Taher, Bahaa 1935-

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TAHER, Bahaa 1935-


Born 1935, in Cairo, Egypt; Education: Graduated from the University of Cairo.


Agent—c/o Author Mail, American University in Cairo Press, 420 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10018-2729.


Novelist. Worked for Radio 2 in Egypt after graduating from college; worked as a translator for the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland.


State Award of Merit in Literature, Egypt, 1998; Giuseppe Acerbi prize, 2000, for Khalti Safiyya wal-Dayr.



Sharq al-Nakhila (originally serialized in Sabah al-Khayr, 1983), Dar al-Mustaqbal al-'Arabi (Cairo, Egypt), 1985.

Qalat Duha (originally serialized in al-Musawwir, 1985), Dar al-Hilal (Cairo, Egypt), 1985.

Khalati Safiyya wal-Dayr, Dar al-Hilal (Cairo, Egypt), 1991, translation by Barbara Romaine published as Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1996.

Al-Hob fi al-Manfa, Dar al-Hilal (Cairo, Egypt), 1995, translation by Farouk Abdel-Wahab published as Love in Exile, American University in Cairo Press (New York, NY), 2002.

Nuqtat al-Nour (title means "The Point of Light"), al-Hilal Novels (Cairo, Egypt), 2001.


Masrahiyyat Misriyya: 'Ard wa-Naqd/Analysis of Ten Egyptian Plays, Dar al-Hilal (Cairo, Egypt), 1985.

Collected works published by Dar al-Hilal, 1992. Also author of short story collection Zahabtu ila Shallal (title means "I Went to a Waterfall"). Contributor of short stories to anthologies, including Egyptian Short Stories, selected and translated by Denys Johnson-Davies, Three Continents Press (Washington, DC), 1978; Arabic Short Stories, selected and translated by Johnson-Davies, Quartet (New York, NY), 1983; Egyptian Tales and Short Stories of the 1970s and 1980s, edited by W. M. Hutchins, American University in Cairo Press (Cairo, Eqypt), 1987. Contributor of short stories to periodicals, Mukhtarat Fusul and Matbu'at al-Jadid.


A victim of state censorship during the 1970s, Bahaa Taher is now a prominent literary figure in his native Egypt and throughout the Arab world. He spent many years of self-exile in Geneva, Switzerland, where he worked as a translator for the United Nations. His writings became more widely known in the 1990s, when two of his novels were translated into English. Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery and Love in Exile indirectly address cultural and political troubles in Taher's homeland through stories that are geographically distant from Egypt's social and political centers. Both novels are dark depictions of personal crisis, but reflect on larger issues such as tensions between tradition and modernization, and the interplay between personal and political aspects of life.

After graduating from the University of Cairo, Taher started working on cultural programming for Egypt's Radio 2 and became a storyteller and commentator. He published his first short story in 1964 and was part of left-wing and avant-garde literary circles, including the Gallery 68 movement. During the mid-1970s, political repression under the Sadat administration ended Taher's broadcast career and his publishing opportunities in Egypt. He moved to Geneva in 1981 and did not return to Egypt until sometime after 1996. During the 1990s Taher received increased attention on an international scale as the subject of a 1995 film by Jamil 'At iyyat Ibrahim that focuses on Taher's activism in the 1960s, and as the recipient of Egypt's Award of Merit in Literature in 1998 and the Italian Giuseppe Acerbi prize in 2000.

The translation Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery furthered Taher's reputation with its graceful style and thoughtful exploration of religious conflict in the Middle East. In a review for World Literature Today, Issa Peters explained that, among contemporary Egyptian novelists, Taher "represents a competent voice of the new generation that came after the giants, Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz and Yusuf Idris." Other reviewers noted the timeliness of the story, which centers on the interactions between Muslims and Coptic Christians in a remote Egyptian village near the time of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, in the wake of escalating violence between Israelis and Palestinians in 1996. The novel is a realistic portrayal of conflict within a remote village in Upper Egypt where Muslims and Christians have lived together for centuries. Aunt Safiyya is a Muslim woman who wants revenge for the death of her husband, following the ancient tradition of the blood feud. Her husband's killer, however, was himself an undeserving victim of torture who acted in self defense. The narrator's father, also a Muslim, and a monk from the local Coptic monastery devise a plan to protect the man behind its walls. Later, the narrator is brought to tears when he recognizes a man's mournful voice singing in the night.

