Tuesday, July 07, 2009

alaa al-aswany's 'friendly fire'

Alaa al-Aswany trains his “Friendly Fire” on Britain
Susannah Tarbush

The Egyptian novelist Alaa al-Aswany has enjoyed phenomenal success with his novels “The Yacoubian Building” (first published in Arabic in 2002) and “Chicago” (2007). They were runaway bestsellers in Egypt and other Arab countries, and were translated into 27 languages.

Between publication of these two novels, a collection of his earlier work was published in Arabic in 2004 under the title “Friendly Fire”. It consists of a novella entitled “The Isam Abd el-Ati Papers” and a number of short stories.

Al-Aswany recently visited Britain for the publication by the Harper Collins imprint Fourth Estate of the English edition of “Friendly Fire” in an excellent translation by Humphrey Davies.

Al-Aswany is much appreciated in Britain, where Fourth Estate published the English translation of “The Yacoubian Building” in 2007. Publication of the English edition of “Chicago” in Britain by the same publisher last year further boosted his standing.

There is something very appealing about Al-Aswany, with his husky bass voice, his vivid manner of expressing himself in English, his humor, and the inspiring way in which he speaks of writing and literature. Alongside his literary career he still practices as a dentist, and is a campaigner for democracy.

During his latest visit to Britain he was much in demand by the media and for literary events including a speaking engagement and book signing at the famous Foyles Bookshop in London’s Charing Cross Road.

This was the third time in little more than a year that Al-Aswany had appeared before a packed audience at Foyle’s, an indication of his popularity with readers. He was interviewed by the Iraqi playwright and Imperial College scientist Hassan Abdulrazzak, author of the play “Baghdad Wedding”.

Asked why he chose the title “Friendly Fire”, Al-Aswany said he found it to be “very consistent with the content of the stories. You could be damaged very severely by the people who are closest to you.”

In his preface to the book, Al-Aswany reveals that he based the character of Isam Abd el-Ati, the first- person narrator of his novella, on his late friend Mahmoud Mahmoud Mahmoud, known as Triple Mahmoud. Isam is “a frustrated, highly educated young man who suffers from the tyranny, corruption and hypocrisy in Egyptian society.” His growing alienation leads to a loosening of his grip on reality, and a passionate encounter with a German woman proves to be a tipping point.

The novella begins with the famous statement of the Egyptian nationalist leader Mustafa Kamil: “If I weren’t Egyptian I would want to be Egyptian.” Isam mocks this as “the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard” and challenges the reader to find a single Egyptian virtue.

In his preface Al-Aswany gives an account of his dealings with the General Egyptian Book Organization (GEBO), which he had initially hoped would publish the novella. GEBO functionaries accused Al-Aswany of being anti-Egyptian, despite the author’s insistence it was his fictional character Isam, and not he himself, who expressed such views. When negotiations with GEBO fell through, Al-Aswany published the novella privately together with some short stories in an edition of some 300 copies.

After the huge success of “The Yacoubian Building”, publishers were keen to get hold of earlier material that Al-Aswany had written. Even then, one major publisher was nervous about publishing the novella, and “Friendly Fire” was eventually published by the pioneering publisher Merit. The book’s novella and 16 short stories are marked by the powerful characterization and the storytelling gift evident in Al-Aswany’s two novels.

Al-Aswany is interested in the psychological process whereby someone who is oppressed becomes in turn an oppressor. In “The Kitchen Boy” he gives a portrait of the tyrannical Dr Bassiouni, the General Surgery department chairman. Hisham, a brilliant medical student, desperately seeks the key to ingratiating himself with Bassiouni.

In another story a husband who suspects his wife of infidelity after finding an incriminating letter tells her they must get a divorce. He ignores her request that they discuss the matter and beats her to a pulp. She submits to his violence, but the person he really injures is himself.

Three of the stories are set in boys’ schools. Al-Aswany sees childhood as “a treasure, and something very precious for fiction. Children are much more profound than they look – they have many more feelings than we expect.” A disabled boy with an artificial leg experiences a brief moment of ecstasy and freedom after he persuades a classmate to let him ride his bicycle. In “Izzat Amin Iskandar a grossly fat boy is tormented by his classmates when a teacher forces him to participate in a gym lesson.

Al-Aswany is sensitive to the position of women. In one story a young man takes advantage of a poor girl and in effect ruins her. He then courts a beautiful head-scarfed fellow accountancy student who manipulates him into marrying her by feigning shock after he kisses her.

In “Latin and Greek” a young woman graduate from a poor family answers an advertisement to teach French to a seven-year-old boy. She walks out of the job interview when the would-be employer, sensing her desperate need of the job, tries to humiliate her.

“Dearest Sister Makarim” takes the form of a letter to a woman from her brother working in Saudi Arabia. The whiny letter reveals the meanness of the brother, and the plight of the sister left in Egypt to cope with their cancer-stricken mother.

Asked what he is currently writing, Al-Aswany smiles and says it is “very dangerous” to talk about a work in progress. He takes several years to write a novel, waking at 6am every day to write for a few hours before donning his dentist’s gown. Part of his motivation for writing is the belief he has “a wonderful idea, so if I tell you the idea now and I see on your face that it is no big deal I will stop writing”. He will only say that the current novel is set in 1940s Egypt.

Al-Aswany, who is 52 this year, is keen to encourage a younger generation of fiction writers. He is the chairman of the panel of judges of ‘Beirut 39’, a collaboration between the Hay Festival and Beirut World Capital of the Book 2009. The idea is to bring together the 39 most interesting Arab writers aged 39 years old or less on a list to be announced in September.

Al-Aswany hopes that the Beirut39 list will include some lesser-known writers. He was previously the chair of a competition of novels in Egypt, organized by the newspaper Akhbar El -Yom. He presented a shortlist of ten novels, and then three winners, none of which were well known to critics or the public. “I am very proud that I did that and I must tell you that, to me and the judges, many of these ten names write much better than very known names. I believe that we must really work hard to present real talents, and not to stay in the same circle of people who are known.”

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