A Novel by ALAA AL ASWANY
(New York), 2008
Reviewed by Adel Iskandar
Al Aswany's first blockbuster Novel
Since the revered Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz, the father of the modern Arabic novel, few authors writing in Arabic have had as much an impact outside of the Arab world as Alaa Al Aswany. Born in 1957, Al Aswany is the son of Egypt lawyer and writer Abbas Al Aswany. His debut title The The Yacoubian Building, translated to 20 languages, was a runaway success throughout the region and seemed to spread like wildfire everywhere. With publishers somewhat mum about the actual sales figures, most believe it was in the millions. The book was later made into a star-studded blockbuster film which was touted as the costliest cinematic production in the history of Arab production. Much has been said about The Yacoubian Building book by the dentist-turned-novelist that anticipation reached a crescendo about his much publicized second book. Portions of this book, later entitled Chicago, were published as a series of sequential stories in the Egyptian independent daily Al-Masry Al-Youm to increased readership and encouraging reviews. While it is difficult to articulate a specific literary style for Al Aswany from his first two novels yet there appears to be a vernacular pattern in his composition which has drawn both salutations and admonishment of readers and critics.
One clear characteristic of his work has been the role of the authorial voice, especially that which expresses explicit confluence with the autobiographical essence of the writer himself. In addition to the narration by a speaker who usually serves as the protagonist and the society's conscience, Al Aswany seems to inject into the narrative markers of his own personal experiences in a fashion that may go unnoticed by the reader. For instance, in The Yacoubian Building, many older readers especially literary contemporaries of his late father, lawyer and writer Abbas Al Aswany, remarked that the plot and the characters were all too familiar and that Alaa may have either been greatly influenced by his father's stories and writings or that he may have otherwise channelled him during the composition phase. Some went as far as saying that the book may have been partially written by his father Abbas to explain the author's intimate knowledge of that era in Egypt's history.
Alaa Al Aswany's second novel, Chicago, was published in 2007 by Cairo's Dar El-Shorouk to wide critical acclaim. Based almost entirely on the trials and tribulations of several Egyptians in the Windy City, the book delves into a plethora of issues affecting these students, migrants, and expatriates. Here Alaa is far more explicit in selecting a personal niche for his story, inadvertently reminiscing about the time he spent studying dentistry at the University of Illinois, in Chicago. The novel is enmeshed in the fabric of an Egyptian dislocated community, a culturally charged enclave on lake Michigan, with the author drawing stark frames from the outset around several prototypical personalities with specific Arab exilic qualities each representing a conglomeration of traits he may very well have encountered during his years in Chicago. These include the conservative veiled graduate student Shaymaa, the uprooted Coptic professor of surgery Karam Doss, the "Americanized" father Ra'fat, the Egyptian regime's operative Danana, the angst-ridden liberal democracy activist Nagi, and his entrapped, dissatisfied and disillusioned wife Marwa. Each of these characters (or perhaps stereotypes) embody a sensibility, not unlike those which exist within most Arab migrant communities.
Like Father, Like Son?
Literary and lawyer Abbas Al Aswany
To contextualize and historicize much of Alaa Al Aswany's work, one must revisit his late father's legacy which impacted the young writer and appears to occupy a subterranean position within all his works, including Chicago. While Abbas Al Aswany seemed very much present in The Yacoubian Building, many hailed Chicago as Alaa's intellectual weaning from his father's legacy with a narrative solely his own in a context and time period exclusively contemporary to his experience. As the new book continues to exceed the sales of its precursor, Chicago's engagement with the migrant experience which Abbas could not articulate, is nonetheless replete with Alaa's subliminal homages (conscious or otherwise) to his father.
Cafe Riche in downtown Cairo which was the regular stomping ground for Egyptian thinkers and dissidents including Abbas Al Aswany
His father Abbas Al Aswany is remembered a captivating and charismatic speaker with a broad following and loyalty within a cross-section of the Egyptian revolutionary intelligentsia particularly in the years immediately prior and after the revolution of 1952. He spent many days and nights at the iconic Cafe Riche in downtown Cairo which had become his informal office--a place where he greeted friends, colleagues, clients, admirers and passersby. Anyone who knew Abbas at the time spoke of his charm and his extroverted disposition and attractive demeanour. His son Alaa, while sharing his father's incisive literary commentary, acute analytical capabilities, and to an extent his political views, is contrastingly soft-spoken, humble, reserved, withdrawn and exceptionally courteous. This was startlingly obvious when I attended a book signing he held in Washington, DC in October 2008. Like his father who wrote a regular back-page essay in the Egyptian weekly magazine Rose El-Youssef entitled "Aswaniyaat," Alaa too has become a regular contributor to Egyptian daily and weekly newspapers and magazine. Both Abbas and Alaa exhibited literary interests apart from their vocations. With the likes of Anton Chekov and Youssef Idris being both physicians and novelists, the dentist Alaa continues in a long tradition of doctors who chose literature as an arena for meditation and aesthetic expression.
