookbooks! I love to read them like novels, savoring the language and feasting with my eyes. The Joy of Cooking (seventh edition) by Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker, and Ethan Becker is the only cookbook I still own. It is taped up, spilled upon, shoved full of hand written recipes and cherished family favorites, and generally looks ready to explode into a million scattered pages. But I love this book! Sushi rice? There’s a recipe. Vegan chocolate cake? Check. Absolute best way to roast a whole chicken? Done! Detailed, descriptive, and containing at least one recipe for nearly anything you may want to make, the Joy of Cooking (seventh edition) is everything a comprehensive cookbook should be.  

But if there was one cookbook on my wish list it would have to be The Forest Feast for Kids: Colorful Vegetarian Recipes That Are Simple To Make, by Erin Gleeson.  

Beautiful photography of ingredients, procedures, and completed recipes will help children understand what it takes to create balanced nutritious meals, and help them find recipes that include their favorite foods. Vegetarians rejoice, this whole book is for you, but never fear omnivorous friends, you can add any protein you want to the many inventive meal plans. Portobellos and polenta are two of my families go-to vegetarian main courses, and I am always on the lookout for new ways to present these old favorites. Putting them together sounds totally dreamy, and doable! Substitute your favorite cheese, or leave it out altogether, add more onions (please) or use red cabbage instead of Brussels sprouts. The possibilities, and pictures, are appetite inducing.  

Whether you go for scholarly tomes like the Joy of Cooking, or visual delights like The Forest Feast for Kids, gather together around a great cookbook this month and create a new family favorite.  

Jessie’s Pick 

Baking in America: Traditional and Contemporary Favorites from the Past 200 Years by Greg Patent includes so many terrific recipes and is fascinating reading as well. Patent weaves historical notes in among the detailed recipes for Parker House Rolls, California Forty-Niner Cake, and Apricot Coconut Walnut bars, the recipe that earned him second prize in the junior division of the Pillsbury Bake-Off when he was 18. Every time I open it I learn something new about historical baking. Did you know that in colonial times less affluent hostesses sometimes rented pineapples by the day to serve as exotic, extravagant centerpieces? Or that “chiffon” style cake was invented in the 1920s by an insurance salesman who sold his secret formula to General Mills in 1947?

Patent includes tales of his own baking history as well, like his family’s tradition of making fresh donuts on New Year’s Eve. Taking this as inspiration, for a birthday party I once made his updated version of Eliza Leslie’s Doughnuts (1851) and invited guests to fry their own, although we skipped the old-fashioned rose water flavoring and went with vanilla instead. They were a hit, and those who were in attendance years ago still occasionally mention those doughnuts with fondness. Patent’s love of baking shines on every page, his precise research is impressive, and his methods won’t fail you. 


Meg’s Picks 

Here are few that I go back to again and again:  

Nigella Lawson’s Dense Chocolate Loaf Cake is the reason I keep How to Be A Domestic Goddess: Baking and the Art of Comfort Cooking in my personal collection. Add a vanilla glaze and it’s perfect for colleagues’ birthdays: delicious and unfussy.   

When I need French onion soup, I turn to Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, because why mess with perfection?  


Sarah’s Picks

One of my favorite things to do this time of year is bake bread. Nothing turns a house into a warm and cozy home quite like the smell of freshly baked bread. Perhaps it’s the chemical reaction of salt and yeast, or quite possibly it’s the release of the love that goes into mixing, proofing, nurturing, shaping, and baking a loaf of bread. It’s also a relaxing and enjoyable way to spend a chilly afternoon. 

I always turn back to my trusty King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion for tried-and-true classic recipes like Hearth Bread and Honey Oatmeal Bread. This book taught me how to bake bread with its easy, approachable style, explanation of methods, and step-by-step illustrations of important techniques. I’m looking forward to expanding my repertoire with Emmanuel Hadjiandreou’s How to Make Sourdough and sampling a few recipes from Ken Forkish’s Flour Water Salt Yeast this year.  

