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Thinking about Cairo


Alaa al-Aswany

<em>Fourth Estate, 342pp, £14.99</em>

Alaa al-Aswany is the biggest literary star of the Arab world. In a region where few people read for pleasure, the Egyptian dentist-and-writer's 2002 novel, Imaret Yaqubian, became a Dan Brown-sized bestseller. Unlike the highbrow novels of the tiny literary elite, al-Aswany's slice through Cairo society dealt frankly with poverty, Islamism, endemic corruption, domestic violence and homosexuality (predictably, only the last provoked an outraged debate in the Egyptian parliament). Good-natured, gossipy and fast-paced, it was alive with affection for his struggling characters and their decaying city - and with indignation against their oppressors.

Stranger still, the novel - as The Yacoubian Building - then sold well in the west, where al-Aswany has become the first widely recognised Arab writer since Naguib Mahfouz. Its success - and the lavish funds on offer from Gulf countries' state publishing initiatives - has begun to thaw western publishers' resolute indifference to Arabic fiction. "The Yacoubian Building shows how big the market can be in England and America," Bloomsbury's chief executive recently remarked as he announced the launch of a new Bloomsbury Qatar publishing house. Al-Aswany himself, while being quietly passed over by the authorities - Abu Dhabi's new "Arab Booker" went to the unexceptionable septuagenarian Egyptian novelist Baha Taher - has turned down lucrative offers to write film and TV scripts in the Gulf. He still works full-time as a dentist in downtown Cairo.

Al-Aswany and his novels are familiar with the blandishments of abroad and the frustrations, and comfort, of home. His new novel, Chicago (published in Arabic in 2007), draws on his own experiences of studying dentistry in the US in the mid-1980s. Set in and around the medical research departments of the University of Chicago, it is a tale of Egyptian expats in various stages of naturalisation, from the professor Ra'afat Thabit, who has "obtained American citizenship and become American in every respect" to the newest PhD student, Shaymaa Muhammadi, a pious, veiled woman fresh from the Nile Delta city of Tanta.

Surrounded by American colleagues and partners, and by an alternately seductive and hostile post-9 September city, they must decide how much of their past they can bear to - or are able to - throw off.

Chicago was first published in instalments in the Egyptian opposition newspaper al-Dustour, and it amplifies the likeable melodrama of The Yacoubian Building into a sometimes exhausting series of cliffhangers. In keeping with the heated tone, his characters' quandaries are most often worked out in their intimate relationships. Dr Muhammad Salah can no longer bear his American wife-of-convenience, Chris; Ra'afat quarrels with his wife Michelle when their daughter Sarah moves out to live with her boyfriend; and Shaymaa becomes tentatively entangled with her uptight fellow PhD student Tariq Haseeb, a relationship that uncovers some of the technical difficulties faced by devout would-be lovers. The novel's weakness for sensationalism is apparent in the numerous sex scenes, which apart from their unreconstructed view of women (Shaymaa's unsatisfied "feminine desires" leave her "irritable, capricious and prone to weeping fits") make for occasionally cringe-inducing reading - Ra'afat hiding outside a window to watch his daughter grapple with her boyfriend is more creepy than taboo-smashing.

But Chicago, like The Yacoubian Building, is an enormously good-hearted book. Al-Aswany has an instinctive sympathy for underdogs of any description, from the Coptic heart surgeon Karam Doss, mistrusted by his Muslim colleagues, to the African-American Carol, forced into sleazy modelling work when racist employers refuse her a secretarial job. His greatest anger is reserved for the dead hand of the Egyptian regime, which crushes its citizens even abroad through paid-up government stooges and, climactically, a mercilessly sent-up presidential visit. Al-Aswany, who also writes opposition journalism, is a member of Kefaya, an anti-government movement made up largely of educated left-leaning Egyptians that is increasingly squeezed between the regime and popular Islamism. But he is still no hectoring dissident: Chicago takes a level-headed view of even his own politics. "Those who demonstrate are members of the elite," Doss challenges the novel's alter-Aswany, the leftist poet-scientist Nagi Abd al-Samad.

On American ground, Chicago is not as sure-footed. Farouk Abdel Wahab's translation is less flowing and idiomatic than Humphrey Davies's lively English version of The Yacoubian Building. The awkward prose is sometimes fitting: when Shaymaa arrives in Chicago, speaking only stumbling English, she thinks the city has "an enchanted mythical look like those in comic books". But it jars in the all-American scenes. "Give me 50 bucks. Don't be a coldhearted miser," an Oakland street addict improbably exhorts a passing professor. This is not simply a translation problem. Al-Aswany's American characters, and the problems they face, are far less convincingly drawn than their Egyptian counterparts. The most real city in the book, though we glimpse it only through memories, is Cairo. In the novel's most moving passage, Salah unearths the clothes he brought from Egypt 30 years ago, and remembers "La Boursa Nova store on Suleiman Pasha Street", where he bought them with such high hopes.

Chicago's assessment of the expat's lot is uncharacteristically pessimistic (al-Aswany himself, of course, returned permanently to Cairo). Ra'afat's "oriental" mistrust of his daughter's drug-ridden boyfriend is confirmed by her death; Nagi's relationship with the alluring, but Jewish, Wendy Shore flounders. Consumed by his nostalgia for 1960s Cairo and a lost love, Salah leaves his wife and retreats into nostalgia and, eventually, tragedy. Whatever their politics, the Egyptians submit meekly to the humiliation of the presidential visit to Chicago. Even the star-crossed sweethearts Shaymaa and Tariq manage only the most qualified of happinesses.

For better or, as sometimes in Chicago, for worse, his battered but beloved Cairo is al-Aswany's centre of gravity. His newly translated short-story collection, Friendly Fire: Ten Tales of Today's Cairo (AUC Press) returns to the streets that he anatomised so vividly in The Yacoubian Building. His success offers the best chance of a western readership for new Cairo novels such as Taxi: Tales of Rides (Aflame Books), Khaled al-Khamissi's bestselling novel of the city as seen by its disgruntled army of taxi drivers, and Ahmed Alaidy's tale of twentysomething Cairenes, Being Abbas El Abd (AUC Press). In this light, it is lucky that al-Aswany was not tempted to remain abroad long enough to iron out his new novel's un-American clumsinesses: Chicago's loss is Cairo's gain.

This article first appeared in the 03 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Israel v Hamas