cover image The Oud Player of Cairo

The Oud Player of Cairo

Jasmin Attia. Schaffner, $18.95 trade paper (360p) ISBN 978-1-63964-020-1

Attia’s spirited if superficial historical follows the life of an Egyptian singer in the decades leading up to Britain’s withdrawal from the country. Born in 1932 Cairo, Laila Abdel Malek is devoted to her oud player father, Kamal, but has a tense relationship with her strict mother, Selma. Under Kamal’s tutelage, Laila becomes a gifted singer, and at 14 gets an invitation to audition for a movie starring Mohamed Abdel Wahab. Kamal is thrilled, but a family tragedy prevents Laila from making it to her audition. Afterwards, she keeps her musical talents under wraps while she’s wooed by the son of a pasha, a romance that doesn’t end well. Though significant political developments occurred in Egypt in the years leading up to the book’s conclusion in 1956, Attia doesn’t make them vivid. Moreover, Laila displays an ignorance of their importance, which is at odds with her portrayal as an intelligent and independent thinker (“Egypt went to war against a new country called Israel.... Laila didn’t understand why”). Still, Attia offers an affecting and bittersweet portrait of her protagonist, who continues to wonder what her life would have been like if she’d auditioned with Wahab. Readers will be moved. (July)