December Read of the Month: “The Alexandria You Are Losing,” by Yasser El-Sayed

Yasser El-Sayed

Reviewed by David Madsen

Yasser El-Sayed, the author of this unique collection of stories, is well traveled, with a stack of hometowns in his carry-on, which he pulls out with nuance, humor and psychological precision, as he explores the landscapes and emotional terrain of immigrants and emigrants, travelers and settlers.

We humans are a seeking species in El-Sayed’s stories, which focus on departures planned, postponed and fulfilled, his characters caught up in a restless traffic between old home, new home, back to old home again.  Families and lovers journey from country to country, state to state, making the compromises and discoveries that relocation and reinvention provoke.  Seeking not just economic security, but love and (often forbidden) sexual intimacy, characters from opposite cultures take tentative steps toward each other, often with unexpected consequences.

As the title suggests, these tales focus on connections between the Arab world and the United States.  The stories are both contemporary and set in the 1970s, occasionally separated by the demarcation of 9/11.  El-Sayed is not didactic or judgmental.  He is an agile storyteller, luring us into the worlds of his multi-layered characters, whether they live in the vastness of Oklahoma, the frigid winters of Milwaukee, or in the alleys and villas of Tripoli and Alexandria, where traces of colonialism linger in their French and Italian phrases, marking them as upper class, private school veterans.  As readers, we are at home everywhere, thanks to El-Sayed’s descriptive powers:

“The waft of coffee and cooking from the food stalls that lined the dirt side road below, the percolating, vaporous heat of mid-morning.”

“The blue neon light of a bail bonds store with the signage, Your Ass in a Sling? Give us a Ring.”

Framed by such vivid scene setting, we happily follow El-Sayed from sunny Mediterranean beaches through the raucous, crowded streets of Alexandria, to the dirty snow of wintry Wisconsin, where we eavesdrop on the lonely figures who congregate in the open-all-night oasis of a convenience store.

And as a physician, the author showcases an uninhibited, often wickedly funny appreciation of bodily functions, such as this rueful confession from a character in the title story, Salim, a retired doctor living between Alexandria and San Francisco: “The prostate has its own little empire, erections lost the battle a while back, bowels sound off at random like a mad trumpeter.”

There are too many gems to discuss them all, so here are my greatest hits from The Alexandria You Are Losing.


Tamer, an Egyptian grad student, takes a wandering bus ride though the American heartland, where he meets Galvin, southern drawl, tanned and weathered, Conoco ball cap.  But instead of a programmed clash between Muslim and “redneck,” a mutual empathy develops—Tamer, with a wayward mother and wounded heart, and Galvin, his legs crushed in a tractor accident, hoping to be healed body and soul by an Oklahoma reverend.  As “Jesus Saves” and “Hell is Real” billboards flash by, Tamer is reminded of the loudspeaker-amplified calls to prayer of the muezzin back home.  A beautiful parable of unexpected, human connection.

“A Winter for Longing”

An affecting tale of an American woman Morgan, and Basim, an Egyptian immigrant, both trapped in dull jobs, who tentatively embark on an affair that is both enticing and risky.  In one of the story’s most touching scenes, Basim bundles up his family against the winter cold and leads them on an imaginary walk along the warm Mediterranean seaside of Alexandria’s Corniche, but they only get as far as the nearby truck weigh station.  The story is also marked by El-Sayed’s sharp eye for the oddities of American life, when Morgan attempts to explain college fraternities to Basim. “Why are they all Greek, these boys?”

“Vegetable Patch”

In Vegetable Patch we meet an American family who has moved to Libya.  While husband Mike toils in distant desert oilfields, Sally, the stay-at-home mom, is marooned in a house booby trapped with rat poison, hiding behind lowered blinds and locked doors on orders from the American consulate as demonstrations fill the streets.  The author ratchets up the minor irritations of cross-cultural conflict, until a dispute between Sally and her Libyan gardener, Abdallah, explodes into a physical brawl.

“Magdalena by Evening”

A note-perfect elegy for the miserable/beautiful pangs of teenage love, set during a lonely Tripoli summer as young American Mark pines for Magdalena Moreno, married neighbor and former Milan beauty queen.  Wonderful details of the expat life in 1975 Libya—the Americans medicating their dislocation with illegal homemade wine, Tammy Wynette and George Jones; jagged glass set atop the wall of a school playground to stop horny young Arab boys from ogling the cheerleaders. The days passing slowly in vibrating, erotic frustration, soothed by repeated listening to “Hotel California.”


How’s this for a hook-the-reader opening sentence: “As planned, the cleaning lady was waiting for Sef at the back entrance of the dissection lab.”  I’ll say no more; read it for yourself.


A flavorful serving of American melting pot, as an Egyptian transplant to California explains to his newly arrived 18 year old brother-in-law the intricacies of the many ethnic groups that frequent the convenience store he runs. El-Sayed’s playful humor shines here, as the devout Muslim storeowner frets over who will stock the adult magazine shelves, a task his teenage relative eagerly takes on.


“My mother sat rigidly in her seat like a deposed queen on her way to execution, staring into a cold, anemic sunlight.”  “Casket” is a wry, moving mediation on the ways two cultures deal with death and mourning.  A grieving son must sort through the conflicting demands of an imperious mother, proud prickly imams and the oh-so-sensitive American funeral director as he seeks to lay his father to rest.  Simple shroud, as an official of the local mosque suggests?  Or go all in for the Regency Casket—48 ounce bronze, brushed natural shaded ebony finish, Arbutus Mayfield velvet interior?

“The Alexandria You are Losing”

A clandestine meeting between lovers on the very spot where Marc Antony was said to have committed suicide is a perfect symbol of the title story’s weave of history lost and reclaimed, as the narrator (he of the aforementioned trumpeting bowels) recalls a long ago, illicit affair with the lovely, married Layla.  (And yes, like the song says, he got down on his knees for her.)

El-Sayed’s stories are so rewarding and downright entertaining, that, like a traveler returning to a favorite destination, I found myself rereading them, uncovering fresh insights and deeper emotional connections to his characters.

I’m lucky to have Fawzi, the protagonist of Pharaoh, ready with the perfect closing line: “He had never before been a stranger to a place, and he began to understand the motivation behind the tourists he had seen in Alexandria, trudging the dusty streets with their backpacks, taken by the most mundane sights as if at the threshold of a revelation.”

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