Cigarette Number Seven by Donia Kamal

A portrait from Egypt

Donia Kamal’s novel Cigarette Number Seven (Translated to English by Nariman Youssef), is an engaging and moving peek into the Egyptian revolution, through the eyes and emotions of a young woman. Given that both food and music are both important elements in this novel, a Cultures Capsules portrait to capture the soundtrack and foods that made the story come alive on the pages was a no-brainer.  Taste, hear and see for yourself.

Note: Waiting in the wings for a full year this portrait is finally seeing the light of day thanks to my 3rd grade daughter’s project on Egypt.  I need to publish it because I need to share the background of the playlist!  But per the recipe section, there is still some work to be done. 


Devouring a Novel

the alignist subscription box for egypt, with donia kamals novel cigarette number seven

I came across this Donia Kamal’s novel “Cigarette Number Seven” (translated to English by Nariman Youssef) thanks to a subscription box from The Alignist (try them if you haven’t!). In the box was the novel, a companion guide describing historical/political context, a beautiful Egyptian cotton hand towel, a small bottle of musk, a dukkah spice blend, and two recipes (pictured above).  

We excitedly made both of these dishes right away, before I even had time to crack the book. It actually became part of one of our weekly À Table French dinners… which is it’s own interesting story you’ll find in the bonus section below.

I didn’t intend to turn her novel into a Cultures Capsules portrait, but as I continued to read it, I felt compelled to.  There were so many songs and musician references that I wanted to hear and capture all of them into a companion playlist. Similarly, I wanted to taste the foods that her characters made with such devotion for their loved ones.

Here you will find the playlist I was finally able to compile, as well as the dishes I have since compiled and made in order to share.


Playlist for the Novel

It was a delight – and indeed a challenging scavenger hunt – to create the playlist for this portrait.  Music being a constant companion in this novel, the below playlist has songs that were specifically mentioned and/or quoted in the novel, as well as songs I chose from artists that were mentioned.  Most are included in the playlist, but I can use the help of readers on an elusive few in the following section!

First, we should decode the title of the novel (which I learned thanks to this video interview of the author Donia Kamal). In Arabic, the title is “Seventh Cigarette,” which refers to the tendency of Nadia to mark the passing of time in cigarettes while awaiting her love.  This concept comes from a lyric in the song “The Day Before You Came” by one of Nadia’s favorite bands, ABBA.

“I must have lit my seventh cigarette, at half past two,
and at the time i never even noticed I was blue”

For marketing and other reasons, the English title became “Cigarette Number Seven,” and copyright issues further separated English readers from the origin of the title by prohibiting the ABBA lyrics in that version (though allowed in the Arabic version).  It is the first song on the playlist so you can hear the lyrics for yourself, and restore the connection.

Thankfully there were no copyright issues on other lyrics from Umm Kulthum, Warda, Shayk Imam and others, but that didn’t necessarily make them easy to find on Spotify.  Sometimes it was slight differences in spellings of the names (Shayk Imam was Sheik Imam, among many other more difficult alternate spellings), and other times, I couldn’t find the Arabic song name, even trying to translate the english lyrics into Arabic.  I even tried searching in French for Fairuz song on page 98, but to no avail.   Still, what I was able to put together is a good representation, even as I will continue to tweak it (I welcome your assistance, dear readers!).

The second and the closing song of the playlist is sung by Egypt’s beloved singer Umm Kulthum who is mentioned in the very first paragraph of “Cigarette Number Seven,” and several times throughout. The song, فكروني, (“Remind Me”), was written by Abd al-Wahhāb Muḥammad and is referenced twice in the book: once near the beginning and also at the end.  [Note: A huge thanks to this incredible 300 page resource of Umm Kulthum’s lyrics translated into English.]

Having completed the book and now better understood the arc, these lyrics are pretty potent:

How could they possibly remind me?
As if I would ever forget.

pg 11

You are closer to me than myself
Whether you are here or far away

pg 191

The playlist then continues with many other songs by many more musicians from Egypt and elsewhere, even some from the west.  I don’t want to let the playlist unfold with the book, but the only other thing I’ll say here is that for me, the mention of Guns and Roses and ABBA and Michael Jackson also serves to remind us of how connected we actually are.  We may be far from Tahrir Square, but our ears and hearts are delighted by the same sounds, and it’s only luck of where our souls landed on earth that determined those of us who struggle in a revolution, and those who watch it on TV.

And lastly, a challenge for your ears… see if you can pick out the song included on the playlist whose riff is now part of a very, very well known rap song by an American rapper?


The Elusive Ones

Dear readers, I need your help in completing this playlist/soundtrack!

