Egypt between the lines

Books The Egyptian writer Alaa al Aswany has become a mouthpiece of sorts for his country.

CAIRO, EGYPT, July 3, 2008; Author Alaa AlAswaani (right) speaks at a booksigning for a friend in Cairo. Victoria Hazou for The National *** Local Caption ***  Aswaani (24).jpg
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I'm driving through Cairo at sunset with the Egyptian novelist Alaa al Aswany. We take the busy road along the Nile, where couples and families are strolling under an orange sky, trying to catch a riverside breeze. A jovial, barrel-chested man in his fifties, with dark skin and frizzy hair, he has a remarkably deep and warm voice, which seems barely affected by the two to three packs of Kent cigarettes he smokes daily.

We're on our way to a book signing by Karima al Hifnawy, a friend of Aswany's and a fellow member in the opposition movement Kifaya ("Enough"), which staged the first public demonstrations calling for an end to President Hosni Mubarak's 28-year regime. Aswany is an outspoken critic of the Mubarak government, both in interviews and in the newspaper ­columns he writes. "You can't ­afford, in the Arab world, to be a novelist or an artist without being committed to some political issues," he says. "Because it's your life and these are your people and you must be engaged, because we have a lot of troubles." At the same time, Aswany insists that he is "a novelist who is politically active and not a politician".

We park in front of an apartment block on the Nile. A traffic policeman approaches, looking for a tip in exchange for keeping an eye on Aswany's car. As they chit-chat, the policeman says something to Aswany in a low voice. Aswany turns to me with a gleam in his eye. "He says state security is here. He told me there are five plain-clothes officers in the building." When we arrive at the publisher's office, several state security officers are in fact in the process of departing. They've been questioning the publisher on the nature of the event. When the book discussion begins, it's easy to guess the reasons for the authorities' interest. Aswany sits next to the author and publisher, facing a packed room that's a who's who of Egyptian opposition figures.

Hifnawy has written a collection of anecdotes from her time working as a pharmacist in the Egyptian countryside. Aswany wrote the introduction. "She's a very courageous, very unusual woman," he says of his friend. "Very devoted to justice. She could have had a much more comfortable life." After getting a big laugh from the audience by joking about his inability to turn off his mobile phone, Aswany launches into a fluid and impassioned speech. "Egypt is a beautiful and mysterious country," he says. He goes on to offer a remarkably optimistic view of the country's potential. "The Egyptian street has always surprised us with what we didn't expect," he says. "We find that in the last few years Egypt has changed, that Egypt is in a state of constant change. For example, as an author, when I started writing 20 years ago or more, I was told: nobody reads literature. And of course this wasn't true. We were told the Egyptian people don't rebel, that you can impose any policies upon them and they won't rebel. It's clear that's not true."

