Yusuf Idris Essay - Critical Essays

Idris, Yusuf


Yusuf Idris 1927-1991

(Transliterated as Yūsef Idrīs, Youssef Idris, and Yûsuf Idrîs) Egyptian short-story writer, novelist, playwright, travel writer, editor, essayist, and critic.

The following entry presents criticism on Idris's short fiction from 1975 through 2001.

Regarded as one of the best short-story writers in contemporary Egyptian literature, Idris is lauded for his stories and novellas that portray the changing values of Egyptian society during the twentieth century. Critics note that he was one of the few Arabic authors to realistically address issues of homosexuality, sexual impotence, poverty, sexual and cultural mores, and the dangers of religious fundamentalism.

Biographical Information

Idris was born in Bairum, Sharqiva Province, in Egypt, on May 19, 1927. He was educated at Cairo University, where he received an M.D. in 1952. Soon after graduation, he became a medical inspector in the Department of Health, a position that involved working with the urban poor. His concern for the poor and disenfranchised became a recurring theme in his work. While in college, he began to write stories. In 1954, he published his first collection of short stories, Arkhas layālī (The Cheapest Nights and Other Stories). The volume was hailed as a major literary contribution to Egyptian short fiction. He worked as a physician and a psychiatrist for over a decade, but gave up his medical practice in the mid-1960s to focus on his literary career. His interest in science is reflected in his fiction and journalism. In 1967 Idris was awarded the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature for his collection of short stories Qissat hubb (City of Love and Ashes). He later became politically active, and his leftist political views resulted in several arrests and brief imprisonments. In the mid-1970s he began focusing on journalistic work for the newspapers Al-Jumhūriyya and Al-Ahrām. Later though, Idris redirected his attention to short fiction as well as critical essays. He died in August 1991.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Idris was a prolific short fiction writer whose work focuses on such themes as love, repression, poverty, alienation, and the concept of masculinity. Sex is a central theme in his work, particularly the various sexual mores in the villages and in urban areas. Several stories explore the inherent iniquity in sexual relationships between men and women from different sociopolitical backgrounds. For example, Qā'al-Madīna (1959; City Dregs) chronicles the story of ‘Abd Allah, a judge, who confronts his servant and lover, Shuhrat, when he discovers his expensive watch missing. Although he had once felt guilty because of his powerful position and her vulnerable one, her theft now frees him from any emotional and sexual connections to her; however, he also becomes aware of how illogical and hypocritical his own values are. In “Akbar al-Kabā‘ir” (“The Greatest Sin of All”), as Shaykh Sadiq becomes increasingly devout, he neglects his farm and wife. She eventually seeks comfort in the arms of a young, poor man named Muhammad. Idris also touched on the theme of homosexuality in a few of his stories—a subject taboo in Egyptian literature. “Abū al-Rijāl” (“A Leader of Men”) depicts the shocking realization of Sultan, a married, powerful, masculine man, that he has been repressing his homosexuality during his entire life. When he pressures one of his young male servants to have sex with him—and take the dominant role in the sexual encounter—his façade as a strong, virile leader has completely overturned.

Many of Idris's stories reflect his concern with such issues as Egypt's soaring birth population, the denial of civil liberties in a repressive society, the growth of religious fanaticism, and the devastating poverty and hopelessness in urban areas. In “Arkhas Layālī” (“The Cheapest Nights”), a middle-class man walks disoriented through the streets of a busy village. Annoyed by the mass of poor children teeming around him, he wonders why there are so many children and speculates with satisfaction that many of them will die of crime or starvation. Finding his way home, he crawls into bed and has sexual relations with his wife. Nine months later, he is congratulated on the birth of his child. In “Al-Mahfaza” (“The Wallet”), Sami, a young boy, is resentful of his family's poverty when he can't afford to go to the movies with his friends. One night, he sneaks into his parents' room while they are sleeping to steal money from his father's wallet. When he finds the wallet empty, he is overcome by shame and resolves to find a job to help his family with expenses. Other stories reflect the changing political and social situation in Egypt as well as the relationship between the individual and society. In “Alif al-Ahrār,” a man obsesses about his loss of individuality in a job that demands conformity. When he refuses to use his typewriter in an act of defiance, he is fired and told that he is expendable.

