Included on this page: Biography, Interview with Jeffrey Brown of PBS Arts : Interview with: Alaa Al Aswany by Maya Jaggi of The Guardian UK; Review of The Yacoubian Building by Nana Asfour; Early interview with Alaa al Aswany.
Since the release of his first novel, “The Yacoubian Building,” in 2002, Alaa al Aswany has catapulted from being a dentist with a literary bent to the Arab-speaking world’s best-selling fiction writer. But that hasn’t stopped him from continuing to see patients a couple times a week in his Cairo dental office.
His latest book, “Chicago,” traces the lives of Egyptian emigres in post-9/11 America. It chronicles the immediate challenges faced by newly arrived medical students at the University of Illinois and also the longing for an Egypt left decades before by the professors who teach them.
Al Aswany does not shy away from potentially controversial issues involving sexuality, religion or politics. And “Chicago” is no different. Like “The Yacoubian Building,” which was made into a film in 2006, those sensitive subjects have not lead to widespread backlash or condemnation, but instead placed him among the most-read writers in the Arab world.
Listen to interview Alaa al AsWany by Jeffrey Brown. Cut and paste following link.
Interview: Alaa Al Aswany by Maya Jaggi
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 publishers 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; last year’s UK edition sold 60,000 copies.
Inspired by a real art-deco block in downtown Cairo where the author had his first dental clinic, The Yacoubian Building is set at the time of the 1990 Gulf war. What were once luxury apartments in the colonial quarter have seen the flight of the rich since the 70s, and an influx of rooftop squatters from the countryside. The building unites residents from disparate milieux: from Zaki Bey, an ageing playboy and property owner, and Hatim Rasheed, a gay, aristocratic journalist, to Taha, a janitor’s pious son who turns suicide bomber, and Busayna, a sexually harassed shop assistant. Al Aswany creates a microcosm of Egyptian society and the forces that plague it – ruthless profiteering, political corruption and prejudice, police torture, Islamic extremism.
The Egyptian novelist Gamal al-Ghitani praised the book as having “enriched the art of the Egyptian novel”, while, for the Lebanese writer and journalist Elias Khoury, it “reinvented the popular Egyptian novel, which had died”. According to its English translator, Humphrey Davies, who lives in Cairo, the novel “met a critical need for books to address sensitive issues in Egyptian society – political corruption and social oppression – head on. There was a sigh of relief in the Arab world: at last, a book that calls a spade a spade.” Davies feels that, until now, acclaim for the 1988 Nobel literature laureate Naguib Mahfouz, who died in 2006, may have overshadowed other Egyptian writers.
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. Speaking in a hotel beside the Nile, and later in London, 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 (Mahfouz was a government bureaucrat). “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 judgmental”.
His latest novel, Chicago (2007), has sold more than 120,000 copies in Arabic, and an English translation is 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 extra-marital 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 US 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 concedes that his success may have given him greater freedom as a writer. “A young blogger could be arrested easily.” He cites Kareem Amer, serving four years in jail for a blog deemed insulting to religion and the president, and his own friend Ibrahim Issa, editor-in-chief of the oppositional daily Al-Dustour, who is facing a six-month prison sentence for speculating on the health of the elderly president. “It’s a pretext – they wanted him in prison by any means.”
Chicago was first a hit serial in Al-Dustour. “Some fanatics sent insults. One said he’d never accept that a veiled woman would have a relationship outside marriage. I said: ‘It’s a fiction; Shaymaa doesn’t represent all veiled women. And if you don’t like my novel, why do you read it every week?'”
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 Alaa 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 attended the French lycée before studying dentistry at Cairo university. “I had a liberal education. I was a child when Egypt was tolerant. At the lycée there were Jews, Copts, Catholics; we’d celebrate three or four religious feasts. This is the secret of Egyptian civilisation: we’ve been absorbing cultures for 60 centuries.” That open, cosmopolitan society changed, in his view, only after Nasser’s rule ended in 1970, in the late-70s and 80s – partly, he believes, thanks to the growing influence of Wahhabism, “the desert interpretation of Islam”. Al Aswany considers Nasser a “great leader, who guaranteed free education for social mobility, but made one big mistake: he left the machinery of dictatorship. He was the No 1 enemy in the western media in the 50s and 60s, and was afraid of establishing political parties that could be used against him. But without democratic rule, even if you’re not corrupt, you lose your vision.”
