Autumn in Cairo with Youssef Rakha
André Príncipe e José Pedro Cortes

Youssef Rakha is an author, journalist, literary critic, editor and photographer. He was born and still lives in Cairo, having studied English and Philosophy in the United Kingdom. His award-winning work is renowned, affording an opportunity for a bold linguistic renewal and reinvention of Arabic. Cairo is a city which discovers itself through his writing. In addition to fiction this author, who has many interests and engages in various activities, has written a great deal about the relationship between photography and literature. In the conversation which took place in Egypt, photographers and editors André Príncipe and João Pedro Cortes talk with Rakha about politics, religion, art, travel, life – the unhappiness we flee from and the hope that eludes us. With this piece, where words and images challenge each other, Príncipe and Cortes continue the series they began with Hisham Mayet in Tangier, published in Electra 7.

Youssef Rakha (born on 12th June, 1976, in Cairo, Egypt) is an Egyptian writer.

The only child of a formerly Marxist lawyer, Elsaid Rakha, and an English- ‑to-Arabic translator, Labiba Saad, Rakha was born and grew up in Dokki, on the western bank of the Nile, where he lives with his family today. At the age of 17, he left Egypt for the UK, where he obtained a first class honours BA in English and Philosophy from Hull University in 1998. On his return he joined the staff of Al-Ahram Weekly, the Cairo-based English-language newspaper, where he has worked regularly since 1999.

Rakha is best known for his first novel, The Book of the Sultan’s Seal: Strange Incidents from History in the City of Mars. First published in 2011, the book is studied for its innovative use of Arabic, its postmodern take on the theme of the caliphate, its reimagining of the city of Cairo and its possible significance in the history of Arabic literature.

Since 2011, Rakha has completed two other novels in a proposed trilogy on the January Revolution, The Crocodiles and Paulo. The latter was longlisted for the ‘Arabic Booker’ in 2017 (the International Prize for Arab Fiction) and won the 2017 Sawiris Cultural Award for Best Novel, in January 2018.

Rakha is also known as a photographer and the editor of a bilingual literature and photography site. He contributed to the coverage of Arab culture in English for many years as a reporter, literary critic and cultural editor.

His work explores language and identity in the context of Cairo, and reflects connections with the Arab-Islamic canon and world literature. He has worked in many genres in both Arabic and English, and is known for his essays and poems as well as his novels. He is a well-known literary figure in Cairo and Beirut.

© André Príncipe

© André Príncipe


It’s 9pm, 19th October, 2021. It's hot, around 27 degrees. We are meeting Youssef at the bar of the Golden Tulip Hotel Flamenco, in Zamalek, just a few minutes’ walk from where we are. Tonight we are going to be talking about The Arab Spring and Youssef’s experience of it. He prefers us to meet in the bar of an international hotel – he feels more comfortable, safer. There are alcoholic drinks and Champions League matches on big screens. The bar is half empty; covid numbers are rising everywhere.

ANDRÉ PRÍNCIPE  This morning I went with Hisham to a record shop where he was getting some Libyan vinyls and when we got out he was saying ‘Oh my God, my Libyan accent! They don’t understand a thing!’ And then he said ‘Egyptian arabic is the the most intimidating, because they were the culture. They were the movies, they were the radio.’

YOUSSEF RAKHA  Traditionally yes, but not so much anymore. Most people understand it, the Egyptian dialect. Whereas Egyptians don’t make any effort to understand others because we dominated the media for decades. When I used to go to Beirut, I would try and speak Lebanese Arabic. It would end up sounding closer to Palestinian actually, just because of my accent. But people didn’t understand how an Egyptian could be speaking any other dialect.

JOSÉ PEDRO CORTES  You’re the strongest voice out there?

