Book Review: Touching tale of an orphan’s journey of discovery

“After Coffee” by Abdelrashid Mahmoudi is a charming journey through time. (Shutterstock)
Updated 12 February 2019

Book Review: Touching tale of an orphan’s journey of discovery

CHICAGO: From east of the Nile Delta, in long-established farming villages in the Egyptian province of Sharkia, comes a story filled with history, folklore, and belonging.

Winner of the prestigious Sheikh Zayed Book Award in 2014, and translated into English in 2018, “After Coffee” by Abdelrashid Mahmoudi is a charming journey through time, weaving in and out of the lives and struggles of its main characters.

Mahmoudi’s story revolves around orphan Medhat, a five-year-old boy from Qassimi village who finds himself in a strange new world where he must quickly learn the lessons of life.

The tale begins in Qassimi where local man Khalil’s sister, Zakiya, has eloped with a young man named Salama, and there seems to be no respite from the disgrace. Other village scandals emerge as Mahmoudi introduces different families with their own distinct traditions and unfulfilled dreams.

Qassimi and two nearby villages are divided not only by a canal, but long-standing animosities, and amid this Medhat’s story starts to unfold in an unhurried and almost unnoticed way, much like his life.

Having lost his parents, Medhat aimlessly wanders the streets with his dog Farid, until one day he meets a Greek woman called Marika who is attending a wedding in his village. Taking a shine to the young boy, she invites him to come and stay with her and her husband Salem in Ismailia, a beautiful city situated on the banks of the Suez Canal.

Medhat agrees, and soon he is embarking on a new life which turns out to be both joyous and bleak. Ismailia, with its many neighborhoods and varied inhabitants, presents a world in stark contrast to Medhat’s village, where he must be resilient in his desire for a meaningful life.

Mahmoudi creates a long and harsh journey for Medhat, but ultimately one where he will understand that no matter how far he goes, his roots will always be embedded in Egyptian soil.

Mahmoudi is a poet, writer, translator, and academic. “After Coffee” was first published in 2013, in Arabic. It was translated into English by Nasha Gowanlock and published by Hamad Bin Khalifa University Press in 2018.

'Our Women on the Ground:' a book that gives voice to Arab female war journalists

Journalist Zahra Hankir began collecting reports of conflicts in the Middle East in 2010. (Shutterstock)
Updated 22 August 2019

'Our Women on the Ground:' a book that gives voice to Arab female war journalists

CHICAGO: Journalist Zahra Hankir began collecting reports of conflicts in the Middle East in 2010 before she decided to put this anthology, “Our Women on the Ground: Essays by Arab Women Reporting from the Arab World” together. From nineteen sahafiya, women journalists, are accounts of their tireless work to report the news from some of the most dangerous conflict zones in the world. From different backgrounds and experiences, these journalists have risked their lives for “their pursuit of truth and their desire to disseminate it,” Hankir states. 

While there are disadvantages to being a female journalist at times, dealing with male egos, misogyny, and social restrictions, there are also many advantages, as Hannah Allam points out when reporting in Iraq. After years of warfare, more than half the population of the country was female in 2006, shifting the dynamics of Iraqi society into the hands of resilient women, who ran households and put themselves in harm’s way for their children. Heba Shibani followed Libyan women whose children faced deportation because of laws that did not allow women to pass on their Libyan citizenship to their children, and Zaina Erhaim had access to women in Idlib to tell their stories when none of her male counterparts could. 

Within the accounts, no sahafiya is short of heroic, as they’ve challenged gender biases for their space in the media world, like Eman Helal and Amira Al-Sharif, with their cameras in their hands in Egypt and Yemen respectively. Lina Attalah, too, fights conservative society to do her job.

Many of these journalist have had to grapple with themselves to understand why they do what they do after years of reporting on traumatic events. Nour Malas, for instance, struggles with her professional and personal self, Hind Hassan had trouble understanding her family until she began reporting, and Shamael Elnoor believes journalism is “our destiny, and we remain ever devoted to it.” Asmaa al-Ghoul and Nada Bakri have dodged bullets and, like Aida Alami, lost friends and loved ones, and Natacha Yazbeck finds that sometimes “it’s not just war. It’s the rest of the world that leaves you traumatized.” 

From herculean careers, like Jane Arraf becoming Baghdad’s first bureau chief in 1998 and Donna Abu Nasr becoming AP’s first Saudi bureau chief in 2008, to Zeina Karam who began her career in 1996 and Roula Khalaf who reported from Algeria in 1995, reporting has changed them, as they’ve moved through the world and its conflicts. Hwaida Saad’s contact list has dwindled over the years as informants joined Daesh, fled to Europe, or died, and Lina Sinjab who, despite being blacklisted in Syria, continues to fight for justice. 

From Lebanon to Marrakesh to Iraq, their lives have been forever altered, as Arab women who have forced themselves into public spaces to be heard. Their lives begin and end with their reporting, and because of the nature of their job, tomorrow is never guaranteed. Their bravery goes beyond these pages and this anthology will undoubtedly be one of the most important reads today. 

Manal Shakir is the author of "Magic Within” published by Harper Collins India.