Thursday, November 15, 2007

"Chicago" a new Egyptian Novel

"Alaa El-Aswany's second novel, Chicago - a 450-page tome set in the histology department of the university where Aswany earned his phD in that American state many years ago - has been even better received than The Yaqoubian Building, adapted into a movie last year.

"El-Aswany's name has become synonymous with best-selling literature, indeed even beyond the Arab world - evidence of which was to be had last week at the local launch of Actes Sud's French edition of Chicago, held at the French Cultural Centre and attended by some 200 Egyptian and French readers. [...]

"[...] The structure of Chicago [...] is different, like a gallery of portraits, each one executed down to the tiniest, most interesting detail: Shaimaa and Tarek as the couple hoping to conclude their love with a happy marriage; Salah, the professor locked up in his past love for Zeinab; and Nagui, questioning his very own existence. Each portrait takes up a prominent place inside the gallery, but beyond the gallery hall, as it were, only the faintest bonds hold the portraits together; and a closer look reveals that that gallery hall is more or less synonymous with Egypt.

"Besides the Egyptian characters, there are a number of Americans humanely portrayed: Carol, a black single mother who ends up as a nude model after failing to earn enough to cover her child's expenses, is one such. [...]

"Nagui, a communist student, starts out seeing the US as the Arab world's greatest enemy, but as time goes by, he finds out that America it is less ugly than it appears from a distance - but no more attractive either.

"'The most interesting implication in this novel is its reference to the clash of civilizations, as well as many aspects of the difference between North and South.' Confirming such ideas to his audience at the Centre, Aswany seemed more excited than ever before: 'Creating the characters was the most difficult part. I used to wake up in the morning and write down the details pertaining to each character separately. For example, if I'm writing about Shaimaa (who is a based on a real person I met while studying in Chicago), I will list her age, the colour of her hair, whether or not she smokes - until I get to the point where I can see her fully embodied before my eyes. So then we I am writing, if I feel confused, I can go back and consult these fully formed creations...' [...]

"In both Yaqoubian and Chicago, explicit sex is frequent and graphic but hardly provocative and never erotic: it is either comic - as in Tarek and Shaimaa's first sexual encounter, or horrific, as in the sexual abuse of detainees and their wives by security forces back home. Still, Aswany's portrayal of Lieutenant Safwat Shakir's behaviour with the wives of political detainees is truly brilliant, reflecting a striking mix of the abuse of power and obsessive lust that informs this type of character. [...]

"'Chicago has sold over 75,000 copies in Egypt since January, but I am getting negative reactions all the time. [...]' Aswany added sadly, [...]. Still, the novel will be adapted for the screen, though Aswany gave no further details. Nor did he reveal what he intends to write about next, and whether, as one audience member prophesied, it would be political corruption in Egypt: 'One day we will all disappear and so will political dictatorships, but the novel will stay. For me, writing a novel is like falling in love with a beautiful woman - you can never tell how and when you will fall in love again.'

Source: Al Ahram Weekly (Egypt), 8-14 November, 2007