It’s quite remarkable, really, that four simple ingredients can turn into something so satisfying and nourishing. It’s also remarkable how many thoughtful gifts you can create for just the price of flour, salt, yeast, and water. Pair your loaves with one of these Life-Changing Compound Butters and wrap them both up in a swatch of fabric with inspiration from Wrapagami for the perfect gift from the heart! 


Gail’s Pick 

What if you don’t want to pay more than five dollars every time you want a loaf of sourdough bread with a delicious crusty crust? Ken Forkish comes to the rescue with Flour Water Salt Yeast, explaining how to vary the proportions of these four ingredients to make artisanal bread and pizza dough. This guy has done his homework so you don’t have to. A good how-to book for making great bread.  


Raminta’s Pick 

My favorite meal of the year is probably my family’s Lithuanian Christmas Eve dinner (Kūčios). I love it more for the traditions, than most of the actual food. My family follows Lithuanian Catholic traditions and therefor, there is no meat or dairy served on Christmas Eve. The dishes served during this meal contain many seasonal root vegetables, mushrooms and lots and lots of fish. Most of us don’t particularly like the fish dishes, but will eat them out of a sense of tradition. Imagine my surprise, after moving to Maine, to find that our primary fish, herring, was used as bait for lobster hauls. The heat of the summer on Commercial Street brings me strange memories. 

Over the years, my family has adapted and maybe even cheated here and there. My family down in Florida has added shrimp cocktail for my sister-in-law. My wife brings a pre-meal cheese plate to our celebrations in Massachusetts. On occasion we have even brought down our raclette machine for optimum ooey gooey cheesiness.  

Each dish of the evening’s celebrations has special connotations and timing. One of the first dishes of the evening is a simple mushroom broth paired with mushroom buns. The buns are my absolute favorite part of the entire meal. As a child, I would help my grandmother with the preparation and we would make two kinds of buns; mushroom and bacon. The bacon buns were not to be eaten on Christmas Eve, but were to be saved for Christmas. There was NEVER any way that a misshapen bacon bun wasn’t going to end up in my mouth. These buns are fairly simple to make and are seriously so incredibly tasty. My wife and I have been known to make them “out of season.”

Mushroom Buns 

  • Get a copy of the Joy of Cooking and prepare the dough according to the Parker House Rolls recipe 
  • 1 cup European mushrooms (porcini are awesome for this) – finely chopped (if using dried mushrooms, rehydrate first) 
  • 1 small onion – finely chopped 
  • Salt to taste 
  • 1 beaten egg 
  •  Sauté onions, mushrooms and salt. The mushroom to onion ration should be about 2 to 1. It really depends on how much you are making. Prepare the dough according to the recipe. 
  • Take out one small fist full of dough and stretch it out in your palm. Scoop in about one tablespoon of the mushroom/onion mixture and close. You should have a small, football shaped bun in your hand. Brush with egg before baking. Follow baking instructions from Joy of Cooking. 

Bacon Buns 

  • Follow the recipe above and replace finely chopped mushrooms with good quality bacon. 

And as my grandmother would tell us, Valgyk! 


Jim’s Picks 

My mother always made such great baked beans.  It’s not usually considered a difficult dish, but you would be surprised how many things can go wrong.  Anyway, with my limited talents, the Boston Baked Bean recipe in the Frugal Gourmet by Jeff Smith enabled me to be a successful bean-cook three out of four times.   

My one “fancy dish” is from this book as well. That is cooking in parchment: lamb chops in this case. Easy, and it keeps the lamb soooo moist.  Also impresses your guests as you present a paper package on their plates with a fully cooked chop inside. 

Nate’s Pick  

Kenji Lopez-Alt’s fantastic The Food Lab contains more than one recipe for hamburgers.  Whether you want to cook a classic, juicy burger on the grill, or a fast-food-style, thin, pan fried one, Kenji has you covered.  More than just exhaustively tested recipes, this volume contains a wealth of food science written with the home cook in mind.  Lopez-Alt breaks down everything from what cuts of meat to buy at the butcher to how many minutes you should boil your hardboiled eggs for.  I also appreciate the relative simplicity of the recipes included; you do not need access to an industrial kitchen to successfully recreate any of the dishes.  One of my favorite recipes is for Ultra-Smashed Cheeseburgers, a no-frills take on a classic diner-style hamburger.  High on heat and low on handling, this recipe is a go-to for the colder Maine months when grilling outside is a less than enticing option, yet you still find yourself pining for summer flavors.