The novel earned numerous positive reviews. One exception, however, appeared in Choice, in which K. I. Semaan dismissed it as having "no artistic or historical satisfaction." More often, the book has earned praise for its social significance and the author's quiet, non-judgmental approach. A reviewer for Christian Century advised that Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery is enriched by "a subtle, complex love story, three-dimensional characters and a fully realized social world." A Publishers Weekly reviewer noted the novel's "clear, beautiful and exotic" style and recommended it to readers interested in history, literature, and the pursuit of peace. Boston Book Review contributor Elizabeth Shostak described the book as an "enigmatic" work in which "the song of one broken man speaks the larger anguish of a diminished community." It is a "dramatic and horrifying story," according to Penelope Lively in the New York Times Book Review. She commented, "Simply told, without adornment or much authorial intrusion, this is a brief tragedy with resonances wider than its village setting."

The subject of displacement is central to Love in Exile, in which the protagonist, like Taher, has been forced out of Egypt because of his political views and comes to live and work in a European city. The unnamed man is a journalist who finds himself happy to be free from reminders of his divorce and the disappointments of being a socialist and supporter of former president Nasser. But he is also unhappily disconnected from his new surroundings and current political events. He finds some solace in an affair with a young Austrian woman and is stirred to protest the 1982 Israeli occupation of Lebanon. As the journalist prepares to write a story on the subject, however, a stroke incapacitates him and he is subsequently ordered to avoid anything, including the news, that will upset him.

The novel was received by critics as a compelling, if bleak look at the conjunction between personal and political identity. It was named as an international book of the year for 1995 by Times Literary Supplement contributor Ahdaf Soueif, who wrote that it "takes on the soul-searching sadness and bewilderment that being an Arab today means" and noted that the book poses important, if unanswerable questions. A Kirkus Reviews writer described the work as "brooding" and an "unusually intelligent and absorbing political tale." The translation was commended in Middle East Times by Tariq Hassan-Gordon, who noted that the recent Israeli occupation of Palestinian cities proved "the timelessness of Taher's literary effort." The critic remarked that the novel "will not only keep you up reading through the night, but will also leave you reflecting on your own personal experiences." In a review for Al-Ahram, Nur Elmessiri advised that in Arabic the novel is "a gripping, moving read" that had not been not diminished in translation. According to this critic, Love in Exile is "at once ruthlessly honest and compassionate in its exploration of the agonizingly fuzzy line separating 'exile' from 'escape.'"



Boston Book Review, June, 1996, Elizabeth Shostak, review of Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery.

Choice, December, 1996, K. I. Semann, review of Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery, p. 608.

Christian Century, November 20, 1996, review of Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery, p. 1169.

Kirkus Reviews, September 1, 2002, review of Love in Exile, p. 1265.

New York Times Book Review, June 30, 1996, Penelope Lively, "Family Feud," p. 18.

Publishers Weekly, April 8, 1996, review of Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery, p. 63.

Times Literary Supplement, December 1, 1995, Ahdaf Soueif, review of Love in Exile, p. 13.

World Literature Today, winter, 1997, Issa Peters, review of Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery, p. 216.


Al-Ahram Weekly online,http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/ (June 13-19, 2002), Nur Elmessiri, "Questions of Exile and Memory."

Arab World Books,http://www.arabworldbooks.com/authors/ (March 10, 2003).

Middle East Times online,http://www.metimes.com/ (March 11, 2003), Tariq Hassan-Gordon, review of Love in Exile. *