Swans Commentary » swans.com July 13, 2009  



Egypt In The Mirror


by Peter Byrne


Book Reviews



Al Aswany, Alaa: The Yacoubian Building, translated by Humphrey Davies, Harper, NYC, 2006, TPB, ISBN13: 9780060878139; ISBN10: 0060878134; 272 pages, $13.00.

Al Aswany, Alaa: Chicago, translated by Farouk Abdel Wahab, Harper, NYC, 2008, HB, ISBN: 9780061452567; ISBN10: 0061452564; 352 pages, $25.00.


No Egyptian can go against his government. Some peoples are excitable and rebellious by nature, but the Egyptian keeps his head down his whole life so he can eat. It says so in the history books. The Egyptians are the easiest people in the world to rule. The moment you take power they submit to you and grovel to you and you can do what you want with them.
The Yacoubian Building (Pages 84-5)


(Swans - July 13, 2009)   Stendhal said a novel is a mirror carried along a main road. If you take a hard look at Alaa Al-Aswany's The Yacoubian Building you see a reflection of Hosni Mubarak's Egypt. That the likeness is real explains the unprecedented success of the novel. The Arabic reading public knew the human cost of the regime but thirsted for confirmation and detail. The novel's frankness about sex, unremarkable by Western standards, helped sales. The original 2002 edition sold out in forty days and nine re-printings followed. Translation made the novel a bestseller across the world. The 2006 movie had the largest ever Egyptian film budget. In 2007, a television series began.

As a novelist Al-Aswany steps coolly back from the action. His political journalism, on the other hand, comes hot from his pen. He was a founding member of the Kefaya, which means "enough" in Arabic and whose full name is The Egyptian Movement for Change. This coalition opposes President Hosni Mubarak and his maneuvers to transfer power directly to his son Gamal. Kefaya had some importance in 2004 but lost momentum after Mubarak triumphed in the constitutional referendum and presidential election of 2005. Kefaya suffers from being limited to an urban elite and never having attracted a popular following.

When the government put censorship into the hands of the clerics of Al-Azar University, Al-Aswany feared for literature. They could seize editions from bookshops, forcing authors to start lengthy lawsuits to undo the ban. But Al-Aswany himself seems to have had no difficulty stating his political opposition clear and loud. It may be that he gets away with it precisely because he's a member of that same urban elite. His father, Abbas, was a famous writer and lawyer. Alaa Al-Aswany's polemical writing in opposition newspapers can be summed as a total rejection of the regime in place. He decries its institutionalized corruption and inherited power. He wants the votes of citizens effectively to determine who represents them. He objects to talent always being trumped by influence. In health, education, and human rights generally, he judges the government a total failure.

Al-Aswany's enlightened views make him a moderate in religion if he can be considered religious at all. Yet he has no fear of the Islamists coming to government in Egypt. For him the regime manipulates religious issues for purely political ends. Mubarak's shrewdest move, he thinks, was to set the secular intellectuals in conflict with the Islamists. It's a way of putting off political reform indefinitely and moreover pleases Islamophobes in the West whose support keeps Mubarak and Egypt afloat. He tells Washington that without him at the helm, the mullahs would take over and Israel would be imperiled. Al-Aswany believes that Egypt would benefit from an Islamic government that was contained within a rigorous democratic structure.

In Al-Aswany's fiction the political journalist takes a back seat. The narrator makes the reader feel he's drawing his own conclusions from the doings of the characters. It's a good part illusion of course. In fact, the corrupt and hypocritical political regime infects every character, rich or poor, in both his private and public life. The Yacoubian Building and its history in downtown Cairo serves Al-Aswany as a central hive for his characters to buzz around. A rich and prominent Armenian commissioned the ten-story showpiece in 1934. An Italian architecture and engineering firm built the apartment block in the heart of the European Quarter. It housed a social elite of government ministers, big landowners, Jewish millionaires, and foreign factory owners. After Nasser ousted King Farouk in 1952, foreigners and Jews left Egypt and the Yacoubian's occupants changed. A new elite made up of army officers moved in.

