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.

On reading "The Republic As If", I was introduced to the character of Ashraf Wassef in his apartment overlooking Tahrir Square, to his personal troubles and the collapse of his marriage. I also learned about the freedom afforded by the revolution, mixed with his love for the maid Ikram. I noted to myself that Al Aswany continues to engage the readerʹs attention and his curiosity.

Ashraf earned my pity and my compassion – and suddenly I realised how the novel turned and took us to the story of the revolution of 25th January 2011 in all its complexities and details.

One could say that the novel succumbs to conspiracy theories through the character of Major General Ahmed Alwani, head of the security apparatus. The plot woven by military intelligence from the moment the revolution began gives the novel the feel of a detective thriller and makes it hostage to its own brilliance.

A rare testimony to the Arabellion

A novelist is free to do what he wants, but the structure of this novel is insignificant by comparison with the momentous revelations contained within it. The "Republic As If" is, in my opinion, the only comprehensive literary record of the revolution and of the tragic fate which befell the young people who were killed, imprisoned and tortured against a background of the diabolical alliance between the Egyptian army and the Muslim Brotherhood (which later fell apart in the June coup and the massacre at Rabia al-Adawiya in 2013).

In this rare testimony lies the importance of this novel, with its exceptional capacity to collate and document the facts, paying tribute to the memory of Egyptian suffering by recounting the story of the youth of the revolution and how the army and the Brotherhood usurped their dreams of change.

This novel is made up of a network of diverse characters, including General Alwani and his daughter Dania, the friend of the martyr Khaled Madani. They also include Nourhan, the television presenter, and her three husbands, as well as Sheikh Shamil and his Salafism, which is selectively used to serve tyranny, people on the make and crooks. The novel also tells the story of the love which brings Mazen and Asma together, of the cement workersʹ struggle, as well as of the character of Madani, the poor driver who inherits the revolution through the blood of his martyred son Khaled.

Al Aswany uses every literary device, from letters and testimonies, to judicious editing of TV and film clips, to elements of a detective thriller, in order to create a story that exposes the reality. To this end, he creates a group of characters, some of whom seem predictable and simplistic, but who ultimately portray the defeat of the revolution and the rise of the counter-revolution.

A story that lays bare the facts

The importance of this novel lies not in its style, which harks back to pre-Mahfouz novels, nor in its stereotypical characters or simple, flowing language. Rather, it is significant in that it provides a remarkable record of the January 2011 revolution and of a new generation who reached for the stars, despite living in a stagnant political world where, after long years of tyranny, the only organised forces in Egypt were the secret police, the army and the Brotherhood.

Al Aswany has broken the cultural silence over this heinous crime committed in Egypt, albeit part and parcel of the criminal tyranny prevalent in the Arab world. The latter has reached its zenith in Syria, where oppression reigns and death has long triumphed.

The collapse of Egyptian culture at the hands of this oppression is a lamentable fact worthy of serious analysis. It is as if the prevailing culture had devoured its opposition by scaremongering about the Islamists. The critical voices have disappeared. The counter-revolution appears to have succeeded in creating a new tyranny even worse than the past and more brazen in breaking every humanitarian convention.

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.

I salute the brave writer Alaa Al Aswany.

Elias Khoury

© 2018

Translated from the Arabic by Chris Somes-Charlton


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