As a dentist for 6,000 cement factory workers in southern Cairo, Al Aswany grasped at the “opportunity to keep contact with a world I’d never see elsewhere”. His first wife, also a dentist, “didn’t understand me, though she’s still my friend. I could have stayed in America or worked in the Gulf and made a fortune, but I refused. I was learning how to write.” He also declined to churn out screenplays for Egypt’s Bollywood (“for me, it’s a cerebral haemorrhage”). When Al Aswany remarried in 1993, into a family of Greek-speaking Egyptians from Alexandria, he told his wife his only dream was to be a novelist.
He reads four languages, including French and Spanish, but decided against emulating the nouveau roman, and was pushed towards realism by an encounter with Mahfouz in Alexandria. “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”.
An early novella, The Papers of Essam Abdel Aaty (1990), and two short story collections were “printed not published”. With friends, he paid for and distributed 500 copies himself. “I got good reviews, but I called myself a successful writer without readers.” “Every time you have trouble with the corrupt system in Egypt,” one mentor told him, “you must respond by writing more.” In the novella, he says, “a young Egyptian hears government propaganda that we Egyptians taught the world how to write, and says: ‘Where are the pharoahs? I don’t see any.’ I was accused of insulting my country – which is very dangerous.”
But rather than be published abroad, in Lebanon, Al Aswany held out, since imported books are easier to ban. A daring press called Merit – founded in 1998 and run by the writer and activist Mohamed Hashem – published The Yacoubian Building, before it was taken up by the largest commercial publishers in Egypt, Dar al-Shorouk. Merit also published Friendly Fire (2004), a selection of his earlier work, to be published in the UK next year. Yet even now, Al Aswany says: “I’m making money only because I’m a bestseller in the west.”
In a new introduction to Friendly Fire, he takes his rejection by Gebo as a sign of the control exerted by state publishing. “The government doesn’t want writers to survive from their writing, because, in any country without democracy, an independent writer or journalist is a threat,” he says. “They want to keep any intellectual under pressure. You don’t have the time or concentration to rebel.” He encouraged Gebo to republish his father’s work, but believes that he was punished for his own political outspokenness in the pittance they paid. He is suing Gebo to force disclosure of how it allocates public funds. “It’s not the money, it’s the principle,” he says. “I said: ‘It’s the Egyptian people’s money, not yours’. If I compromise, I’ll betray my father.”
There are, he believes, “two related struggles in Egypt: the one for democracy and justice; and the one between a tolerant culture and Wahhabism”. The strength of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has a fifth of seats in the people’s assembly, allows the government to pose as a bulwark against Islamism. “The fanatics are not real opponents of the regime, but a complication of it. If you’re young and don’t have hope, you’re pushed to be a criminal or a fanatic.”
For 10 years, Al Aswany has run weekly seminars for young writers and students in downtown cafés. “Last year the government threatened the owner of a café, 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.” At the seminar he met the model for Taha in The Yacoubian Building. The man on whom the character was based “was a very good student, but was passed over as a policeman because he was from the wrong class”, says Al Aswany. “He said, ‘I hate this country; this government is full of thieves’, and he had a point. I felt that, faced with a certain injustice, anyone could become dangerous, a terrorist, because he had lost the dream of his life.”
Yet Al Aswany remains optimistic. “Any ruler in history with strategic plans, from Alexander the Great to George Bush, has had to control Egypt. We’ve had terrible rulers, and been occupied many times. We’re professors of compromise. But the moment Egyptians believe compromise is no longer working, they revolt. I believe we’re at such a moment.” Earlier this year, as rising food prices sparked riots, security forces were sent to break strikes that were spreading from the country’s biggest textile factory, in Mahalla. Meanwhile, a crackdown on the country’s media independence began last autumn. “You can’t be an unelected regime and be liberal at the same time,” Al Aswany says. “What we have is not freedom of expression as a tool of democracy, but freedom of talk as a decoration of the regime. For more than 10 years, you can say what you want, but the regime does what it wants. If you attack a minister, they might even be promoted.”
Though there has been persecution of homosexuals, “there’s a big difference between the culture and the regime”, he says. “Arab culture was very tolerant. There’s a category of Arabic poetry about homosexual feelings.” He adds: “You can’t defend the human rights of a group in society while everybody else is deprived of them. There are 60,000 Egyptians detained without charge – many are in prison for more than 10 years – and torture is a daily practice. What’s happening to homosexuals is happening to all Egyptians.”