The European Quarter remained exclusive into the 1960s. It was considered inappropriate for native Egyptians in traditional garb to wander the streets. Their clothes would bar them from restaurants and cinemas. But in the 1970s the Open Door Policy of Anwar Sadat liberalized the economy and created new fashionable residential neighborhoods. Downtown lost its sheen and the lower middle class moved into the Yacoubian Building. The Armenian heirs went off to Switzerland and left the running of the building to a venal lawyer who turned the fifty-some rooms on the roof into an independent village of the poor.

Taha, whose father works as doorkeeper to the Yacoubian Building lives in this rooftop community. The time is just before the Gulf War of 1991. While finishing high school with excellent marks Taha undertakes small jobs for the residents. He needs all his patience since they have a spiteful sense of their superiority. But he excels in self-discipline and has been preparing himself for years to enter the police academy and become an officer. When he goes for his momentous entrance interview, however, he's turned down simply because his father is a doorkeeper.

The crushing of Taha's ambition devastates him. All the more so because he has been having trouble with his girlfriend, Busayna. She lives in a room on the roof with her mother and younger siblings. The sudden death of her father, a cook's helper, left the family destitute and her mother took a job as a maid. But the rooftop community, however poor, is snobbish about servant's work. Busayna must leave school and find a job so her mother can be a respectable widow at home. An attractive girl, she flees a string of jobs because her male employers invariably demand sexual favors. Finally she settles into a job as sales-clerk where the boss is satisfied with groping her regularly without threatening her virginity. She learns that this was the best a needy girl could hope for, and the knowledge leaves her disenchanted.

Taha on his side has been a serious but not fanatical Muslim. Busayna, with her new view of how Egyptian life works, comes to feel he's an innocent fool. His moralizing annoys her. She suggests he go to a Gulf country to earn a nest egg, a regular Egyptian expedient. But he enters the Faculty of Economics and Political Science at Cairo University. There his poverty still dogs him. The frivolous children of the well-off set the tone among students. He finds friends only among the devout Muslims. This leads to contact with a charismatic mullah who, noting the young man's pent up resentment, sets him on the path to jihad. Busayna, who anyway has dropped him, must be forgotten. He will eventually be provided with an ideologically acceptable wife.

Taha's torture at the hands of the Egyptian police -- rape with various objects, for a start -- puts the young man in a perfect state of mind for a suicide mission. The opportunity comes when the Gulf War starts and the mullah sees Egyptian politicians collaborating with American infidels to kill Muslims. So Taha, somewhat to his own surprise but for well-defined reasons, has become a terrorist.

Naguib Mahfouz, the only Arab writer to obtain the Nobel Prize for literature (1988), fixed his sights most sharply on the Cairo middle class. Al-Aswany casts a wider social net. The next phase in Busayna's life takes her to a job as secretary to an aging womanizer and Yacoubian resident whose family was part of King Farouk's entourage. The Frenchified old man, with money still, has simply been left in a void by contemporary Egypt. His widowed sister has better-grounded grievances against the government. Her children have deserted her and moved abroad because of the lack of opportunity in Egypt even for the professional class.

La comédie humaine never stops swarming around the downtown hive. A pious old millionaire who climbed out of poverty thanks to the drug trade mistakes a wet dream for a return of his youth. Taking a young, second wife he shuts her up in a Yacoubian apartment. She's a single mother trapped in need, and, despite all the religious rigmarole surrounding the marriage, is effectively a bought woman. The bridegroom, soon exhausted, finds out what kind of country he lives in when he decides to enter parliament and has to deal, cash on the line, with the Egyptian fixer-in-chief.

A prominent gay journalist, a smoothie from the very top of society, has a liaison with a strong, silent, and very poor country bumpkin. Here it's not only wealth versus poverty that brings disaster but a profound difference in mentality. The boondocks, however, don't export only ignorance. The shrewdness of the bottom dog comes across in Abaskharon the groveling servant of the old playboy that Busayna will eventually marry for the sake of inheriting his Yacoubian apartment. Abaskharon, a Copt from Upper Egypt, turns his missing limb into an economic motor. He makes his way by a masterful double-act with his brother Malek, a shirt maker. Abaskharon hides behind the abjection that goes with domestic service in Egypt, while Malek, a step up the social ladder, deploys a craftsman's self-confidence. The two are unbeatable in pettiness, pimping, and shortchanging.

