Cities without Palms (Mudun bila nakhil) by Tarek Etayeb – translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid

Kutub’s July selection honored the translator Kareem James Abu-Zeid, who was one of the runner-ups of 2010’s Saif Ghobash – Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation for his work with Cities without Palms (Mudun bila nakhil) by Tarek Etayeb.  Eltayeb’s first novel, Cities without Palms offers an uncompromising depiction of poverty in both the developed and the developing world. With its simple yet elegant style, it tells of a tragic human life punctuated by moments of true joy.

About the book

In a desperate attempt to save his mother and two sisters from famine and disease, a young man leaves his native village in Sudan and sets out alone to seek work in the city. This is the beginning of Hamza’s long journey. Hunger and destitution lead him ever farther from his home: first from Sudan to Egypt, where the lack of work forces him to join a band of smugglers, and finally from Egypt to Europe Italy, France, Holland where he experiences first-hand the harsh world of migrant laborers and the bitter realities of life as an illegal immigrant.

“Once started it is difficult to put down.  It is a sensational, original, and altogether a magnificent literary debut.”  – James Kirkup, Banipal

Find out more about why we chose this book and about the Saif Ghobash – Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation  here.

Brief discussion points:

  • Descriptions of the differences between Sudanese and Egyptian cultures – from the bread to the bargaining.
  • Economic refugees – the situation of forced migration due not to war / conflict but to economic forces
  • Isolation and the identity of the refugee
  • Identity of the author in relation to the narrator.
  • Role of translation in supporting literature from the Arab world

Continue the story by reading the just published sequel – The Palm House.

About the Author

Tarek Eltayeb was born in Cairo in 1959, the son of Sudanese parents. Until 1967 he spent the long summers in El-Arish, a small city on the Mediterranean in the north part of the Sinai Peninsula, and spent the winters in the center of Cairo. After the 1967 war his family moved to Ain Shams in the north of Cairo, a district with large Sudanese and Egyptian Coptic communities.  Between the ages of four and six, Eltayeb attended a Koranic school, where his interest in the classical Arabic language first began to develop. After high school, Eltayeb studied Business Administration at the Ain Shams University in Cairo, obtaining his Bachelors in 1981. From 1982 to 1984 he worked as an accountant in Cairo, before spending six months in the north of Iraq.   Eltayeb has been living in Vienna since 1984. He financed his studies at the Vienna University of Economics and Business Administration via numerous jobs: by distributing pamphlets, selling newspapers, washing dishes, teaching Arabic, and then later as a translator and interpreter. His dissertation, which he wrote at the Institute for Economic Philosphy, was entitled “The Transfer of Ethics via Technology in the Struggle between Identity and Profit.”  He received his Doctorate in Social and Economic Sciences in 1997, and is currently a Professor at the International Management Center / University of Applied Sciences in Krems, Austria.

Eltayeb has been writing since 1985.  In 1992 he published his first novel, Mudun bila nakhil (Towns without date palms; Ist ed. Köln: Al-Kamel, 1992, 2nd ed. Cairo: Al Hadara, 1994) and the play al-Asanser (The lift), which was performed in Cairo as well. His collection of short stories, al-Gamal la yaqif khalf ishara hamra (The camel doesn’t stop at red) was published by in 1993 in Cairo (Al-Hadara). He has published widely in Arab and European periodicals, and several of his short stories have been translated into English, French, and German. A second novel and a second collection of short stories will be published in the near future.

He has been a participant at International Literature Festivals in Smederevo (Serbia) 2006, Jan smrek (Slovakia) 2006, Novi Sad (Serbia) 2006, Maastricht (Netherlands) 2006 Lemberg (Ukraine) 2005, Dublin (Ireland) 2005, Vienna (Literatur im März) 2005, Dornbirn (Austria) 2004, Struga (Macedonia) 2005, 2004, 2003 and 2002, Poitiers (France) 1999.  He has received the following fellowships and awards: Elias Cannetti Fellowship of the City of Vienna, 2005; Commemorative Fund of the (Literar Mechana) 2005; Major Project Fellowship for Literature, 2003; Buchprämie für „Städte ohne Dattelpalmen“, Winter 2003; Major Project Fellowship for Literature, 2002; Major Project Fellowship for Literature, 2001; Travel Fellowships from the Chancellory (Bundeskanzleramt): 2002, 2003 and 2004; and Work Fellowships from the Chancellory: 1996, 1998, 2005.


  • Bayt An-Nakhil (The Palm House). Novel, Al-Hadara Publishing House, Cairo 2006.
  • Mudun Bila Nakhil (Cities without Palms). Novel, Al-Kamel Press, Cologne 1992;
    2nd Edition, Al-Hadara Publishing House, Cairo 1994. 3rd edition, Al-Hadara Publishing House, Kairo 2006.
  • Takhlisat (In Clear). Irhab al-ayn al-bayda. Poetry, Merit Press, Cairo 2002.
  • Udhkuru Mahasin … (Remember Mahasin). Short stories, Sharqiyyat Press, Cairo 1998.
  • Al-Gamal La Yaqif Khalfa Ishara Hamra (A Camel does not Stop on Red). Short stories, Al-Hadara Publishing House, Cairo 1993.
  • El-Asanser (The Elevator). Play, El-Salam Press, Cairo 1992.
  • Villes sans palmiers. French translation of the novel. Paris 1999.
  • қαмен ūоςоΛем оδ ңебоŵо (A Stone Bigger than the Sky). Poetry. Skopje 2005. (Macedonian)
  • Aus dem Teppich meiner Schatten. Gedichte. edition selene, Wien 2002. (German)
  • Städte ohne Dattelpalmen. A German translation of the novel; edition selene, Wien 2000.
  • Ein mit Tauben und Gurren gefüllter Koffer. Prosatexte und Gedichte zweisprachige Ausgabe (deutsch/arabisch); edition selene, Wien 1999. (German)
  • Sardines and Oranges by Eltayeb Salih, from an Anthology in English, short stories from North Africa, Banipal, London 2004.

For more about the author visit his website – in English, Arabic and German:

About the Translator

Half-American and half-Egyptian, Kareem James Abu-Zeid earned his BA from Princeton University and is currently working on his PhD in Comparative Literature at UC Berkeley. He has taught courses in Arabic, French, German, and English language and literature at UC Berkeley and the universities of Mannheim and Heidelberg in Germany. He has published translations of Arabic poetry in various journals.  His translation of Tarek Eltayeb’s novel Cities without Palms (American University in Cairo Press) was joint runner up for the 2010 Banipal Translation Prize. His translation of Tarek Eltayeb’s The Palm House is forthcoming from AUC and Oxford University Press, and he is currently translating Mohammed Achaari’s 2011 Arabic Booker Prize winning novel The Arch and the Butterfly for Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing.

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