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About The Book

“A remarkable debut novel written by a promising young writer who captures vivid details and writes masterfully” (Christian Science Monitor) about an American attorney, an Egyptian translator, and an Iraqi-American resettlement officer trying to protect a refugee who finds herself trapped in Cairo during the turbulent aftermath of the Spring Awakening.

Cairo, 2011. President Mubarak has just been ousted from power. The oldest city in the world is reeling from political revolution. But for the people actually living there, daily life has become wilder, more dangerous, and, occasionally, freeing.

Live from Cairo is the "Eye-opening... Rich and charged” (Seattle Times) story of these people: Dalia, a strong-willed Iraqi refugee who finds herself trapped in Egypt after her petition to resettle in America with her husband is denied. Charlie, her foolhardy attorney, whose complicated feelings for Dalia have led him to forge a not-entirely-legal plan to get her out. Aos, Charlie’s translator and only friend, who spends his days trying to help people through the system and his nights in Tahrir Square protesting against it. And Hana, a young and disenchanted Iraqi-American resettlement officer, deciding whether to treat Dalia’s plight as one more piece of paperwork, or as a full-blooded human crisis. As these individuals come together, a plot is formed to help Dalia. But soon laws are broken, friendships and marriages are tested, and lives are risked.

A vibrant portrait of a city in all its teeming chaos and glory, Live from Cairo is an exhilarating, electrifying debut, and a stunning testament to the unconquerable desire of people to rise above tragedy to seek love, friendship, humor, and joy. “This brilliantly conceived and artfully detailed novel…is both a comedy and tragedy of errors…Ian Bassingthwaighte’s virtuoso debut deserves the widest attention” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review).

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Live from Cairo includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


Live from Cairo is the exuberant, dazzling story of Dalia, a strong-willed Iraqi refugee who finds herself trapped in Egypt after her petition to resettle in America with her husband, Omran, is denied; Charlie, her foolhardy attorney, whose frustration with the legal bureaucracy and complicated feelings for Dalia lead him to forge a not entirely legal plan to get her out; Aos, Charlie’s fastidious translator and only friend, who spends his days trying to help people through the system and his nights protesting in Tahrir Square; and Hana, a young and disenchanted Iraqi-American resettlement officer. When Hana is assigned to Dalia’s case, she must decide whether to treat her plight as merely one more piece of paperwork or as a full-blooded human crisis. As these individuals come together, a plot is formed to help Dalia. But soon laws are broken, friendships and marriages are tested, and lives are risked—all in an effort to protect one person from the dangerous sweep of an unjust world.

Topics and Questions for Discussion

1. One of the first things we learn about Hana is that her father died in a 1980 bombing in Iraq, forcing her pregnant mother to flee to America. Why do you think readers are given this information so early on? How important is Hana’s family history? How would the story be different without Hana’s past?

2. During her interview at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Hana responds to Dalia’s initial statement by saying “That’s what happened to your country. I’m asking what happened to you” (page 20). In what way are characters defined by their countries? How is identity embedded in location and nationality?

3. What was your reaction to Dalia’s testimony (pages 59–67)? How did you feel when Charlie responded by saying “please tell me there’s more?”

4. What role does shame play in the novel? How are the characters differently influenced by shame? What about guilt?

5. How does Mustafa, Hana’s cab driver, enrich your understanding of life in Cairo? What do we learn from him that we don’t from other characters?

6. During a phone call with her mother, Hana asks if “a lifetime of forced isolation and poverty” is “really less dramatic than death” (page 78). How would you respond? Hana also wonders whether she has a right to her mother’s narrative. What does she mean?

7. After receiving the rejection notice for Dalia’s petition, Charlie tells her husband, Omran, not to come back to Egypt. He is worried that Omran and Dalia would “discover that love wasn’t something they could eat or live inside” (page 101). Where, then, do you think love should rank on a list of priorities?

8. Faisal and his son spoke only Arabic to each other, and it made strangers so nervous they would often say, “We speak English in this country” (page 119). How did these statements impact Faisal and his son? Discuss the power of this sentiment and its presence in the United States.

9. On page 128, Charlie says “Subversion is the only way to even the odds when you have no money and no power.” Do you agree? Why or why not?

10. Is it ethical for Charlie to make Hana feel responsible for the death of a young man in order to convince her to provide an illegal yellow card? To what lengths would you go to protect the people you love?

11. How does this book portray insiders versus outsiders?

12. On pages 155–56, Hana reflects on a sentence by her favorite Egyptian writer: “In the passionate dark of dawn, on the path between death and life, within view of the watchful stars and within earshot of the beautiful, obscure anthems, a voice told of the trials and joys promised to our alley.” Why do you think this passage resonates with her so much?

