N ovels about migrants are everywhere at present. Most of these writers can be said to approach the subject with optimism, in that they believe that the goal of making a successful life in a new country is eminently achievable. It's a view that is encouraged by the present-day reality of mass migration, as well as by the other accoutrements of globalisation. Thanks to travel, the internet and satellite television, the boundaries between countries seem more permeable than they used to, and these days when you move abroad you can take many aspects of your old life with you.
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A laa Al Aswany, the Egyptian novelist, became famous overnight in the Arab world with the publication of his first novel, The Yacoubian Building, in That compulsively readable book, which became a massive bestseller in Arabic, focused on a once grand but now decaying building in central Cairo; it was set during the Gulf war and offered a microcosm of Egyptian society. Al Aswany wrote in a fearless manner, especially when it came to sexual and political matters. In the mix of characters living in the building one found, for instance, an extravagant playboy, a gay intellectual, and a devout Islamic fundamentalist.
The author drew each portrait with a bravado that was something new under the Middle Eastern sun. Chicago, his eagerly awaited second novel, is not as interesting or fully realised as the first, but has undeniable charms of its own. Al Aswany has a Dickensian sense of character, and one will not easily forget the ghastly Ahmad Danana, who runs the Egyptian Students' Union in Chicago, where the book is set.
As his new wife soon discovers, he has miserly and selfish tendencies. And it's even worse than that: "To put it bluntly, she hated the way her husband had intercourse with her. Danana stands in contrast to an appealing mathematician, Nagi Abd al-Samad, who reveals himself wonderfully in his journal, as when he writes: "The soldier fights his enemies ferociously, wishing to annihilate them all.
But if he were destined, just once, to cross to the other side and to walk among them, he would see one of them writing letters to his wife, another looking at his children's photos, and a third shaving and humming a tune. Among Al Aswany's other memorable characters is Shaymaa Muhammadi, who is "over thirty, still unmarried because her position as instructor in the College of Medicine has greatly reduced her chances, since Eastern men usually prefer that their wives be less educated than they".
Her story is told with special poignancy. There is also Dr Muhammad Salah, who has adapted fairly well to life in the United States, although he pines for a lost love in Egypt; indeed, he yearns for Egypt itself. The cast of characters is a large one, and Chicago weaves together their various stories - too many of them, perhaps.
An impending visit by the president of Egypt produces all sorts of plot possibilities, setting off a good deal of subterfuge. The spectre of an embarrassing political protest, for example, excites the "arrogant and suspicious" Safwat Shakir, a sleazy government agent with a military background and one of the least likeable actors in Al Aswany's motley troupe. To these Egyptians abroad the novelist adds a small group of Americans, mostly professors in the department of histology.
But the American characters are scarcely believable, being thinly drawn caricatures who speak in a wooden manner, representing competing points of view and nothing more. This is a shrewdly conceived novel: by isolating his Egyptians in an alien culture, Al Aswany finds the pressure points in their personalities, as each undergoes cultural traumas of one kind or another.
There are profound, often chilling, moments of self-realisation along the way, as when the unhappy Dr Salah descends one morning into the basement of his house and uncovers an old suitcase that contains the clothes he had brought to America from Egypt 30 years before: "He thought at the time they were elegant but discovered immediately that they were not suitable for America; wearing them he looked as if he had come from another planet or as if he were a character that had stepped out of a period play.
Alaa Al Aswany is among the best writers in the Middle East today, a suitable heir to the mantle worn by Naguib Mahfouz, his great predecessor, whose influence is felt on every page. Yet Al Aswany has his own magic. His remarkable gift for narrative momentum sustains Chicago. It may not reach the heights of The Yacoubian Building, but it reveals a gifted novelist in mid-flight. Topics Fiction. Alaa al-Aswany reviews. Reuse this content. Most popular.
Tales of the Windy City
Since the publication of his successful debut The Yacoubian Building , Alaa Al Aswany has become one of Egypt's most celebrated writers, a vocal opponent to the corruption and nepotism that have characterized President Mubarek's regime. Their storylines are connected through the Department of Histology at the University of Illinois, and histology—the microscopic study of cross-sections of biological tissues—offers a fitting analogy for Al Aswany's narrative technique: a poetic examination of the delicate anatomy of ordinary life. Al Aswany overlaps slices of the daily acts of his myriad characters who are linked to one another through a shared place. In The Yacoubian Building , that place is an apartment complex in Cairo, a microcosm of post Egypt. An academic department, however, is a site that brings together individuals from a variety of national and cultural backgrounds. In both novels, Al Aswany illustrates that the cruelties of domesticity marital infidelities, self-destructive children are inextricable from the brutalities of larger political forces—domestic and international.
Review: Chicago by Alaa Al Aswany
Sukhdev Sandhu sinks into a gripping, steamy and occasionally soapy novel from one of Egypts bestselling writers. Ed King reviews Chicago. There are writers and there are storytellers. Alaa Al Aswany is definitely, defiantly, a storyteller. Lexical obscurities, ambiguities of characterisation, tricksy narrative devices: all are anathema to this best-selling Egyptian author.
Between two worlds
The result, at least for American readers, is perplexing, like a fun-house mirror in which we recognize ourselves only intermittently. With the vaguest of physical description, it functions merely as an exotic backdrop, alien and menacing to the Egyptian characters who have journeyed there. A slap on the face and lack of interest in foreplay are insufficient, her mother advises. One man, impotent after decades of marriage to an American woman, is haunted by the memory of an Egyptian girl he once loved, an activist who called him a coward for abandoning his homeland. Al Aswany writes about his Egyptian characters with charm, gentle humor and genuine conviction.