Critical Reception

Idris is viewed as one of Egypt's finest short-story writers. His prolific output of short stories, particularly in the mid-1950s, was welcomed as a new direction in Egyptian fiction. Critics point to his rejection of the romantic tendencies of Arabic literature at the time in favor of a realistic portrayal of Egyptian society—especially the poorer and disadvantaged classes—as innovative and authentic. Idris utilized colloquial language in his dialogue to mixed reviews among Arab commentators: some critics derided it as lazy and inferior; others saw it as an authentic reflection of the changing Egyptian culture. His incorporation of political and cultural themes have led some critics to view his stories as shrewd reflections of the state of Egypt as it struggled to become an independent modern nation. Reviewers have praised his fantastic tales for their adept utilization of fable and myth. He is deemed a pioneering writer based on treatment of such sensitive topics as homosexuality, sexual impotence, and the danger of religious fundamentalism. Several critics have discussed Idris's stories within the development of the Egyptian short story genre and have traced his development as a short fiction writer. Moreover, critics often compare Idris's short stories to the short fiction of the Egyptian Nobel writer Naguib Mahfouz. Idris is viewed as a gifted and important short-story writer who made a valuable and influential contribution to Arabic literature.

Principal Works

Arkhas layālī [The Cheapest Nights and Other Stories] 1954

Jumbūriyyat Farahāt [Farahat's Republic] 1956

A-Laysa kadhālik? [Is That So?] 1957

Al-Batal 1957

Hādithat sharaf 1958

Al-Harqām (novella) 1959

Qā'al-Madīna [City Dregs] (novella) 1959

Akher al-Dunya [The End of the World] 1961

Al-'Askarī al-aswad [The Black Soldier; also translated as The Black Policeman] 1962

Al-'Ayb [Sin; also translated as Shame] (novella) 1962

Lughat al-āy āy 1965

Qissat hubb [City of Love and Ashes] 1967

Al-Mukhattatīn [The Striped Ones] 1969

Al-Naddāha [The Siren] 1969

Al-Baydā' [The White Woman] 1970

Mashuq al-Hams [Ground Whispers] 1970

Al-Mu'allafāt al-kā milah 1971

Bayt min lahm [House of Flesh] 1971

In the Eye of the Beholder: Tales from Egyptian Life from the Writings of Idrīs 1978

Anā Sulṭān qānūn al-Wujūd [I am the Lord of the Law of Existence] 1980

New York 80 (novella) 1981

Uqtulhā [Kill Her] 1982

Rings from Burnished Brass 1984

Al-‘Atb ‘ala al-nazar [Vision at Fault] 1987

Abū al-Rijāl / A Leader of Men [translated by Saad Elkhadem] (novella) 1988

The Piper Dies and Other Stories 1992

Al-Lahza al-harija [The Critical Moment] (play) 1957

Al-Harām [The Sinners; also translated as Taboo] (novel) 1959

Al-Farāfīr [The Farfurs; also translated as The Little Birds] (play) 1964

Al-Mahzala al-ardiyya [The Terrestrial Comedy] (play) 1966

Bi-sarāhah ghayr nutlaqah (essays) 1968

Al-Jins al-thālith (play) 1971

Iktishāf qārrah (travel book) 1972

Al-Irada [Will Power] (essays) 1977


Catherine Cobham (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: Cobham, Catherine. “Sex and Society in Yusuf Idris: ‘Qā'al-Madīna’.” Journal of Arabic Literature 6 (1975): 78-88.

[In the following essay, Cobham examines the theme of sex in Qā'al-Madīna, contending that Idris “discusses sex because it is such an important part of the differences in culture between different social groups, not for the sake of his own erotic fantasies.”]

