Featured Translation: Women of Karantina by Nael Eltoukhy


There were over 450 new translations published this year, and trust us, we know from experience, keeping track of them all can be a maddening exercise. Each weekday from now until the end of the year we’ll highlight a different title that you may have missed. From short story collections to epic novels, from award winning works of the highest literary caliber to trashy romantic beach reads, we’ll feature the very best, and the very worst that 2015 had to offer, one book at a time.

Women of Karantina by Nael Eltoukhy / Translated from the Arabic by Robin MogerWhen I was first coming up with the guidelines for how posts in this series would work I decided that we wouldn’t focus on anything that we’d previously reviewed. This decision was made for a couple of reasons. The first was that I wanted to give equal attention to some great (and also not so great) books that we haven’t had a chance to properly talk about yet. The second was that I didn’t want us to appear lazy, like we were rehashing old content and packaging it as something fresh and exciting. However a very wise person reminded me this weekend that there were a lot of great translations published this year that we did cover, but that people may have missed the first time around, and that it’s probably unfair to exclude these books based solely on the fact that we talked about them one time six months ago. Wise person wins. Over the next few weeks we’ll continue to highlight a lot of books we haven’t touched upon in these pages before, but we’ll also start peppering in a selection of some of our best reviewed titles from earlier in the year.

The first title to benefit from these new and improved guidelines is my personal favorite of the year, Women of Karantina by Nael Eltoukhy. From our review:

Th[e] beginning, and the novel’s ending in fact, deals with the death of a dog. In between the book spans decades of time across the past, present, and future, and introduces readers to three generations of family as it blends historical fact with historical fiction, creating an alternate timeline of sorts, one that’s home to all manner of pimps, thieves, liars, and whores. They’re not bad people, they’re just misunderstood. Okay, that’s not exactly true, they are all a touch self-absorbed and prone to commit incredible acts of violence at the drop of hat, but they’re also pretty hilarious caricatures of subversive and loyalist individuals, most of whom want the same thing, to restore the city of Alexandria to its former glory. If only they could agree on how to best accomplish this goal.

And why we love it and awarded it five golden typewriters (again, from our review):

Women of Karantina is a sprawling family epic, and what makes it work is Eltoukhy’s willingness to push the boundaries of both what is considered acceptable, and what is expected, from modern Arabic literature. The language is foul and crass, the situations are biting and provocative, great liberties are taken with regards to historical facts, and as the title and cover suggest, authoritative women play a critical role in defining acceptable practices and serve as the binding agent that holds everything together in times of desperation. The truth is written by the victors, and then is rewritten by their challengers, and is once again rewritten to suit the needs of the next generation who are eagerly seeking to twist it for their own personal aims. Everyone back stabs everyone else. Endless feuds erupt. The police are basically a joke. Peace seems like an virtually unattainable goal, not that anyone seems to be actively pursuing it anyway. And it’s all an absolute joy to read.

Don’t just take our word for it though. You can read an excerpt from the first chapter of Women of Karantina at the I.B. Taurus blog. For more background about both the novel and its author Nael Eltoukhy and translator Robin Moger check out this excellent interview at the Arabic Literature (in English) website.

Women of Karantina was translated from the Arabic by Robin Moger and published in February by The American University in Cairo Press.

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About Aaron Westerman

Aaron Westerman is the Manager of Web Architecture for a national human services organization. When he's not busy tearing sites apart and rebuilding them, he spends his ever shrinking free time trying to keep up with his twins, reading works of translated literature, and watching far too many Oscar nominated movies.