Aswany is referring to the wave of strikes and unrest that has spread through Egypt recently, partly as a result of rising food costs, and has given many regime opponents hope that popular anger will overflow. Aswany commends Hifnawy for putting her principles into practice and going to work in the countryside, helping the poor. He then speaks of the alienation of the Egyptian cultural elite from the people - a subject that the socialist author often expounds upon. "When you become an intellectual, a gulf automatically opens between you and the people. When you become a leftist and a socialist and you ­defend the values of the poor, it's absolutely incomprehensible that you lose the ability to connect to them, or that you see them as lesser creatures. This divide has a literary side also. What's called 'elite literature' for a long time was removed from the people and looked down upon them." Towards the end of his speech, Aswany returns to the state of the country. "I consider that there are two Egypts today, two clearly separate countries with separate goals, separate leadership, separate strategies," he says. "There's the secret, splendid, ­fortunate Egypt? The other Egypt, which no one wants to hear from, is the bigger Egypt, the real Egypt. Seventy five per cent [of the country] lives in darkness." Aswany's best-selling novel, The Yacoubian Building, is set in a real building in downtown Cairo, where the author once had an office. The book tells the stories of the building's inhabitants, from the wealthy tenants who live in its apartments to the poor families that squat in shacks on the roof. The building is clearly a symbol of the nation; the way its denizens exploit, ­humiliate and manipulate each other suggests a general degradation of values and loss of hope. The author uses his interwoven plot lines to exemplify the country's ills - corruption, nepotism, abuse of power, extremism. His narrative barrels forward, full of wide-eyed energy, until each story reaches a neat, often tragic conclusion. The English edition of The Yacoubian Building came out in 2004, and a blockbuster movie based on the book was released in Egypt in the summer of 2006. Some of the inhabitants of the original Yacoubian Building unsuccessfully sued Aswany, claiming he had based characters on them and had associated their residence with "prostitution and homosexuality". When the film was released, some parliamentarians and editorialists raised a furore. All this did nothing but augment the book's sales. Today, The Yacoubian Building has been translated into more than 20 languages. The translation rights to Aswany's latest novel, Chicago, set in the American city where he lived as student - have been picked up by a number of international publishing houses. Aswany grew up in a literary family; his ­father was a writer who encouraged his son's ambitions. "We used to say there were four of us in our house," Aswany says, "my mother, my father, myself and literature." Aswany always saw himself becoming a novelist, but since literature is not a profession that one can generally live on in Egypt, he also studied to become a dentist. Aswany's first office was in the Yacoubian Building that inspired his novel. Today he practices at an address in Garden City - an enclave of winding streets near the city centre, home to foreign embassies and grand, dilapidated villas. It's also the neighbourhood where he was born in 1957. I sit with Aswany in his office. It holds a dental chair at one end and the author's desk - with the laptop where he still does most of his writing - at the other. It's 9.30 at night, and Aswany has just finished seeing his last patient. He tells me how he used to follow a rigorous schedule of writing in the early morning, before seeing patients in the afternoon and evening. In the last few years, he's been able to cut back on his dental practice, but he says he doesn't want to give it up entirely. "This is a window through which I see what's happening in Egyptian society," he says. Aswany often emphasises the importance of human contact to his writing. He likes to tell of the times when he frequented the seedier side of Cairo's downtown, partly in search of inspiration - "I was really motivated to go to unusual places, to see unusual people." Aswany wrote three novels before The ­Yacoubian Building. None of them were published. He submitted one, featuring a hero he describes as "a furious young Egyptian gentleman", to a government-run publishing house. An official there tried to persuade Aswany to write a forward in which he disavowed his narrator's anti-government views. The author refused. Aswany's fortunes started to change when The Yacoubian Building was serialised in Egypt's main literary magazine. Gamal al Ghitany is a renowned novelist and the magazine's editor. He notes that the controversial topics Aswany tackled in his work have been treated in previous works, most notably those of the Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz. But "during the Nineties, the prevailing literary trend was a focus on oneself, and on formal experimentation," says Ghitany. Aswany's work, in this context, was a return to both stylistic bluntness and political engagement. "He's continuing the realist trend that was prevalent in the Fifties and early Sixties before Egyptian literature entered a stage of experimentation," says ­Ghitany. "The Yacoubian Building returned to a concern with plot, with simple, uncomplicated storytelling." "It was the first time in the contemporary Egyptian novel that the writer didn't resort to symbolism" in his critiques, says Mohammed Heshim, whose small, independent publishing house, Merit, is where Aswany finally published his novel, at his own expense, in 2002. "The real value of The Yacoubian Building is its great daring, the way [Aswany] struck so directly." The novel is widely viewed as a ­roman-à-clef, featuring thinly veiled characterisations of well-known ­political power ­brokers. Many felt that the character of the "Big Man", who only appears as a disembodied voice over the telephone, was intended to depict Mubarak. While Aswany's talents are almost universally recognised, one gets the sense that the way his work is described as "traditional", "classic" and "simple" is sometimes a backhanded compliment. None of the writers and publishers I interviewed wanted to go on the record criticising his work. Anonymously, some described it as "easy to read" and "black and white". For his part, Aswany is clearly aware of these criticisms. This awareness may partly fuel his derision of what he considers navel-gazing, highbrow literature. "It's very easy to write a text no one understands," he says. He's ­dismissive of critics ("they apply theories without being able to feel the text") and instead embraces a populist aesthetic (he says he aims to create a text "that's understandable by everyone" but has various levels of meaning). Asked what writers he admires, he mentions such literary giants as Naguib Mahfouz, Youssef Idris and Tayyeb Saleh. Many believe Aswany's success has reinvigorated the Egyptian literary scene, shattering the adage that "nobody reads in Egypt". The success of The Yacoubian Building abroad has also put Aswany in the interesting and difficult position of being a spokesman of sorts for Egypt. He's regularly interviewed by the western press (which has a misguided habit of presenting him as Egypt's lone, taboo-breaking voice for reform). On his book tours, he says, the question-and-answer sessions "every time begin with literature and end with Islam and democracy. Every single time". "I feel much more responsible," Aswany says, now that his audience has become global. But he argues that his readers should understand that "there's a difference between indications and conclusions. Literature offers ­indications. For conclusions you have to turn to sociology". Aswany would like to think that the western interest in his work isn't merely as a "window" into Egyptian society. "In every work there are two elements," says the ­author. "The local element, your knowledge about the society in which you live. But this is the less important element. The more important one is the human element. It's the author's human vision that makes the novel readable everywhere." In this respect, his new novel, Chicago - set among Egyptian expatriates and their American friends and partners - is an interesting experiment. "That was a challenge for me," says the writer, "to make the next novel about something very different. It was to me like a test." Reactions to Chicago so far have been mixed and decidedly less enthusiastic than those to The Yacoubian Building. It's a stiflingly hot July evening. Thirty ­people are crowded into a room at the ­offices of Karama, an unlicensed party with socialist and pan-Arabist views. Cigarette smoke hangs in the room. The single air-conditioner leaks profusely on to the worn wooden floorboards. A large black and white portrait of Gamal Abdel Nasser - smiling, striding under palm trees - hangs on the faded wall. This is the weekly literary salon Aswany presides over. Tonight, a young author is reading from a collection of short stories. ­Aswany interjects a few jokes during the hour-and-a-half discussion and only intervenes to solicit questions. He finally joins in a debate about the use of profanity in literature. "This is one of the biggest issues and problems in the evaluation of literary work, the idea of certain terms and what is socially acceptable or not," he says. "A shock may be required, may be key to the writer's success." Aswany cites examples of graphic terms in classical Arabic literature. As always, he speaks with enthusiasm and humour, skipping from one subject to the next, pausing only long enough to light another cigarette. "In the humanities, and in literature, there aren't the same demarcations as in natural science," he says. "In medicine, what's defined and true is ­defined and true. Literature isn't like that; it's open to all possibilities and points of view. This is what leads to its dynamism and richness. And to its problems."