Yūsuf Idrīs shows his most shrewd understanding of Egyptian society and its changing values through his stories of sexual relationships and his exploration of the nature of love, need, desire, repression, frustration, and masculinity and femininity themselves within...

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Roger Allen (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Allen, Roger. Introduction to In the Eye of the Beholder: Tales of Egyptian Life from the Writings of Yusuf Idris, edited by Roger Allen, pp. vii-xxxix. Minneapolis: Bibliotheca Islamica, 1978.

[In the following essay, Allen traces Idris's development as a short fiction writer and assesses his contribution to modern Arabic fiction.]

Yūsuf Idrīs is one of the most famous Egyptian writers of the latter half of this century, and his fame transcends national boundaries within the Arab world itself. He has written short stories, novels and novellas, and plays; to each of these genres he has made important contributions. Through his writings he has urged fellow...

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Mona Mikhail (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: Mikhail, Mona. “Love and Sex: A Study of the Short Fiction of Naguib Mahfouz and Yusuf Idris.” In Images of Arab Women: Fact and Fiction, pp. 91-111. Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, Inc., 1979.

[In the following essay, Mikhail finds parallels in the portrayal of sex and love in the short stories of Idris and Naguib Mahfouz.]

The short stories of Naguib Mahfouz and Yusuf Idris, and indeed a great many stories of other Egyptian writers, do not present any systematic love ethic by which they can be characterized or measured. They tend to embody perhaps more of a romantic yearning for absolutes than a traditional notion of love. The romantic treatment...

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Roger Allen (essay date winter 1981)

SOURCE: Allen, Roger. “The Artistry of Yūsuf Idrīs.” World Literature Today 55, no. 1 (winter 1981): 43-7.

[In the following essay, Allen maintains that Idris's short fiction effectively conveys his social and political concerns, especially his focus on the urban poor.]

Yūsuf Idrīs's first published work, a collection of short stories entitled Arkhas Layālī (The Cheapest Nights), appeared in 1954. He is perhaps the most prominent of a number of younger Egyptian writers whose vitality and forcefulness at that time reflected their sense of identification with the course of events in their country during the 1950s, and particularly the Revolution...

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P. M. Kurpershoek (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: Kurpershoek, P. M. Introduction to The Short Stories of Yusuf Idris, pp. 1-18. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1981.1

[In the following essay, Kurpershoek traces the development of the short story genre in Egypt and locates Idris's place within that tradition.]

Ever since his first collection of short stories appeared in 1954, Yūsuf Idrīs has been generally recognised as the genre's leading representative among the artists who rose to prominence with the 1952 Revolution.2 Therefore it is all the more astonishing that his production in this field by no means received the earnest attention from Egyptian critics which, by their unanimous judgement, it...

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Dalya Cohen (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Cohen, Dalya. “‘The Journey’ by Yusuf Idris.” Journal of Arabic Literature 15 (1984): 135-38.

[In the following essay, Cohen offers a psychoanalytical interpretation of “The Journey.”]


“The Journey” is a short story which is included in Yūsuf Idrīs's tenth collection called House of Flesh (Cairo, 1971). The story is written in the form of a monologue and in the technique of the stream of consciousness.

It starts with a confession of love to a man. In the beginning it is not clear who the speaker is and the reader is tempted to think that it is a woman addressing her lover. Only...

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Sasson Somekh (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Somekh, Sasson. “The Function of Sound in the Stories of Yusuf Idris.” Journal of Arabic Literature 16 (1985): 95-104.

[In the following essay, Somekh considers acoustic and rhythmic elements of Idris's short stories.]


During the last three decades, Yūsuf Idrīs (b. 1927) has established himself as a major figure in Arabic literature. He is first and foremost a writer of short stories, of which he has published twelve volumes between the years 1954-81.1 The bulk of his work undoubtedly constitutes a landmark in modern Egyptian fiction; and the influence of his art is very much in evidence in the writings of younger...

