Ten years ago Alaa Al Aswany was about to give up writing and emigrate to New Zealand. A practising dentist in Cairo, he had toiled at fiction for a decade but had been rejected on three occasions by the General Egyptian Book Organisation (Gebo), the powerful state-run publishers, the last time on his 41st birthday.
“This man told me: ‘I will never publish you’, and hung up the phone,” he says. “I had the most miserable birthday, feeling I’d never make it in literature. I’d given it everything.”
He made one last push. A novel was accepted by a small, independent publisher in Cairo. The first edition of The Yacoubian Building (2002) sold out within four weeks, and the novel became the Arab world’s No 1 bestseller for five successive years, selling more than 250 000 copies in a region where print runs seldom exceed 3 000. It was made into a hit film in Arabic in 2006, directed by Marwan Hamed, and an Egyptian television serial last year. The book’s success spread to 21 other languages.
Al Aswany (now 51) lives in Garden City, just south of downtown Cairo, with his wife, Iman Taymur, and their two daughters, May (12) and Nada (11).
He says he is unwilling to give up his clinic, despite being a rarity among Arabic novelists in being able to live from his writing. “Dentistry is my window on Egyptian society,” he says.
“Success can be dangerous — you get isolated. But if you block your contact with the street, you’re in trouble. More than 60% of Egyptians are below the poverty line. I must keep loyal to them, or I’ll lose everything.”
For 15 years, Al Aswany has written newspaper columns critical of President Hosni Mubarak, who has been in power since 1981. He is a member of Writers and Artists for Change, and Doctors for Change, within the opposition movement known as Kifaya (Enough). Barred from the premiere of Hamed’s film of his book at the insistence of the government, whose high-ups were there, he says: “I felt I had so much power. They were obliged to hear my ideas, but they couldn’t tolerate my presence.” Literature, he believes, “does not change the situation — for democracy you must engage in direct political action — but it changes the reader, teaches us to be less judgemental”.
His latest novel, Chicago (2007), has sold more than 120 000 copies in Arabic, and an English translation was published on September 1.
Set around a Chicago campus in the present, it draws on two years the author spent at the University of Illinois in the mid-1980s, on a scholarship to study dentistry. The focus is on Arab expatriates, including the poet and medical student Nagi, who is involved in a movement for democracy. Through characters such as Salah, an Egyptian intellectual in love with a Jewish-American woman, and Shaymaa, a veiled woman who questions the sexual constraints of her upbringing, the novel tackles issues such as extramarital sex, abortion and antiSemitism. It exposes a pervasive system of patronage in which mediocrity rises and rebellion has grave costs.
Some readers have been disappointed by a failure of nerve on the part of one of the rebels. “When Salah was supposed to make a stand, I was hoping he’d make it,” Al Aswany says. “But he lost his courage. This is happening every day. Giving a picture of people who are not very courageous is a way to push you to do something yourself.”
One student in the novel is a spy for the Egyptian secret police in a post 9/11 world of collaboration between United States and Arab security services. An exiled dissident is seized by the FBI on charges fabricated by Egyptian intelligence. “I love America but hate American foreign policy, coming from a part of the world damaged for years by it,” Al Aswany says. “The cooperation between the FBI, CIA and Arab dictators is documented, even in Congress. American detainees are exported to be tortured in Arab dictatorships and they come back with confessions. Why do dirty work in my house if I can do it elsewhere?”
While a shadowy political heavyweight named the “Big Man” is off-stage in The Yacoubian Building, in Chicago an unnamed Egyptian leader shows up. His demeanour is haughty, “as if he were a crowned king” and “his hair, dyed jet black, was rumoured to be one of the best hairpieces available in the world”.
Al Aswany was born in Cairo in 1957, an only child. His mother Zeinab, from Alexandria, was a “real fighter” and worked at the youth ministry. Her uncle was minister of education before the 1952 revolution that overthrew the monarchy and brought Gamal Abdel Nasser to power. Al Aswany’s father, Abbas, was a “self-made man from the south”, a novelist and lawyer who won the state award for literature in 1972, and died when Aswany was 19. “My father gave me space to evolve. He said, ‘you must keep writing. The day it’s not your first priority, you must quit.'”
He reads four languages, including French and Spanish, but decided against emulating the nouveau roman and was pushed towards realism. “For 20 years Arab novelists have thought that the way Westerners write is best, so if you tell stories you’re old-fashioned. I was strongly against this. I keep my own voice. The novel is like a love affair: if you plan everything you spoil the most beautiful part.” He found a “language that’s literary but not complicated — easy to read, but very difficult to write”.
For 10 years, Al Aswany has run weekly seminars for young writers and students in downtown cafes. “Last year the government threatened the owner of a cafe, but we continue to meet. I’m proud that we’ve had young fanatics there; some have become my friends. I feel a commitment towards these young people, who don’t really have an education. To be fanatic is to categorise people, not to see the human being. Literature is the opposite, it’s a very individual vision of life.”
For Al Aswany, who “waited 20 years to be read”, his sales are a “reward from readers. They mean Egypt is still more tolerant than it appears.” —