Fanning the Flames of Change
Cover of the film The Yacoubian Building based on Al Aswany's book
The first four of forty chapters in Chicago contextualize the city's history and societal make up anchoring its renaissance on a cataclysmic event. That is the tragedy of the infamous Chicago fire which burnt down much of the metropolitan area and laid it to waste. While the fire itself and the city's ability to recoup from the debris to become a burgeoning enclave is an allegory for the relationships forged there by the book's characters, each an attempt to carve out a space with resilience and ambition. Yet while the city prevails over the fire, reigning supreme with grandeur over its sins and tribulations, the characters of the textual Chicago are battered by exile and ghorba (estrangement) and wallow in the despair brought about by the toils of assimilation. It is as though the spoils of the new country are spoiled by the old country.
Incidentally, some 56 years before Chicago's publication, another fire erupted in Cairo on June 26, 1952 which burnt down most of the establishments, banks, stores and commercial centers in the city center. Al Aswany's father, Abbas, was arrested as a prime suspect, having been a prominent political operative in the Misr El-Fatah (Young Egypt) party which later became the Socialist Labour Party and having served as a bastion of public dissidence against the crown and British presence. Just days before the fire, Abbas Al Aswany had recited a poem to a demonstration of protesters where he chanted Abbas was released for lack of evidence after an elderly Armenian-Egyptian witness to arson mercifully dismissed him as the perpetrator after learning that if charged the suspect will be executed.
According to Egyptian veteran journalist and writer Youssef El-Sherif who was a friend of Abbas Al Aswany, this experienced weighted greatly on the late lawyer-writer. Hence, it seems uncanny that his son spent an inordinate amount of space in Chicago explaining the impact of the Chicago fire as a product of an innocent act which retrospectively helped purify and cleanse the city, creating a sense of community and solidarity among its inhabitants irrespective of their backgrounds. Is there a covert nod to his father's intimate run-in with a similar fire some 10,000km and 81 years apart?!
Youssef El-Sherif's book What Happened on the Coast of Egypt (Dar El-Shorouk, 2006)
Another curious story also relayed by Youssef El-Sherif in his 2006 book entitled Mima Jara fi Bar Misr "What Happened on the Coast of Egypt" tells a story of Abbas impersonating an Ethiopian diplomat to meet with the Iranian revolutionary leader Dr. Mohammad Moussadeq who was on an official visit to Cairo in 1951. Aswany stepped out of a Rolls Royce car to meet with the Iranian delegation that included then Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs. Once the meeting was concluded, he was driven back and dropped off a few blocks from his office at Al Jomhoor Al-Masry, a Cairo tabloid, where he walked the rest of the way. The luxury vehicle, which Al Aswany could barely afford to rent, returned to its owner (heir to a large banana plantation in Egypt) from whom Abbas had borrowed it. From his meeting with the dignitaries, Al Aswany had accomplished a stellar journalistic scoop unparalleled by any media institution at the time--a sit-down interview with Moussadeq, one of the most sought after revolutionaries of the time. Once the editor approved the content, the transcript quickly went to press, after which Moussadeq and the Minister denied all statements attributed to them, making Al Aswany one of Egyptian tabloid's most revered editors and one who had earned the reputation of mischief. In Chicago, much of the story revolves around the anticipated visit by the Egyptian president to his country's consulate in Chicago during which time he would meet with members of the Egyptian Student Association and members of the expatriate community. The narrator of the story is Nagi Abd el-Samad, an idealistic liberal-minded and optimistic student who is committed to dissent for political change in Egypt who mischievously organizes to read a statement calling for the president's abdication to the executive leader himself, despite threats of violence to him and his family by Embassy security staffers. To what extent does these two experiences of Moussadeq and the Egyptian president interweave? His father's dissident activities are especially evident from his legal representation of Saad Zaghloul Fouad, a nationalist resistance fighter who was accused of bombing a cinema. With all evidence and odds stacked against Fouad, Abbas Al-Aswany decided to turn the case into a public political referendum from an unwinnable criminal case. The trial captivated the press and the pressured judge settled with an acquittal of Fouad.