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Issa J. Boullata (review date winter 1989)

SOURCE: Boullata, Issa J. Review of A Leader of Men, by Yusuf Idris. The International Fiction Review 16, no. 1 (winter 1989): 82-3.

[In the following review, Boullata provides a reading of the story “Abû al-Rijâl.”]

Youssef Idris, born in Egypt in 1927, is one of the most prominent Arab writers today. Originally a medical doctor, he has dedicated himself to literature and written some thirty books in various genres, including short stories, novels, plays, and essays.

One of his recent stories, published in the Egyptian magazine October (November 1, 1987, pp. 40-45), is entitled “Abû al-Rijâl.” It is reprinted in Arabic in...

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Roger Allen (review date spring 1989)

SOURCE: Allen, Roger. Review of A Leader of Men, by Yusuf Idris. World Literature Today 63, no. 2 (spring 1989): 360-61.

[In the following review, Allen asserts that the publication of an English translation of A Leader of Men “is of great benefit to students of modern Arabic and especially Egyptian fiction.”]

It was in the 1950s and 1960s that the Egyptian author Yusuf Idris established his reputation as a short-story writer of genius (see WLT [World Literature Today] 55:1, pp. 43-47). His ability to encapsulate realistic “slices of life” and more symbolic and nightmarish visions within the tight strictures of the genre, his...

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Abu al-Ma‘ati Abu al-Naja (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: al-Naja, Abu al-Ma‘ati Abu. “The Short Story Collection, Vision at Fault.” In Critical Perspectives on Yusuf Idris, edited by Roger Allen, pp. 97-104. Colorado Springs: Three Continents Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, which was originally published in 1989, al-Naja considers the main thematic concerns of Vision at Fault.]

Even if we overlook the explanations that Yusuf Idris has proffered in a number of newspaper statements regarding the reasons for his preference for writing journalistic articles in recent years, the reader of this latest collection finds himself—perhaps unintentionally—posing himself a question as he considers the...

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Saad Elkhadem (essay date winter 1990)

SOURCE: Elkhadem, Saad. “Youssef Idris and His Gay Leader of Men.The International Fiction Review 17, no. 1 (winter 1990): 25-8.

[In the following essay, Elkhadem views Idris's treatment of homosexuality in “Abû al-Rijâl” as pioneering.]

Most Arabists and literary historians agree that Youssef (Yûsuf) Idrîs (b. 1927) is one of the most accomplished, if not the most accomplished, short-story writer in Arabic literature today. Although he has written six novels and seven plays, Idrîs's mastery is most evident in the shorter forms. His first collection of short stories, Arkhas Layâlî (The Cheapest Nights), which was published...

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Mona N. Mikhail (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Mikhail, Mona N. “Egyptian Tales of the Fantastic: Theme and Technique in the Stories of Yūsuf Idrīs.” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 27 (1990): 191-98.

[In the following essay, Mikhail offers a thematic and stylistic examination of Idris's short fiction.]

When Naguib Mahfouz was awarded the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature, he immediately paid tribute not only to the generations of great Arab writers that came before him, but was quick to point out that several of his contemporaries were well-deserving candidates. He cited amongst others his countrymen Yahia Haqqi and Yūsuf Idrīs as two of the most important innovators in the realm of...

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John M. Crofoot (essay date April 1992)

SOURCE: Crofoot, John M. “Rhythms of the Body, Rhythms of the Text: Three Short Stories by Yusuf Idris.” The Turkish Studies Association Bulletin 16, no. 1 (April 1992): 34-6.

[In the following essay, Crofoot argues that by examining the rhythm of three Idris stories—“Summer's Night,” “Daood,” and “Sunset March”—illustrates “how consciousness or a sense of self depends on the interplay of the body and discourse.”]

This paper is part of a larger work in progress on narrative rhythm and community formation in works by Ahmet Mithat, Yusuf Idris, Kateb Yacine and Muhammad Barrada. Each of the stories in the present discussion explores the formation...