YR  Now there’s a Syrian variant and a Gulf variant and everything is controlled by Gulf money. Even when we come through, it’s not necessarily us. But they are different spoken languages… The difference is that when you write, it’s the same language. So, it’s a bit like German in that way. The language that you write is different from the language that you speak. I think Moroccan Arabic and Egyptian Arabic are far more different than Spanish and Italian. I actually quite like that. I grew up thinking that this was an oppressive thing, that we should have national languages, the way Europe does. But now I think it’s a wonderful thing that you have this continuity. We don’t lose our national language. I think we could certainly have dictionaries and grammars for dialects and that should be incorporated. It hasn’t happened yet but I would campaign for that.

JPC  And is that continuity also political, in the sense that, for instance, what is happening in the Middle East also affects you?

YR  Of course. In Europe, the idea of the nation state, and that being an identity that people subscribe to, is far better established than it is here. Here people are more likely to call themselves Muslim or ancient Egyptian or Arab. That’s why the state discourse and the state supporting discourse is so hysterical: because it doesn’t have confidence. Traditionally in Arab political discourse, Islamism is contrasted with Arab nationalism. Because nationalism is Arab, if you talk about being nationalist in Egypt or in Syria, it’s not about being Syrian or Egyptian. You can find that sentiment too, but that’s the minority. Nationalism usually means Arab nationalism, which is a construction. There is no such thing in reality. When I used to go to Arab cities to work on my travelogues, I had this epiphany in Beirut. By going to these Arab cities and writing about being there, I was trying to reclaim a legacy of Arabness in a way that wasn’t Arabist or Arab nationalist; what it means to be an Arab, in a way that wasn’t political. I think there is definitely something there. That’s really bound by language and to a large degree, a shared sort of heritage, a shared culture, and I was kind of coming to terms with that. And then in my first novel I went past Arabness and a little further afield into what it means to be Muslim. I would describe myself as a stateless, cultureless nomad. Free thinker, yes. But one who doesn’t really have much interest in being anywhere else. And I think that’s what gives my work and my sense of being value: that I’m here now, that I’m not anywhere else and that I am not fantasizing about being somewhere else. I’m here now… These breadsticks are really nice, aren’t they?

© André Príncipe

© André Príncipe

© André Príncipe

© André Príncipe

"In Europe, the idea of the nation state, and that being an identity that people subscribe to, is far better established than it is here. Here people are more likely to call themselves Muslim or ancient Egyptian or Arab. That's why the state discourse and the state supporting discourse is so hysterical: because it doesn't have confidence."

© André Príncipe

© André Príncipe

© André Príncipe

© André Príncipe

AP  Yeah, they are. They’re rich.

YR  They’re rich, yes. This is one of the words, for example, that’s different in every Arabic dialect, when you say something tastes good. So, we say hilw, which means sweet. But then in Lebanon, in Syria, they say tayib which means good. And… In Palestine, they have their own word, which means… zaki, which means ‘smells nice’. Some words in Arabic are different in every country, I don’t know why. Like the word for ‘now’ also. The word for ‘now’ is not the same anywhere.

AP  For ‘now’?

YR  Now, yes. Everybody uses different words for now.

AP  Now, ain’t that something? Can you talk a little bit about your involvement in the Arab Spring?

YR  I started out long before 2011. I have a left wing background… I was never a committed Marxist but I used to be against the status quo, the global order. But then I thought we could focus on things other than politics if we just got our rights and freedoms – the most basic things – taken care of. This had been my position for maybe five, six years. And even though the role of the government at the time was still kind of negative, things were moving in that direction. You have to understand that, since 1952, Egypt had been ruled by the army. The ruling elite has been in and around the army. There was a sort of coup d’état that turned into a popular uprising. After that it became a kind of pseudo-socialist state and then very capitalist, although kind of centralised. And then it became extremely corrupt and incompetent, but somehow politically free. Obviously under American pressure. Maybe because of corruption and the stupidity of individual people in power, the army became upset. This was something we didn’t know as they had been completely out of the picture. There were a lot of police abuses and the police were seen to be working almost like a militia to protect the businessmen. Anyway, I wasn’t entirely convinced of the idea that a revolution could be organised on Facebook… I actually joked about that on Facebook at the time. But then, the day it happened, I went there.