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Gilller Prize Special 2022: The Chat with Noor Naga

Our final conversation in our special Scotiabank Giller Prize edition of The Chat is with Noor Naga. Her novel If An Egyptian Cannot Speak English (Graywolf Press) is featured on this year’s shortlist.

Author Photo Noor Naga

The 2022 Scotiabank Giller Prize jury says:

"A work of startling emotional depth and intellectual rigour, Noor Naga’s If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English probes the ethics of identity, desire, privilege and storytelling. Set in Cairo in the wake of the Arab Spring, the novel tracks the relationship between a troubled Egyptian photographer, and an Egyptian American woman recently arrived in the city. It is at once a love story, a disquisition on politics, an exploration of trauma, and a deft work of meta fiction—a slim novel that at times seems almost infinitely capacious. Naga is a bold writer, unafraid of complexity and complication. She is also a magician with language. Every sentence in this exhilarating novel astonishes and provokes; in the end, the relationship Naga probes most urgently is our relationship with language, its power to coerce and control, and its power to liberate."

Noor Naga is a writer who divides her time between Cairo, Alexandria, Toronto, and Dubai. She has family in each of these cities and feels she belongs to them equally. Apart from her debut novel If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English, she is also the author of the verse-novel Washes, Prays, published by McClelland and Stewart in 2020.


What advice would you give your ten-year-old self about the future?
At that age I thought I’d never be a good writer since JK Rowling had already had all the best ideas. I’d tell my younger self not to despair. There are other ideas.


In an alternate version of the world—one in which you are not a writer—what career would you choose?
I narrowly dodged a career in architecture, but without writing, I think this would have been my fate.

If you could take a road trip with any author, living or dead, who would it be and where would you go?
I’d love to go to Sudan with Tayeb Salih.

What’s the last Canadian book that changed you in some way?
I found Tamara Faith Berger’s Maidenhead incredibly affecting.

Your novel is set in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. What possibilities and challenges emerged from writing about such a recent historical event?

I think the hardest part was avoiding a certain cynicism. Not sure I succeeded.


Excerpt from If An Egyptian Cannot Speak English

Question: If you are competing to lose, what do you win if you win?

He told me he was from a village, Shobrakheit. He told me a New Yorker and a Cairene have more in common than a Cairene and a man from Shobrakheit, but he would not tell me what the commonalities were. Instead he asked if I had ever ridden a microbes, and I was forced to say no. What about a tuktuk? Another no. And then I remembered that when we’d stopped at the kiosk for cigarettes, he had bought singles. I looked and seemed to see him for the first time: the hems of his pants were frayed, strings dangled from his vest like lines of saliva, yet he wore a perky bow tie. He wore black leather sandals with socks, but one of the soles was loose, flapping like a bottom lip when he walked. I didn’t know then: every night before bed he washes his feet and socks in the sink, wrings the blackness out of both. Hangs the socks on the bathroom door handle to dry for the morning. Only pair he has. He washes his socks every night but he has never brushed his teeth with toothpaste or shampooed his hair. Does not own deodorant.

If he showed a little more ideology, he could be considered woke— some kind of minimalist, an ecofreak. How to say consumerism in Arabic? How to say toxins, microplastics, mutagenics, fair trade, ethical sourcing? But the boy from Shobrakheit doesn’t give a reason for not shampooing his hair— just says he doesn’t like to. What’s a hipster without intentionality? Old- fashioned and proud and poor. Also, Egyptian. More than anything, what binds people here to one another here is the pointless struggle for quality of life. I’m learning slowly that having money and the option to leave frays any claim I have to this place. It turns out that to be clean in Egypt is just to be free of Egypt, to exercise the choice to stay or go elsewhere, which most of the population cannot do. The boy from Shobrakheit will die never having crossed a border. He is so tall that when we walk around downtown at night, his hair catches on the butchers’ hooks, which are black- tipped, yanking, the blood beneath them never dry. He took me to get liver sandwiches from a cart on the street, but not the popular cart. The popular cart is a pound more expensive per sandwich, which is robbery, he said. We sat on the sidewalk to eat, and I knew he had chosen the ground because I had chosen the crème slip- dress, which would catch the dust like a wet tongue. But I take the metro all the time, I said, remembering that I had ridden it once when I first arrived and that it had cost as little as a pound, as little as six cents American. We test each other.


Excerpted from IF AN EGYPTIAN CANNOT SPEAK ENGLISH. Copyright © 2022 by Noor Naga. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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