In fact Nagi Abd el-Samad's condemnation of the Egyptian regime in his personal journal and deliberation with other characters appears to echo not only Alaa's more subtly-worded statements in the Egyptian press, but is perhaps a contemporary rendition his father's novel "The High Fences" about unchecked power and corruption and its ability to hypnotize ego-hungry officials to abandon their families and principles for the pursuit of narcissistic gratification. The book earned Abbas Al Aswany the National Award of Appreciation in 1974. In another work, Abbas translated to Arabic in 1951 a French novel entitled "I Shall Return with the Republic" with the intent of publishing it as a series in his newspaper. However, the editor in chief said it was too explicit in its condemnation of the monarchical system and support for a republic rendering it too controversial for publication. They reached a compromise when the title was renamed "I Shall Return with Freedom." So the intonation in much of his father's writing showcased the dissidence of the father that is similar to that of Nagi Abd el-Samad.
The Egyptian personalities in Chicago are teaming with contradictions but still cannot escape the clichés within which they are constructed. The most evocative of these is a repulsive Egyptian technocrat who comes to represent both the symbolically and literally the Egyptian authoritative bureaucracy part-student-part-civil-servant-part-self-appointed-diplomat he is the residue of the state apparatus that birthed him. Danana brings out the worst from the Egyptian expatriates and students who behave with subservience in his presence and refer to him with the title "Dr." despite his status as a student.
Sex and Acculturation
Shaymaa Mohammadi is Alaa Al Aswany's most compelling character to watch as he sets her up to "possibly" and predictably undergo the most significant transformation. She is cast at a position of contestation with her new environment. An upright overachieving student with lustful curiosities but inhibited by her conservative background and naive disposition, Al Aswany introduces her with enough Orientalist fervour so as to create a mystique surrounding her sexuality that persists throughout the novel. As some who is publicly veiled, her deshrouding becomes an impending voyeuristic pleasure that the reader anticipates.
When Shaymaa finally succumbed to desire, love and lust with Tariq, it was a Freudian eruption of Oedipal proportions. Tariq's experience of embracing Shaymaa was a rebirth, a consummate return to the maternal bosom. She had fused into the Madonna and the mother motifs and turned into an amalgam of "righteous" ecstasy that teased his doctrinal morality. His experience of her body amounted to a transcendental engagement.
The Electra complex is exemplified in a young Egyptian-American teenager, Sarah whose relationship with her "progressively liberal" Egyptian father whose attempts at being an open-minded "westernized" father backfire. During an altercation with her father, Ra'fat, over her relationship with her deadbeat addict of a boyfriend Jeff, Sarah abandons her father's home to move in with her lover. Everything the father does to try and win Sarah's affection ends up hurting her further and lodges an wider wedge between them. This culminates in his attempt to bring her back home where he visits her boyfriend's residence in Oakland. Peeping through the house window, Ra'fat witnesses his Sarah in a drug high after snorting and then watches her and Jeff make love. Infuriated beyond reason, he attacks and batters his daughter. Sarah adopts Jeff as a father and guardian and Al Aswany doesn't waste time illustrating the competition between the two men's contrasting masculinities with Sarah being paternalized by Jeff and her questioning her dad's sexual proclivity during a confrontation about the infrequency of lovemaking with her mother. Sarah represents her father's inability to assimilate into western society and in some instances the emasculation of the Orient.
In fact when Al Aswany was publishing parts of the novel as series in the Egyptian independent daily newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm, he received daily letters from an anonymous reader who insisted and implored him to preserve Shaymaa's virginity and "purity" in the land of temptation. The reader had threatened to exact his revenge on Al Aswany if Shaymaa's sexual "purity is violated" in this fictional narrative. The author expressed that this message made such a plot even more compelling rather than act as a deterrent since it illustrated his implicit critique of singular dogmatic thought and its imposition on social and private lives as well as its ability to silence public expression.
An Egyptian father who has an American family is troubled by his anguished and estranged hybrid daughter. His relationship with his daughter is an allegory for his inability to acclimate into American society despite his most fervent efforts at assimilation. Hi desire to open minded fostered a disdain for his daughter who rejected him. He was too lenient to be an Egyptian father and too intrusive to be American. He becomes symbolic of parental failure when he witnesses his daughter doing lines of coke and having sex with her boyfriend.