  • Song called “Nagwa” by Mohamed Abdel Wahab (referred to as Abd al-Wahhab in the novel, but music services seem to have an alternate spelling). I tried translating and searching in Arabic text but that didn’t yield any results. And in the meantime, see below for his own recording of the song.
  • A Fairuz song referenced as “morn and eve.”  I know that Fairuz is played each morning on radio stations, but I could not find a particular song with this name. (pages 48/49)
  • A song by Fairuz which has the lyric “he brings me greetings,” noted on page 98. I wish there was the same resource for Fairuz translated to English as there is for Umm Kulthum translated to English
  • And the Warda song on 120-121  “As much; my love; As the many dark beautiful eyes in our land; I love you; … Neither time; Nor place; Could put our love in the past; ….. Every night that passed without you near me; My Soul; My eyes). 
  • Sheik Imam lyrics on 132 (referred to as Sheyk Imam): “Egypt is the suns rising from prisons; The blossoming gardens in our blood.” 
  • Lyrics on page 137 “My road takes me away from yours; I call to you, I love you.” She puts it on repeat as a way to count (like cigarettes), but doesn’t mention the name.


To Be Continued

In Cigarette Number Seven, food is almost its own set of characters.  The dishes referred to are not simply named as a throwaway detail of what is being consumed, but included as a way to see the love and devotion exchanged between characters. 

Sometimes that love is received and cherished but other times it is completely unrequited.  Or when dishes are spoiled in the process of cooking, in comparison to other magnificent dishes, it serves to show the state of Nadia’s mind at the time. 

basbousa, fresh out of the oven

Sure, we have looked at emotions as ingredients themselves, but in this novel the relationship between emotions and food is even stronger, representing a spectrum of deep nurturing for loved ones all the way to an inability to feed oneself, not to mention loved ones. 

Moussaka and fuul are two such characters that were named, but there were more that were unnamed, but described in detail. The main unnamed one that I can’t get out of my mind is the chicken and potato dish that Nadia’s grandmother makes her when Nadia moves in with her grandparents.  Chapter three gives us a taste of Nadia’s new life with her grandparents through the lens of Nadia watching her grandmother cook, as well as giving us a peek into the setting of the apartment itself (aka her temporary sanctuary)

Given that this portrait is meant to help make the book come alive even further, I can not call it complete until I have made that potato and chicken dish.  Though the dish is described in detail, I am not familiar with it, and so i’m not exactly sure of the ingredient ratios of the casserole so I would love to find the name so I could reference some recipes.  I’ve put out a request for more information, but in the meantime, I might try to do the best I can.  

In the meantime, I’m publishing anyway, because I want the story of the playlist accessible for a different portrait involving Egyptian food.

kousa bil bechamel, fresh from the oven
kousa bil bechamel, fresh from the oven

Currently the food photos include the two dishes I made based off the recipes of Dyna Eldaief which came in the subscription box from The Alignist.  It was two recipes by Egyptian cookbook author Dyna Eldiaef: Kousa bil Bechamel (a Moussaka-like casserole but with zucchini instead of eggplant), and the well-known basbousa cake. Both were delicious, but I want to taste the “reddish gold” casserole with chicken on top, that Nadias grandma made for her!


Egyptian Fois Gras

In a serendipitous googling binge to learn more about why Béchamel sauce features heavily in many other cuisines outside France, I learned something I never would have expected: the Ancient Egyptians were making fois gras. I always thought it was a French thing!

Foie gras, a well-known delicacy, is still enjoyed today by Egyptians. Its flavor is described as rich, buttery, and delicate, unlike that of an ordinary duck or goose liver. Foie gras is sold whole, or is prepared into mousseparfait, or pâté, and may also be served as an accompaniment to another food item, such as steak. The technique involves gavage, cramming food into the throat of domesticated ducks and geese, and dates as far back as 2500 BC, when the ancient Egyptians began keeping birds for food.[7][8][9]

Wikipedia entry for Egyptian Cuisine on 29May20

So when I learned that, I decided that it was a sign that I should give into my impatience and make the Kousa Bil Béchamel and Basbousa per the subscription box for our next À Table French dinner (where we usually cook French food, and invite French families to come help us practice our spoken French), and see if our guests knew this about fois gras, and also how much they knew about Béchamel around the world. I hadn’t even yet cracked the book but I was too excited. Cheeky, but delicious.

cigarette number seven by donia kamal

But I’m still thinking about the baked potato dish with the chicken on top that Nadia’s grandma made in the novel. … so go get the book, start reading it, and check back for that recipe soon!