The Yacoubian Building leaves the reader persuaded that he has a rounded view of Egyptian society and some grasp of the failings of its government. Chicago, Al-Aswany's second novel, delivers less. His familiarity with the city dates from his graduate work in dentistry there in the 1980s. But the novel, conceived for Arabic readers, isn't greatly concerned with Chicago or American life. Instead it takes a close look at a handful of Egyptians far from home. By isolating them, the author -- a trained scientist -- shows what shaped them and why they react as they do. He also shows how Mubarak's sharp eye never loses sight of them even on the shores of Lake Michigan.

To start at the villainous end of the scale, there is Ahmad Danana. He's been years in Chicago -- never out of his Egyptian-made three-piece suit -- as president of the Egyptian Student Union in America. He's also an agent of the secret police charged with surveillance of students any of whose scholarships he can cancel with a word. He will give special attention to the poet Nagi, the only student in open conflict with the regime, having been arrested in Egypt for protesting the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Nagi will play a role in the attempt to disrupt Mubarak's visit to Chicago. This proves a failure for all concerned, except Mubarak himself whose government is able to control events and project fear even in the Mid-West. But Al-Aswany will allow himself the pleasure of punishing the craven Danana. The Koran-thumping hypocrite encourages his wife to give herself to his Egyptian boss in Washington. She rebels and brings down her husband's entire sleazy house of cards.

Less broad comedy appears with Shaymaa and Tariq. They have both spent their lives cramming for exams. Now in their thirties in Chicago on scholarships they are still a schoolgirl and a schoolboy. The provincial Shaymaa is capable of little else but study. Her mother rightly feared she would be excluded from the marriage market and tried to keep her in their small city Shaymaa broke away, but in Chicago, save for the library and laboratory, she might as well be on the moon.

Tariq is a male of the same species, and a bully in the bargain. In Egypt he too failed to get married though he was considered a good catch. He was attracted to women but then overcome by a compulsion to harass them verbally. Only the aridity of his life abroad brought him to Shaymaa. In their solitude the discipline of their Muslim religious practices kept nervous collapse at bay. Together, Shaymaa softened while Tariq alternated between dire need and a refusal to commit himself. As an Egyptian it was hard to marry a woman who had already surrendered her virginity to him. Shaymaa's pregnancy further complicated their life together.

Dr. Thabit, a medical researcher, after half a lifetime in America prides himself on having left every trace of his Egyptian youth behind him. With an American wife and a baseball fetish, he lives what he deems the typical middle-class life of his adored adopted country. But his daughter's disobedience, her running off with a dubious artist and finally succumbing to a drug overdose brings him face to face with another America. Divorced and alone, he has after all to return for sustenance, at least in thought, to his beginnings in Egypt. Half-crazed he even starts phoning Cairo numbers he remembers from 1970.

Dr. Salah is Dr. Thabit's twin of sorts. But after thirty years in America, he hasn't tried to drive Egypt from his mind. Unlike Thabit he's full of sympathy for the young scholarship students, but stays clear of politics and advises them to do likewise. Nagi, however, shames him into finally opposing the regime. Salah, called to speak on behalf of the Chicago Egyptians at the welcoming ceremony for Mubarak, agrees to perform "the highest form of jihad: telling the truth to an oppressive ruler's face." (Page 325) But when the time comes he loses his nerve and delivers only a few servile words.

Al-Aswany hints at why Salah in America caves in at the critical moment. The expatriate doctor has lost his vital connection with his homeland. We remember his praise for scientific neutrality. The other long-term expatriate, Thabit, went one worse than political passivity by trying to blot out Egypt altogether. Only Nagi consciously prepares his return with the intention of throwing himself into the political fray. That's not unlike what Al-Aswany did after his postgraduate work in Chicago. He went home offering his professional services to his countrymen while waging a battle for democracy as a writer.

"Aren't you happy with your life here?" Nagi asks a long exiled professor of open heart surgery. The man replies: (Page 157)

Have you had any American fruits? ... Here they use genetic engineering to make the fruit much larger and yet it doesn't taste so good. Life in America, Nagi, is like American fruit: shiny and appetizing on the outside, but tasteless... All success outside one's homeland is deficient.

Perhaps the best reason for reading Alaa Al-Aswany just now is to learn how diverse among themselves the Muslims of a single country can be. And there are forty some Muslim countries in the world.


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Published July 13, 2009