Poor: A Nubian novel

'Poor: A Nubian Novel’ by Idris Ali, translated by Elliott Colla (The American University in Cairo Press, 220 pages, $19)

The work of the late Idris Ali voiced all the anger and frustration of the Nubians in the south of Egypt. His 2005 novel “Poor” is a heavily autobiographical work - a bleak, indignant, blisteringly direct account of economic, social and moral deprivation, in which the traditional “coming of age” narrative is constantly undercut by the miserable social realities that oppress its central character. At times, the novel’s uncompromising directness can seem overwhelming and slightly adolescent, but taken as a whole it is a visceral and arresting read.

“Poor” opens with the (unnamed) adult central character disorientated and half-unhinged, roaming the dystopian streets of Cairo and preparing for a suicide attempt later the same day. We are then sent back his childhood on the Nile in the agricultural heartland of Nubia, after which the story of his life is narrated - conveniently intersecting with landmarks of modern Egyptian history. Among his first memories is the building of the Aswan High Dam and the flooding of Nubia, which destroyed the local way of life and led in a huge exodus of Nubians to the cities of the north. After some time, the narrator - still not even a teenager - joins these unhappy hoards, with the words of a Cairo-dwelling uncle still ringing in his ears: “Cairo is a big flesh-eating demon. It swallows people without mercy … If you go there in your present condition, you’ll fall into the hell of Cairo’s service jobs and come to hate the day you were born.”

This will come to look prophetic, as the narrator stumbles helplessly from problem to nightmarish problem in the capital, with...

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