Posts filed under ‘al Aswany Alaa’

Alaa al Aswany — Chicago

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.

August 23, 2008 at 6:02 pm 5 comments


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