Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Alaa Al Aswany: Tolerance Versus Dictatorship; Tales From A Muslim City

At one time, Alaa Al Aswany had a dental surgery in the Yacoubian Building in downtown Cairo, and when his book of that title came out, many of the building’s residents were happy to see themselves as characters in the story. When he went back to the building to do interviews, “Everybody saluted me and they came to offer more stories. It was like I was Napoleon Bonaparte.”
As the book’s success grew – Al Aswany says it has been the best-selling novel in the Arab world since 2002 – this attitude hardened. And when the film (above, right) of the book was made – the biggest production in the history of Egyptian cinema – some began to ask for money. “They said to the producer; ‘You are using our commercial name.’ The producer replied: ‘To my knowledge you are not living in Kentucky Fried Chicken. You’re living in a building and this is fiction.’”
Al Aswany was a successful novelist before The Yacoubian Building, but he may now be considered a phenomenon. He is not shy about citing the figures, but he does so in a way that suggests he can’t quite believe them himself. The book has now been signed up for 17 translations. In France, it sold 140,000 copies in less than a year. His new novel, Chicago, is out in Egypt, and has sold 15,000 copies in 20 days.
The jacket of the British edition compares The Yacoubian Building to Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City. For Maupin’s 28 Barbary Lane, substitute 34 Suleiman Basha Street, an apartment block “in the high classical European style, the balconies decorated with Greek faces carved in stone, the columns, steps and corridors all of natural marble.”
Visitors to the address may be disappointed to discover a less grand art deco block, but Al Aswany’s Yacoubian Building is metaphorical architecture. A colonial construction with a crumbling fa├žade, it houses a cross-section of Egyptian society. The story rolls along with the soapy immediacy of Latin American fiction, and while there is much about corruption and radical Islam, it is leavened by Al Aswany’s liberal attitude to sex.
His frankness about homosexuality has not been universally-welcomed, but Al Aswany believes the controversy was politically-motivated. “The book did not make any controversy. But the movie is a different story, because it was permitted by the regime for some political calculations. Then they realised the calculations were not correct because people applauded every time the state security officer got killed.
“So they began to attack the movie. Not because of the torture, not because of the corruption, but because of homosexuality. They made a very big issue out of it – saying this was against our values.
“But it didn’t work. You had 100 members of the parliament from the ruling party trying to ban the movie because of homosexuality, and everybody knew they were lying, because Egyptian cinema makes many movies that are very close to pornography, and they never objected to them.”
The son of a novelist, Al Aswany believes in the redemptive power of fiction. “Literature is one of the most beautiful and noble arts of humanity. One of the big lessons of literature is not to judge people, but to try to understand and forgive them.” He encountered French literature at school, then his father gave him a programme of reading, including the Russian masters, Dostoevsky and Chekhov. When studying in Chicago he picked up Anglo-Saxon writers, and on a scholarship to Madrid he learned Spanish, and was able to read the Latin-Americans in their own language. The lesson he took from all this is that a common humanity transcends national borders. “I have never been to Russia, but I think I know Russia very well through Dostoevsky and Chekhov. I am not Christian, but when you read about a Christian character you forget he’s a Christian, he’s a human being. Literature does present people as human beings, and this is very noble. We need this.”
Al Aswany likes to keep his fiction separate from politics, though the distinction is not always clear. As a member of the leftist Enough movement, he has been a consistent opponent of the Egyptian regime. “The official people don’t like me very much, and I think they don’t like me at all. But my troubles are minimal compared to my comrades in the movement, who have been jailed for months and tortured. This did not happen to me, so far.”
However he wasn’t invited to the premiere of the film of The Yacoubian Building. “A high-ranked person of the regime was due to go, and the security people didn’t feel comfortable that I would probably meet this guy. I am not a very safe person, in their opinion.”
His broad view is that the problems of the Arab world are caused by the absence of democracy. “I had a medical education and in medicine it’s essential to make the difference between the disease and the symptoms and complications. If you try to cure the symptoms without knowing the disease you kill the patient. This is also valid for societies. So our disease for the Arab world is dictatorship. The symptoms and complications are corruption, injustice, poverty and fanatism.
“Arab dictators try to convince us that the symptoms are the disease. So you have this nonsense – government people on TV saying ‘how can we fight terrorism?’ The only way to get rid of terrorism is to give the people the right of choice – democracy.”
This, of course, was also George Bush’s argument, but Al Aswany is not a fan. “He’s trying to make another war. He killed 500,000 people, and he destroyed a country, and now he’s trying to do this in another country.” He takes a swig of espresso, and adds ironically: “That’s a very good idea, yes?
“I see it very clearly, and no wonder that Mr George Bush has been a very close ally of the terrible Saudi regime. It is because of money. All these people with digital minds, they cannot really think about any human meaning.”
Al Aswany’s new novel, Chicago, views the problem from the other side, being based on his two year stint in the Windy City at the end of the 1980s. The story details the problems faced by Egyptian Arab immigrants in the USA. “It has every subject that makes a fanatic unhappy. It has the problem of a veiled person who goes and revises her conservative education. She began to fall in love, and she has some sexual scenes. You have an Egyptian intellectual who falls in love with a Jewish American and he explains to her that he has problems with Israel, and not with the Jews.”
The book was serialised in an Egyptian newspaper, and, says Al Aswany, was viewed favourably by 90% of readers. The 10% sent insulting emails, which Al Aswany answered. “I tried to explain what a novel is. I said: when you have a veiled person having sex it does not mean that every veiled person is having sex. When you have an Italian prostitute in a novel, it does not mean that every Italian woman is a prostitute. It’s very primitive but it’s necessary, because these people are mostly very young and are very influence by the Wahhabi version of the religion which is very intolerant and aggressive, and which is giving problems everywhere, even in Europe, because the mosques in Europe are sponsored by the Saudi regime.
“The problem is not with the religion. You could read the religion in a very positive way, and you could do the reverse. This vision, with the gloves and the covering the face, is not tolerant; it’s against women, and against foreigners. It’s catastrophic.”
Al Aswany likes to keep his politics separate from his fiction, but his next novel, The Republic As If, is unlikely to be welcomed by the Egyptian regime. “Under dictatorship you have everything ‘as if’ it is real. You have a president that looks as if he is elected, a parliament that looks as if it is a real parliament, and then you go to lower levels and you find this ‘as if’ phenomenon is everywhere. People are acting in a way to give you an image that is very distant from reality.”
He remains optimistic, and claims that his success is evidence that “the real spirit of Egypt” is defending itself. “I am relying on the tolerance of my country and my readers, and they did not let me down.”
The Yacoubian Building, 4th Estate, £14.99