13. Discuss what you would have done in Charlie’s, Dalia’s, Omran’s, and Hana’s positions. What would you have done differently? How difficult would your decisions be?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. As mentioned in the novel, Naguib Mahfouz is a renowned Egyptian writer. Expand your knowledge of Egyptian literature by reading some of his work.

2. Live from Cairo is set in Cairo during the turbulent aftermath of the January 25 Revolution. Research the recent events in Egypt and the ousting of President Mubarak. How does the political landscape as described in news compare to that of the novel?

3. Research traditional Egyptian recipes and have members of your book club bring different dishes for everyone to try.

About The Author

Ian Bassingthwaigthe was a Fulbright Grantee in Egypt in 2009, where he worked in a legal aid office that served refugees from Iraq, Sudan, and the Horn of Africa. He has been honored with Hopwood Awards for both novel writing and short fiction. He was also named as a finalist for the Daniel Pearl Investigative Journalism Initiative. His work has appeared in Esquire, National Geographic, the Chicago Tribune, The Sun, Tin House, The Rumpus, and many other publications. Live from Cairo is his first novel.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (July 11, 2017)
  • Length: 336 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501146893

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Raves and Reviews

“A remarkable debut novel written by a promising young writer who captures vivid details and writes masterfully.”

– Christian Science Monitor

"Eye-opening... Rich and charged... Bassingthwaighte renders his characters and Cairo itself with a You-Are-Here intensity... takes you beyond the headlines into a pulsing, hazard-strewn world."

– The Seattle Times

"This brilliantly conceived and artfully detailed novel set in the Egyptian immigration bureaucracy is both a comedy and tragedy of errors... There are far too many great things about this book to list in this small space: the tension and energy of the plot; the tragic back stories of Charlie and Hana; the vignettes of Dalia's husband in Boston; the richness and subtlety of detail in the writing... The ironies of bureaucracy and wartime, à la Catch-22, meet the ironies of love and sacrifice, à la The Necklace, profoundly humanizing the global refugee crisis. Bassingthwaighte's virtuoso debut deserves the widest attention."

– Kirkus, starred review

"Urgent, informed, and richly detailed... [A] suspenseful, bittersweet narrative… Absorbing and important reading.”

– Library Journal, starred review

Live from Cairo is a powerful novel about human lives running up against inhuman systems: an impotent bureaucracy, a corrupt government, a brutal military. It’s a story of triumphant love and heartbreaking injustice, a story about how difficult the world makes it for any one person to do the right thing. Ian Bassingthwaighte has written an important and necessary book.”

– Nathan Hill, New York Times bestselling author of The Nix

"A moving—and startlingly funny—novel about the global refugee crisis and all of the people caught up in a bureaucracy of human suffering. Bassingthwaighte finds the tragedy and absurdity in trying to be humane within an inhumane system. An ambitious debut from an exciting new voice.”

– Brit Bennett, New York Times bestselling author of The Mothers

“Expansive… Searing... the author paints a deep and empathetic picture of the inner struggles of his courageous, flawed characters, who in the midst of mortal danger and insurmountable odds, grapple with the most fundamental questions of right and wrong. The answers follow neither rules nor laws, making the climax to this novel breathtaking and heartrending.”

– Publishers Weekly

“This ambitious and darkly comic novel captures, in its multiple perspectives, the tangled pains of a refugee crisis. Like Joseph Heller and Adam Johnson, Bassingthwaighte brilliantly illuminates the absurdity of a tragic situation.”

– Andrea Barrett, National Book Award-winning author of Archangel and Servants of the Map

"Ian Bassingthwaite's Live From Cairo is, as the title suggests, a living, animate, remarkable novel written with an energy rarely found in debut novels. With its sweeping eye for sizzling detail, this portrait of wanderers from different lands in a troubled Middle East is urgent and fiercely engaging."

– Chigozie Obioma, Booker Shortlisted author of The Fishermen

“My favorite thing about this book is the focus on love—love for country, for self, for mothers, for brothers, for each other. That at the heart of this novel is the deep, aching love between an Arab woman and an Arab man gives me goosebumps. We need this book. We need it on every shelf."

– Randa Jarrar, Arab-American Book Award-winning author of A Map of Home

"Remarkable... There is so much to like about this book, from brilliant characterization to exceptional writing."

– Bookpage

"This novel shows readers a painful, absurdist refugee experience through a kaleidoscopic lens. Best of all, Bassignthwaighte, a Fulbright grantee to Egypt, allows his characters to be human. The emotional intelligence on display and the author’s use of language set this novel apart."

– Booklist

"A positive and highly successful attempt at helping readers grasp the enormity of the refugee problem, not through statistics and investigative reports, but by pinpointing one individual’s struggles.”

– New York Journal of Books

“Relevant, funny, and moving.”

– San Diego Magazine

“Packed with action, history and heartbreak, this debut novel rings authentic.”

– Inside Jersey

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