Thursday, September 11, 2008

alaa al-aswany's 'chicago' launched in london

The Egyptian novelist Alaa al-Aswany remembers vividly his first day in the student residency at the University of Illinois, Chicago, where he went as a post-graduate dental student in the mid-1980s. “I opened the window and saw some African-Americans looking for something to eat in the rubbish. I said to myself, I can expect such a scene in the Arab world, but in America it’s very strange. And I also said to myself, I’m having a real human experience and I must keep my eyes open and know exactly what’s going on: probably one day I will write a novel about this.”

That novel is “Chicago”, of which the English edition was published in London last week by the Harper Collins imprint Fourth Estate, in translation by Farouk Abdel Wahab. Harper will publish the book in the US next month. Whereas his first novel “The Yacoubian Building” was set within an apartment building in Cairo and the characters were all Egyptian, “Chicago” is set entirely in Chicago, among a group of expatriate Egyptians and their American colleagues at the University of Illinois Medical Centre.

Alongside its Egypt-related themes, the novel tackles some of the contradictions of American society. They include racial discrimination as suffered by Carol, the black girlfriend of a white American professor. During his student days, Al-Aswany became aware that although discrimination was not officially sanctioned, it existed in practice. The novel also reflects the suspicion that falls on young Arabs in the US in the wake of 9/11 and the collusion between US and Arab security services.

To accompany the launch, Al-Aswany has been in Britain on a tour of readings, signings, interviews and media appearances, and last Thursday was the guest at a special evening event in the Gallery of the legendary Foyle’s bookshop in London’s Charing Cross Road. He was interviewed by the London-based Iraqi playwright and Imperial College scientist Hassan Abulrazzak, author of the stage and radio play “Baghdad Wedding”.

Al-Aswany acknowledged that not all readers are happy with his portrayal of America and Americans in “Chicago”. The novel has been selling well in translation in France and Italy, but “you have some right-wing writers in France for example who wrote some very good things about the novel but said ‘we don’t look to an Arab writer to tell us what is wrong with America’.”

Al-Aswany says that in Arabic novels set in the West, the Westerners are usually secondary characters, there to “push the plot along.” But during his time in America he got to know many Americans, some of whom became closer to him than his Arab colleagues, and he felt equipped to present Americans as main, rather than merely secondary, characters. “The novel is not about Arabs, Americans, black people, white people – it’s about the human. And I think this is the vision that must be presented: we could be different in color and culture, but we all have the same human heart and the same human feelings.”

“The Yacoubian Building” was a phenomenal success in Egypt, the rest of the Arab world and abroad, and has been translated into 21 languages. “Chicago” has been selling very well in Egypt and in France (where it was published late last year by Actes Sud) and Italy, and Al-Aswany and his publishers are hoping for a similarly positive reaction in the US and Britain.

Al-Aswany said that in Egypt, “’Chicago’ which is selling double of ‘The Yacoubian Building’, sold in one year 130,000 copies.” He said this is one indication of the way in which Egypt publishing scene is changing. “There are many more publishers now and more readers of literature; there had been a terrible stereotype that Egyptians had stopped reading.”

Al-Aswany’s sales have been extraordinary. “The Yacoubian Building” has sold 250,000 copies in the Arab world since its publication in 2002. It topped the Arab bestseller lists for five years running, to be knocked into second place by “Chicago”. The film of “The Yacoubian Building”, released in 2006 had a top-notch cast and was the biggest-budget Egyptian film ever when it was made. It broke box office records in Egypt.

A major reason for these stratospheric sales figures is that the two novels have shattered political and cultural taboos. They have pushed the boundaries of what can be written about and are influencing a new generation of novelists. (Author pic: credit Mark Thiessen)
In addition, the novels are highly accessible. Al-Aswany’s writing is rooted firmly in the realist tradition, which he robustly defended at the Foyle’s event. He deplored the influence on Arabic literature of the French nouveau roman (new novel) over the past 30 years, “which pushed some colleagues to write like the French are writing... It is very easy to write a text that nobody understands.” He added: “It would not be positive that I write stories about someone who got married to a cockroach – I can write this, but it is not literature I think.”

He thinks that “the real challenge for a novelist is to be able to write a text understandable to everybody but at different levels, and that is stratified in the sense that you read the text now and understand something, you read the same text after two years and you will understand more.”

In “Chicago”, as in “The Yacoubian Building”, there is a myriad of characters whose lives and stories intersect. The novel is set around the histology department of the University of Illinois Medical Center. It first saw publication in serial form in Al-Dustour independent opposition newspaper.

The most sympathetic character is Naji, who is admitted to the department after being refused a job at Cairo University because he has been politically active. He is a poet, and tells his story in the form of first-person diary entries. He becomes deeply involved with Wendy, a Jewish girl working at the Chicago Stock Exchange, but their relationship is subjected to pressures. He strikes up a friendship with brilliant heart surgeon and Chicago old-timer Karam, who had been kept down in his career in Egypt by the anti-Coptic chairman of his general surgery department.

The main villain of the novel is Danana, a secret police agent who is president of the Egyptian Student Union in America. He spies on the other students and badly mistreats his wife, but is brought low when he is caught faking his research results. He works in tandem with General Safwat Shakir, a former torturer now posted to the Washington Embassy.

Newly arrived in Chicago is Shaymaa, a veiled, highly intelligent student on a scholarship who is still unmarried although over 30. She embarks on a relationship with fellow student Tariq, with shameful consequences for her.

Muhammad Salah, a kindly professor referred to by Egyptian students as “the mayor of Chicago”, is obsessed by the events of 30 years earlier when his love Zeinab was a political demonstrator in Cairo. The unhappy Salah, who has been visiting a psychiatrist, has separated from his American wife and feels an urgent need to show Zeinab he is not after all a coward.

His colleague Ra’fat Thabit long ago turned his back on Egypt, snootily declaring: “Having been an Egyptian at one time, I know very well how Egyptians think.” But his daughter leaves home against his will to live with her artist boyfriend and ends wretchedly as a drug addict.

Carol’s much older boyfriend John Graham is an academic and former Vietnam War protestor. Because of her color Carol cannot get a decent job and feels obliged to take a job that leads her onto highly dubious ground.

The novel builds towards a climax in which the Egyptian president (who is unnamed) is to visit the consulate in Chicago. Naji and Karam organize a petition highly critical of the Egyptian regime which it is hoped someone will be able to smuggle in and read to the president.

“Chicago” does not fully live up to the thrilling vitality of its predecessor. The somewhat melodramatic tone of some of the episodes jars at times, and the translation reads awkwardly in places. But the novel offers much both to enjoy and to be disturbed by, and gives intriguing glimpses into a world of Egyptians cast adrift.

Susannah Tarbush, Saudi Gazette Sept 8 2008

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