Alaa al-Aswani's "Chicago"

America, Do You Have It Better?

Alaa al-Aswani's international bestseller "The Yacoubian Building" pounced with relish and insistence upon the taboos of an Egyptian society. This time, Alaa al-Aswani sends his characters to Chicago. A review by Angela Schader

photo: AP
Alaa al-Aswani. In "Chicago", his new novel, the scene has shifted to the United States, and God's Own Country gets a few swats on the nose - as does his native Egypt

​​Evidently the Egyptian censorship authorities are not as ruthless as some reports would suggest, at least not always. How else could a novel that exposes the systematic discrimination against the Copts, goes into a detailed examination of the advantages of the vibrator and even sneaks a peak behind the face-lifted façade of the Egyptian head of state – how else could a work so contemptuous of morality and patriotism possibly preview as a serial in one of Egypt's largest weeklies while already having gone into its fifth printing in the Arabic original?

One might think that Alaa al-Aswani, the author of the novel in question, enjoys a kind of immunity due to his no less successful debut novel. Admittedly, that book too, published in English as "The Yacoubian Building", pounced with equal relish and insistence upon the taboos of an Egyptian society fluctuating wildly between political rigor mortis and religious renaissance.

Al-Aswani literally turned a Cairo apartment building upside down by illuminating the squalid lives of the immigrants living in sweltering containers installed on the roof as well as the precarious existence of the building's bon vivants and social climbers. The novel met with such an immediate, powerful public and media response that the censorship authorities showed lenience for once.

The long shadow of power

In "Chicago", al-Aswani's new novel, the scene has shifted to the United States, and God's Own Country gets a few swats on the nose. On the whole, the American backdrop seems surprisingly threadbare; no intellectually productive exchange between the cultural spheres takes place.

Alaa al-Aswani's Chicago has been translated into German and French, but not yet into English

​​The main target of the author's critical ire is his homeland, symbolized here by a group of Egyptian scholarship holders and academic émigrés at the University of Illinois on the one hand and on the other hand by representatives of the machinery of power such as secret service officer Safwat Schakir and his stool pigeon Achmad Danana.

The latter's voluminous body provides an especially tempting target for al-Aswani's broadsides: here stupidity joins together with sycophancy, stinginess with lechery and pious self-righteousness with nebulous opportunism. Surprisingly, despite this overload of nasty characteristics, this character does not remain two-dimensional; he comes off the page and hits the reader's nerve. Unfortunately, al-Aswani is not always equally successful at guiding his characters from the treacherous waters of trashy writing to the firm ground of literature.

The race issue

In "Chicago" the author uses the same narrative principle as in "The Yacoubian Building": the characters are introduced by turns in simultaneously-unfolding parallel plot lines, with cliffhangers at the end of each episode providing suspense. Here the "American" plot line is least successful, bringing together the aging university professor John Graham, an increasingly embittered former hippie, with the young African American Carol McNeilly.

No doubt with a view to an Egyptian readership unfamiliar with American racial issues, here al-Aswani seeks to expose the destructive effects of the still-latent discrimination – and gradually loses credibility in the process.

An equally daring but more rigorously developed story line is the one in which the author embeds his malicious vignette of the Egyptian president. Mubarak comes to the USA on a visit of state which includes a meeting with the fellows and academics in Chicago. A message of protest is supposed to be read to the prominent guest with cameras running. Seen objectively, it is a naive political dream, but this episode is at least grounded in the structure of the novel: it focuses the politically and socially critical impetus on which the book is based and aims it at its true target – only to have him collapse unconscious at the last moment.

Falling and soaring

Like the cliffhangers, such final falls are virtually a narrative law in the novel. Nagi Abdalsamad, the rebellious student who instigated the protest action, is accused of terrorist activities by the Egyptian secret service and handed over to the ungentle hand (especially ungentle after 9/11) of the CIA; the Egyptian professor Rafaat Thabit, secure in the belief that he is more American than the Americans, accidentally stumbles over his own cultural roots, losing his daughter; Achmad Danana's character deteriorates so visibly that his long-suffering wife finally throws him out. And the conciliatory smile hinted at in the last sentence of the novel is not entirely to be trusted.

This smile dawns on lips which initially responded at most to strictly-rationed nibbles of Egyptian sweets. They belong to Tarik Hussaib, the ambitious geek, whose romance with the old-fashioned Schaima Muhammadi – oh, sigh not, dear reader, the awkward courtship of the couple which cares not a bit about President Mubarak's visit and the apoplexy of the state he embodies – has its magical moments.

In the sexually-charged atmosphere which al-Aswani loves, Schaima's anxiously-guarded modesty has a special charm, and the feelings of her suitor, oscillating between insecure affection and the mere satisfaction of base needs, suffuses the apparently simple relationship, based on good meals and conventional hopes, with a perplexing ambiguity which remains unresolved even in that final smile.

Not only written for us

Again and again al-Aswani comes up with the shrewd, lively highlights which brought his first novel to life – as when Schaima confronts the question, late at night, of what she has ultimately gained from the chastity touted to her as the golden road to marriage, or when Rafaat Thabit so blindly worships all that is American that he considers obesity to be a purely Egyptian failing. Moments like these function in large part as counterweights in a novel that sometimes strays too far into constructedness without always achieving the desirable intellectual depth of focus:

Nagi Abdalsamad's optimistic speeches about the tolerance of Islam remain unexamined, and the notion that the current re-Islamization of the Arab world is a matter of a "collective depression with religious side-effects" could have stood with more elaboration.

However, al-Aswani's novels should probably not be judged primarily by our standards, but rather in view of Arab audiences with less reading experience who are to be enticed into critically examining their own lives. This acid test is one that the novel passes – and that in itself makes it interesting for readers here.

Angela Schader

© Neue Zürcher Zeitung / 2008

Translated from the German by Isabel Cole

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