Despite its seemingly incongruous title, Alaa Al Aswany's novel Chicago is filled with characters who reflect the conflicting political and social currents churning through Egypt today. There is Nagi, an idealistic medical student who is passionate for democratic change and for his blonde American girlfriend. In league with him is Dr. Muhammad Salah, a university professor questioning the meaning of his life and nostalgic for a simpler past. Almost another world away is Shaymaa, a sweet, veiled young woman from the Nile Delta who finds herself struggling to cope with modern life in the big city.
Hovering over all of them is the despicable state security officer, Safwat Shakir, who is only too eager to ruin the lives of government critics for a pat on the back. Egypt's ruler unnamed, but clearly drawn to resemble President Hosni Mubarak makes a brief, pivotal appearance, too. In one scene, an aide scolds a photographer for asking the President to move "a little to the right" for a better picture, telling him: "The whole of Egypt would move while our revered President remains standing where he is."
Al Aswany's rich tableaux of everyday lives and devastating social commentary have made him a wildly popular novelist in his native Egypt and the best-selling Arab writer both in the Middle East and abroad. A tale about the lives of various Egyptians living in Chicago, the book is already in its 12th Arabic print run, having sold 100,000 copies since its publication a year ago. Post 9/11, readers outside the Middle East are more interested than ever in understanding Arab societies, and many of them are becoming devotees of Al Aswany's writing. Last fall, a translation of Chicago became an immediate best seller in France, where Al Aswany was paid front-page homage by Le Monde. The English translation, published by the American University of Cairo Press, will hit international bookshelves this month, and editions in nine other languages are in the works.
After the huge success in 2002 of his first novel, The Yacoubian Building another scathing examination of Egypt's malaise Al Aswany is already drawing comparisons to the nation's Nobel literature laureate, Naguib Mahfouz. Such high praise may be a little premature: Mahfouz founded modern Arabic literature and wrote almost 50 novels over half a century. But Al Aswany who continues to work on the side as a dentist in Cairo does share the legendary author's talent for constructing simple stories about Egyptian life that convey universal truths in defense of human dignity. His writing tackles the most pressing issues facing Egyptian society today, from dictatorship and corruption to economic inequality and Islamic extremism. "The greatest role of literature is its human message," said the gregarious, barrel-chested author at the recent launch of Chicago's English translation. "Literature teaches us how to be more tolerant."
Al Aswany acknowledges a literary debt to Mahfouz, in more ways than one. During a crisis of confidence in his 20s, he ran into Mahfouz at a hotel in Alexandria and received a three-hour pep talk from the master. Rejecting the Arab vogue for postmodernism, Al Aswany has stayed true to the Mahfouz tradition of social realism. And like Mahfouz, he has a gift for writing literary page turners that are endlessly discussed by café intellectuals while also being accessible to Egyptians who normally have more time for Al-Ahly, their favorite football team. "He is read everywhere," says Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury, editor of Al-Mulhaq, the Arab world's leading literary supplement. "The importance of Al Aswany is that he reinvented the popular Egyptian novel, which had died. Literature cannot live without different levels of literary work."
Some of Al Aswany's popularity undoubtedly stems from his delight in smashing social taboos. Apart from the barbs against Egypt's regime that flow from his characters' mouths, the author has expressed understanding, if not actual sympathy, for Islamic extremists, and has written explicitly about issues like homosexuality and abortion that had long been taboo in Arabic literature. One of the main characters in Yacoubian, for example, is the gay editor of a Cairo newspaper, who uses money to seduce a married Egyptian soldier desperate to feed his family. In Chicago, a female character visits a sex shop and there's a lengthy discussion of the merits of vibrators.