Skip to main content
The Independent Critic

 Book Review: Egyptian Made by Leslie T. Chang 
Add to favorites

There are times while reading Leslie T. Chang's "Egyptian Made: Women, Work, and the Promise of Liberation" that I had to remind myself that this is a work of nonfiction. So vivid is Chang's storytelling that there are times, rather frequently, when it feels like you've been plopped down in the middle of a thrilling, and at times rather sad, historical novel.

"Egyptian Made" is, rather obviously, set in Egypt. It's a country struggling to reconcile a traditional culture with the demands of globalization. Chang immerses herself within this world, at times openly and honestly astonished by its repression amidst shiny and mostly shallow promises of women's liberation.

Chang is an unapologetic journalist and this radiates throughout "Egyptian Made" in terms of reporting, approach, and her often quite blunt editorializing of her experiences halfway across the world while amidst women who confidently and defiantly live conflicted lives between work and cultural expectations.

"Egyptian Made" focuses its literary lens on three particular women living factory lives in the textile industry. Chang didn't simply visit these women, though at times "Egyptian Made" makes it feel this way, but she spent over two years of immersion in this society following these women at work and at home and as much as these women and their families would allow.

For the record, that's not always a lot. Chang explores the impact of everything from profound changes in national economic policy to a largely Muslim culture's marriage and family expectations to a weakened and failing educational system.

At first, it appears that "Egyptian Made" is primarily about the world of work. However, Chang casts the net much wider.

Riham is an up-and-coming businesswoman who attempts to balance her entrepreneurial spirit with a desire to nurture women toward success. It's an approach that doesn't always work as she struggles to attract workers to her garment factory while building a successful enterprise in the global marketplace.

Rania, often the most compelling figure here, initially works on an assembly line but ambitiously works toward a management position. She is confident, though not always appropriately nor realistically so and held back by peer conflicts and an unhappy marriage.

Finally, there's Doaa, a colleague of Chang's, who often appears to have the most promise of success but is weighted by sacrificing access to her own children to get a divorce all while still pursuing an education - it's a frequent tale here in the U.S., but comes with heavy baggage in the Egyptian culture.

Along the way, Chang shares her own journey of living in Egypt for five years with her own family and her own observations, often quite blunt yet astute, while also sharing the framework from which all of this grows.

While much of the world romanticizes Egypt with its pharaohs, pyramids, camels, and Nile River, Chang commits her journey toward a more realistic portrayal that still shows respect for the nation. "Egyptian Made" is, at times, so vivid in its portrayal that it feels like we're joining Chang on the journey and astonished by her experiences. Chang's journalistic integrity is exacting, at times even jarring, as she is uncompromising and precise in her truth-telling. The book's final chapter, in particular, winds down this narrative with remarkable insight after remarkable insight and paints portrayals we won't soon forget.

Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic