Alaa Al Aswanyʹs novel "The Republic As If"

Elias Khoury salutes Al Aswanyʹs courage

Lebanese novelist and critic Elias Khoury pays tribute to Alaa Al Aswanyʹs new novel as the only comprehensive literary chronicle of the January 2011 Egyptian revolution, charting the tragic fate of those who were killed, imprisoned and tortured against a background of the diabolical alliance between the Egyptian army and the Muslim Brotherhood

There are two reasons why I didnʹt think I would ever need to insert the epithet ʹcourageousʹ beside a writerʹs name:

The first is that I tend to avoid the unnecessary use of adjectives. An adjective should either be an integral part of what is being described or it is decorative and without substance, in which case it is superfluous and mere padding.

The second reason concerns the novel and the novelist. A literary work transcends this description by its very nature; otherwise it has no meaning. The novelist writes from deep inside himself, bearing witness to his time in an expression of honesty, and honesty is neither courageous nor cowardly. Either the writer is a voice of conscience and writes as he sees fit, or he should not write. Those who write with fear damage the very essence of writing.

Despite my distaste for adjectives, I saw fit to insert the descriptor "courage" in the title of this article. "The Republic As If" was recently published by Dar al-Adab in Beirut and is banned in Egypt and in many of the despotic Arab states.

The daring quality of this novel has nothing to do with stylistics. Al-Aswany pursues the same formula here which he introduced in "Yacoubian Building" and in what followed thereafter. He combines a sensitive social perspective with details of Egyptian daily life, and he presents a blend of melodrama and nostalgia for the sequential structure similar to that found in TV serials. His aim is to produce an Arabic "bestseller", the like of which we havenʹt seen since the days of Ihsan Abdul Quddus.

Al-Aswany avoids the trap of elitism

Al-Aswanyʹs approach is more complex than that of Abdul Quddus. In large part, this is because he managed to fathom the classical narrative structure which Mahfouz perfected, without becoming elitist. Thus, in a "Yaqoubian" world, the reader enters a new synthesis of "Miramar", save for the fact that Al Aswany replaced the young communist of Mahfouzʹs novel with an Islamic extremist.

Al Aswany at a discussion of his latest novel "The Republic As If" (pictured in the foreground) in Cairo (photo: Dar al-Adab publishing house)
"The courage of this novel is that it has broken the silence. For this reason, it deserves to be read as a record of our times and as a testament to the Egyptian peopleʹs shattered dreams," writes Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury

Al Aswany is a masterful writer. He is the only Arab novelist who manages to produce one bestseller after another, where others like Youssef Zeidan, Ahlam Mosteghanemi and Khaled Khamissi tried and failed.

Al Aswanyʹs success is a positive reflection on our narrative literature. This dentist has proved himself to be a professional writer who knows how to capture his characters from the depths of Egyptian society and how to take them on intricate and complex journeys. He also knows how to appeal to the ordinary readerʹs conscience through believable melodrama. It doesnʹt break with the prevailing culture, but presents an Egyptian society without hope, which feeds off the disappointments arising from a life of misery and poverty under an authoritarian security system.

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