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Sasson Somekh (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Somekh, Sasson. “Structure of Silence: A Reading in Yûsuf Idrîs's ‘Bayt min Lahm’ (‘House of Flesh’).” Writer, Culture, Text: Studies in Modern Arabic Literature (1993): 56-61.

[In the following essay, Somekh explores how silence plays a key structural role in “House of Flesh.”]


In an article published previously,1 I attempted to demonstrate some of the ways in which rhythm and sound (such as onomatopoeia) are functionally employed in the short stories of the Egyptian writer Yûsuf Idrîs (1927-1992).2 My contention was that these elements, besides representing voices, human or otherwise, serve...

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Rasheed El-Enany (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: El-Enany, Rasheed. “The Western Encounter in the Works of Yusuf Idris.” Research in African Literatures, 28, no. 3 (fall 1997): 33-55.

[In the following essay, El-Enany examines the East-West theme in two Idris stories, “Madame Vienna” and New York 80 in order to discuss his “preoccupation with this theme at various stages in his career.”]

The theme of the Arab in Europe, with all its cultural implications, is one that has found expression in Arabic fiction from a relatively early period in the evolution of the genre. The earliest mature attempts at treating the subject were those made by Tawfiq al-Hakim and Yahya Haqqi in ‘Usfur min...

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Renate Wise (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Wise, Renate. “Subverting Holy Scriptures: The Short Stories of Yûsuf Idrîs.” In The Postcolonial Crescent: Islam's Impact on Contemporary Literature, edited by John C. Hawley, pp. 140-54. New York: Peter Lang, 1998.

[In the following essay, Wise investigates the Islamic influence on Idris's short fiction.]


Since the seventh century Arabic literature has been greatly influenced if not dominated by Islam. While literary critics have elaborated amply on the impact of Islam on medieval Arabic literature,1 they have for the most part ignored the Islamic influence on modern Arabic literature. Instead, when...

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M. Akif Kirecci (essay date winter 2001)

SOURCE: Kirecci, M. Akif. “Political Criticism in the Short Stories of Yusuf Idris: ‘Innocence’ and ‘19502’.” The Massachusetts Review 42, no. 4 (winter 2001): 672-88.

[In the following essay, Kirecci contends that “Innocence” and “19502” “strongly reflect the author's perception of Egyptian political life.”]

This article analyzes two short stories by Yusuf Idris (1927-1991), commonly regarded as Egypt's master of this genre. These two stories, “Innocence” (“Bara'ah”) and “19502,” not only vividly represent the relationship between literature and politics, but also are fine examples of Idris' artistic style. Indeed, his literary...

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Ramzi Salti (essay date spring 2001)

SOURCE: Salti, Ramzi. “A Different Leader of Men: Yusuf Idris Against Arab Concepts of Male Homosexuality.” World Literature Today 75, no. 2 (spring 2001): 247-56.

[In the following essay, Salti elucidates the sociopolitical implications of Idris's depiction of homosexuality in A Leader of Men.]

When Yusuf Idris (1927-91) published his controversial story “Abu al-rijal” (Eng. “A Leader of Men”) in the Egyptian magazine October in 1987, it was immediately hailed by scholars as the first and only work in modern Arabic literature to probe “so deeply in the mind and soul of a latent homosexual” (Elkhadem, 1988, 1). Consequently, many critics praised...

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Further Reading


al-Mousa, Nedal. “A Social Psychological Interpretation of Yusuf Idris’s ‘Snobbism’.”1Arabic and Middle Eastern Literatures 2, no. 2 (July 1999): 173-75.

Provides a social psychological perspective on “Snobbism.”

Roger, Allen, ed. Critical Perspectives on Yusuf Idris. Colorado Springs: Three Continents Press, 1994, 180 p.

Collection of critical essays.

Cohen-Mor, Dalya. Yusuf Idris: Changing Visions. Potomac, Md.: Sheba Press, 1992, 188 p.

Examines the central themes of Idris's short fiction.

Mikhail, Mona N....

(The entire section is 170 words.)