Twists of fate, tragedy and redemption abound in Chicago with each character having to eventually confront his/her anxieties and hang-ups. In this deeply moral book, Al Aswany carves the plot out of the inevitability of fate seemingly embodying the Arabic expression of "Kada' wa Kadar" (Justice and Fate). Each story has a seemingly prescribed trajectory that brings them full-circle to grapple with their insecurities, wrongdoings, or aspirations. Nowhere is this more vivid than the story of Prof Karam Doss, a conflicted Coptic heart surgeon who left Egypt after being denied the credentials to be a surgeon. Al Aswany describes this as a result of a xenophobic anti-Coptic surgery professor in Cairo who denied then-student Karam Doss an opportunity to become a surgeon. Twenty years later, his supervisor at the time found himself under the scalpel of that very student, now a prominent cardiac surgeon at Northwestern Hospital in Chicago.
It is through Karam Doss that Al Aswany begins to address the issue of identity confusion among Coptic migrants and the increasingly paradoxical relationship with with modern Egypt. He casts several character whose religious beliefs are on a collision course and didn't shy away from creating the melodramatic raptures. These happen with some irony as a drunk Muslim student who challenges a Coptic migrant professor about his disloyalty to Egypt and alternatively the professor charges Egypt for the persecution of the Copts.
Al Aswany attempts to demystify the Coptic experience which remains either absent or narrow-casted in the Egyptian public sphere both in cinema and literature.
The American characters are nuanced but remain confined within their stereotypical tropes as the black population of the book are either universally persecuted or misinterpreted. The few humanists are the progressive pseudo-bohemian persons exemplified by an aging secular Dr. Graham whose early days as a homeless person continue to impress on his philanthropic spirit where he raises him African-American partners child and opposition of ego-less.
Language and Embodiment
Some of the dialogue associated with the American interactants seems unrealistic with the novel generally falling short on the delivery of specific vernaculars. This maybe a result of the double translation of the world from English dialogue to Arabic and then back to English. The bigotry and the expressions seem unrealistic and chunkily composed specifically in some of the contexts he described.
Fervent attempts to defend cosmopolitanism in the Arab World and multidenominational Palestine are done in a less than realistic context, especially when showcasing the sounding more encyclopaedia than conversant in tone. Perhaps this is a product of urgency from Al Aswany to try and ensure these burning topic are addressed in a comprehensive way. But at times the timing and expression seems unrealistic and forced, despite the relevance of the message.
Nostalgia and estrangement factor significantly in the psychologies of many characters--from the Coptic surgeon who listened to Umm Kalthoum during operations.
"States" of Despair
Alaa Al Aswany on a felucca on the Nile
Al Aswany has aligned himself with a cadre of local intellectuals and thinkers who are explicit in their critique of the regime's handling of domestic affairs, of growing corruption, of lack of democratic representation, and the hopelessness of civilian life in Egypt. During his promotional tour for this book in the United States, he was hosted in Washington, DC by a human rights focused non-profit associated with the embattled and exiled thinker and Egyptian-American sociologist Dr. Saad Eldin Ibrahim, Voices for a Democratic Egypt. Aswany's stance during the presentation mirrored that of his protagonists/narrator Nagi Abd el-Samad's view on Egyptian political circumstances.
Reviewer Adel Iskandar and Amal Daraiseh with author Alaa El Aswany following a presentation on October 24, 2008 in Washington, DC's Politics & Prose.
Danana's repulsive personality leads him to forge work for his dissertation which is discovered by his advisor. Threatened with expulsion he pleads to the Egyptian Embassy security official and his supervisor, Safwat Shakir to intervene on his behalf. Reflecting the self-righteousness of the Egyptian political bureaucracy, this official humiliates the always-loyal Danana by rendering him vulnerable and transforming him into a subservient peon prepared to enslave himself to power to the point of tolerating this official's indecent proposals for his wife Marwa.
The narrator's voice is the author's conscience where he delivers his moral principles as a form of autobiographical footnote. Yet the book's strength rests in its ability to show the extreme reach of political impunity and moral degradation, as well as the persistence of cultural, social and religious mores across spatial divides, from Cairo to Chicago. It is in his condemnation of arrogant and dogmatic thought that Alaa Al Aswany's Chicago excels, especially in its dismissal of the simple-minded conclusions about social motifs. In all, while perhaps falling into the trap of predictability with some of his characters who simply fall from grace or revive their essence, Al Aswany revives the book with a tapering unresolved conclusion to all the protagonists, leaving the "state" in a state of permanence as the most omnipotent and omnipresent regime of control irrespective of barriers, boundaries, creeds and ethnicities. For this seldom discussed issue Alaa Al Aswany's readers will likely both lament this condition and compliment the author's courage.
Adel Iskandar is the Editor of the Ambassadors Online Magazine and a visiting scholar in the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, Georgetown University. Email: email@example.com.