Apart from lawsuits brought against Al Aswany by former residents of the Yacoubian building who claim he used them in his novel, fame has had other downsides. According to Davies, “The stink of sour grapes is all over the Arab world about Alaa’s success.” Yet in the view of Cairo novelist Ahmed Alaidy, The Yacoubian Building boosted independent publishing and began a “new era which can’t be ignored, either by those who loved the novel or by those who hated it, as it disproved claims that Arabs aren’t great readers”.
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.”
Aaal Al Aswany on Aaal Al Aswany
“After all this time he still remembered Zeinab Radwan. In fact, he had never stopped thinking about her for a single day. The old pictures were appearing in his mind with amazing clarity. The foodgates of memory opened, came over and swept him away, as if the past were a gigantic genie let out of the bottle. There she was, standing before him, with her petite figure, her beautiful face, and her long black hair that she gathered in a ponytail. Her eyes were gleaming with enthusiasm as she talked to him in that dreamy voice of hers as if she were reciting a love poem. ‘Our country is great, Salah, but it has been oppressed for a long time. Our people have tremendous abilities. If we have democracy, Egypt will become a strong, advanced country in less than 10 years.'”
Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany
Translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies
The American University in Cairo Press, 2004
Reviewed by Nana Asfour
Constructed as a series of vignettes about characters whose fates will soon converge, a stylistic device highly popular in today’s Hollywood, Egyptian author Alaa Al Aswany’s Arabic best-seller The Yacoubian Building brings to life a seedy and despicable Cairo where only the corrupted and the corruptible can fare well. The book focuses mainly on the residents of the Yacoubian building, a once-chic but now rundown edifice that acts as a metaphor for Cairo’s own deterioration. Gone are the crème de la crème of Egyptian society who lived in the building during the city’s heydays of the thirties and forties. In their stead, a new breed of Cairenes has moved in. All in all, they constitute a loathsome bunch: conniving, egotistic, coarse, violent and dejected.
In this scathing critique of contemporary Egypt, one is hard put to find a redeemable character. Both men and women are manipulative and thieving, with women using their seductive prowess to trap men into self-serving situations. But Al Aswany goes to great length to also show how these people are all victims of their merciless society: Busayna comes to accept her employer’s groping in the backroom because she has a family to support; Souad pretends to enjoy sex with her elderly husband because he can provide for her son from another marriage. It is undoubtedly this groundbreaking literary rendition of Egyptian realism, served with a heavy dose of humor, that has made the book such a hit with the local audience (two years running), and that, despite the awkward translation in parts, renders it an entertaining and revelatory read for those intrigued by Egyptian culture.
Al Aswany’s Egypt is a cruel place, one that forces many of its citizens into compromising situations. Even men are reduced to a form of semi-prostitution. Though Abduh, an illiterate family man from rural Egypt, appears to have consensually entered into a relationship with Hatim, a refined editor of a newspaper, it is never clear whether he is in it for pleasure or by necessity. Hatim, after all, not only arranges work and lodging for his lover but also promises to pay for anything Abduh’s wife or son might need. The book is set around the first Gulf War, when homosexuality in Egypt is taboo—it is not clear if now, almost fifteen years later, attitudes in this regard have at all changed—and Abduh struggles to overcome his society’s and Islam’s stern disapproval of his bedtime activities with Hatim.
It is only recently that Arab film and literature have started to approach the subject of sex with unflinching openness. Following that lead, The Yacoubian Building is filled with sexual harassment, promiscuity, homosexuality, and even pedophilia, all described in graphic detail. It is also only as of late that authors and filmmakers have begun to examine the omnipotent presence of religion in their society. Al Aswany, a dentist by profession and a regular contributor to Egyptian newspapers and magazines, derisively portrays the contradiction between many of the protagonists’ thoughts, actions and utterances and their piousness. Big-shot lawyer Kamal el Fouli and his cohort, Hagg Azzam, in whose favor El Fouli rigs the People’s Assembly vote, pepper their wheeling and dealing with “God willing,” and justify their actions by implying that they are but implementing God’s will: “Our Lord created the Egyptians to accept authority,” el Fouli tells Azzam.