Elizabeth’s Pick 

One snowy eve last winter, while I burrowed with books and blankets, my farmer friend and housemate Sean rustled up a Butternut Squash and Caramelized Onion Galette for a cold-night-comfort-sup, with cherry tomatoes (roasted and frozen in sunnier times) tucked in with the squash to boot.  Brown buttery onions, orange squash, gooey warm tomatoes, flaky pastry crust. Holy hot summer. A sweetness and a savory-ness. Reader, we ate it! You can find the recipe in The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook. It works fine to swap flours for a gluten-free galette—that’s what we had.  

Wendy’s Pick 

Marjorie Standish’s Cooking Down East has been one of my favorite cookbooks since I learned to cook on my grandmother’s huge cast iron stove (what I wouldn’t give to have that stove in my kitchen today!).  Marjorie Standish wrote a column for the Portland Press Herald for over 25 years, and this is one of her compilations of her many recipes featured there.  The cookbook was well used when I was learning (originally published in 1969 and my grandmother had an original copy) and my current copy is newer but no less well used.  It falls open every time to my absolute favorite recipe – Melt-in-your-mouth Blueberry Cake – which, as all of her recipes do, features simple local ingredients.  The cake is light and delicious and a family favorite at holidays or just weekend breakfast (side note… it freezes lovely, so make a double batch and freeze one for another day!).  It is great for breakfast, dessert, birthdays or just as a snack and is easy to make.  My favorite trick that I learned from this recipe is to lightly coat the blueberries with some of the flour before mixing them in; if you do, they don’t sink to the bottom of the cake but stay delightfully distributed throughout.  Check out Cooking Down East or any of Marjorie’s other cookbooks for a wonderful taste of Maine – the way food should be… 

Eileen’s Pick 

Potluck, you say?  I’ll bring dessert! 

Pie always sounds like a good idea, but it usually looks better than it tastes, in my experience. The crust has to be right.  No soggy bottoms. Zigzag edges not so neat as to look contrived, not so heavy as to challenge Cousin Mae’s dental work.   It ought to be light but substantial, a container that delights the senses.  It has to be easy enough for a mere mortal to make and be proud of.   

And, please, the filling should be worth the trouble of making the crust.  The whole thing, above all else, should taste better than good. 

 Pie: 300 Tried-and-True Recipes for Delicious Homemade Pie by Ken Haedrich (2004) will help you accomplish all that. With his many side notes and plenty of practical advice, you are bound to get it right. 

Nothing I have run up against in my dessert-eating life has ever made me consider saying, “This is too sweet.”  That means that I am happy to engage a generous slice of pecan pie any time.  A few holidays ago I had a hankering for just that and swooned, in a focused-research way, over scads of pecan pie recipes before finally settling on Haedrich’s “Louisiana Browned-Butter Pecan Pie.”  I bought the required dark corn syrup, knowing that it would sit in my fridge forever, 1/2 cup shy of full. I used his recipe for “Basic Flaky Pie Crust”, followed his directions for successful prebaking, and set to browning the eponymous butter for the gorgeous, gooey innards. Without going into too much detail (that’s what recipes are for) I will say the resulting pie was as close to perfect as I am likely to come, ever.  One great crust, a pecan-stuffed filling easily meeting the crust’s high standard, and we had some serious pecan pie that made me think maybe I’d have further use for that leftover dark corn syrup after all, and sooner rather than later.  


Hazel’s Picks

For further reading, here’s a book list from our collections: Favorite Feasts and Everyday Meals. You’ll find new cookbooks, plus links to our Cookbooks from Maine list, holiday cookbooks, and more.

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