Alaa al Aswany — Chicago

August 23, 2008 at 6:02 pm 5 comments

Alaa al Aswany is an authentic Islamic voice: he lives in Egypt, writes in Arabic, and enjoys a large Muslim readership. All this makes him one of the most important authors in the world today. It also makes it pretty surprising that his intriguing new novel, follow-up to The Yacoubian Building, should be a tale of campus life at the University of Chicago.

On the face of it, the only Egyptian connection is that most of the ten or so main characters are Egyptian emigrants. Delve a little deeper, however, and you’ll find some interesting analysis of Egyptian culture. Islam and politics (and the intersection of the two) come under heavy scrutiny through the actions and dialogue of the characters. Who is to blame for repression in Egypt: the state, or Islam — or neither? Does Islam inhibit true love? Does it sanction domestic abuse? There are no simple answers, but I applaud Aswany for tackling the questions.

Chicago has the feel of a short story anthology hastily rewritten as a novel. There are a frightening number of protagonists: as the focus shifts with each short chapter, you’re asked to follow ten disparate subplots at once, and there’s no uniting story arc. I’ve given no summary in this review, because the book defies any quick summary beyond this: it’s a hodgepodge. The setting is a second weakness. To Western eyes, a patchwork of University of Chicago life is inevitably less enticing than the patchwork of Cairo life presented in The Yacoubian Building.

Most disappointingly, the translation by Farouk Abdel Wahab is workmanlike at best, riddled with clunky sentences and stilted dialogue. Yes, English and Arabic could hardly be more different; but, to a great translator, language is no barrier: Maureen Freely’s translations of Orhan Pamuk are the proof.


Entry filed under: al Aswany Alaa, Book Reviews.

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Stewart  |  September 22, 2008 at 12:38 pm

    Most disappointingly, the translation by Farouk Abdel Wahab is workmanlike at best, riddled with clunky sentences and stilted dialogue.

    That’s quite a worry, because on looking at some of the lead titles from new outfit, Arabia Books, Farouk Abdel Wahab seems to have been the one translating them.

    I’ve held off reading Alaa Al-Aswany myself, because The Yacoubian Building, being about a bunch of characters living in a building sounds like it may have some roots in Naguib Mahfouz’s Midaq Alley,/em>, being about a bunch of characters living in an alley.

  • 2. Jonathan Birch  |  September 23, 2008 at 10:03 am

    Yes, it’s a bit of a disappointment — though part of me is glad we get Arabic books over here at all, as I realise they’re fiendishly difficult to translate.

  • 3. John Self  |  September 23, 2008 at 4:52 pm

    I’m quietly pleased you didn’t like this one, Jonathan. I had a proof copy which the publishers sent me a few months ago and I was feeling bad about not reading it. No longer!

  • 4. Jonathan Birch  |  September 29, 2008 at 10:42 am

    I know the feeling. I could do with a reason not to read Wally Lamb’s The Hour I First Believed — all 700 massive pages of it.

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