El Fouli and Azzam are not the only ones trading money and favors. Little gets done in Al Aswany’s Egypt without wasta, bribery. “This country doesn’t belong to us,” one mother tells her disappointed son, rejected from his dream job because his father is a doorkeeper. “It belongs to the people who have money.” For the young men and women, such as Talal and his sweetheart, Busayna, this injustice is too much to bear. While Busayna gives into her dejection until she herself becomes as indifferent and heartless as her surroundings, Talal seeks solace—and reparation—in Islam. In following Talal’s ascension to martyrdom, the author illustrates the Egyptian government’s vicious clamping down on Islamists, a policy that the book suggests has only fed the hatred the young feel for their leaders and aggrandized their sense of betrayal.
The mounting pressure of life down-at-the-heels leads to more than one act of violence and Al Aswany deftly builds up the narrative to the boiling point. But instead of ending his book with an explosive bang, one that might leave an indelible mark on the reader, the novelist chooses to keep things light, resorting to a Hollywood-style finale, where everything ties up nicely and happily. Was this intentional irony on the part of Al Aswany? Perhaps. But now that this highly popular and controversial book is being made into a big-budget Egyptian film, one can’t help but wonder if the author’s cinematic-like approach was not a calculated decision all along.
Nana Asfour works at the New Yorker and writes about the Middle East. Her articles have appeared in the New York Times, Travel + Leisure and ARTnews
All Things Considered, February 22, 2005 · The controversial, best-selling Egyptian novel The Yacoubian Building describes a country that is corrupt, unfair and thuggish. It follows the lives of residents both rich and poor of the Yacoubian, an actual apartment building in downtown Cairo.
Now, the novel is being made into a star-studded, $3 million film — a large budget by Egyptian standards — which the producer hopes will be “an Egyptian Ocean’s Eleven.”
But the significance of The Yacoubian Building transcends its record-setting budget and its pantheon of top Egyptian actors.
Yacoubian takes a look at sometimes uncomfortable truths about life in contemporary Egypt. It tackles subjects considered taboo in traditional Egyptian society, such as homosexuality, and even features a corrupt imam.
Wahid Hamed is Egypt’s most celebrated screenwriter and wrote the screenplay for Yacoubian. “I think [the movie] will be like a document of the time we live in,” he says, noting that the movie says in public what many citizens are thinking in private.
Underlying the novel — and the making of the film version — is a fundamental question: How undemocratic is a society that tolerates such scathing criticism?
Robert Siegel talks with the creative minds behind The Yacoubian Building — author Alaa Al Aswany and father-and-son team, screenwriter Wahid Hamed and director Marwan Hamed — about sex, religion, filmmaking, literature and freedom of expression in Egypt.
Alaa Al Aswany on The Yacoubian Building
Q: What was the first spark of inspiration for this novel?
A: I got the idea for this book ten years ago. I was walking in downtown Cairo and saw that the American University people were destroying an old building in order to build a new campus. I looked into the old building and saw empty rooms littered with small things the inhabitants had left behind: old towels, mirrors, student notebooks. I kept watching the scene and I thought, “Every one of these rooms has a history full of dramas.” Each room had seen a baby born, the pleasure of love, a hard-working student, the pain of a divorce, etc. I told myself, “If I can write the tale of just one of those rooms, it would be a good novel.” Some days later I began work on The Yacoubian Building.
Q: Some of Egypt’s most famous actors and a much-lauded screenwriter made a film based on The Yacoubian Building. Have you seen it? How do you feel about it?
A: Yes, I have seen it in New York at the Tribeca Film Festival. I did like it and it was very good and extremely well-received. I felt that it was loyal to the novel. It kept the atmosphere and message as well.
Q: The novel is currently the best-selling book in the Arabic language, which might surprise most Westerners given its critique of government and handling of homosexuality and radical Islamists. How did the novel become so popular?
A: Probably because it’s a good novel. I don’t know as I don’t think the author has the right to evaluate his own work. The author must write and this is his only job. It’s up to the readers and critics to assess the novel.
Q: he novel seems to bemoan an encroaching corruption in Egyptian society, but that’s arguably the case worldwide. Is this not, perhaps, an unavoidable aspect of democratization?
A: I believe the corruption in Egypt comes from the dictatorship. To me, democracy is actually the best thing we have to fight against corruption. In Egypt we have an undemocratic society and as a result of this we have corruption. In political science there is a known phrase that describes this principle: “total authority is total corruption.”
Q: Who are your favorite Egyptian authors, and which novels in particular do you think should be introduced to American readers?
A: I believe Noble prize winner Naguib Mahfouz is not only the best Egyptian novelist, but also the best Arab novelist. I highly recommend American readers read all of his works.