- Hardcover: 352 pages
- Publisher: Harper (October 7, 2008)
- Language: English
- Genre: Fiction
Before launching into a note of praise for Egyptian author Alaa Al Aswany's second 'novel' "Chicago" (translated into English by Farouk Abdel Wahab), permit me to quote some witnesses for the prosecution.
"Al Aswany seems to see the novelist's role as being close to that of a schoolteacher. He writes, in the style of a Wikipedia entry by Howard Zinn or Noam Chomsky, about the wretched fates of the Native American peoples who once flourished in Chicago." ~ Sunday Telegraph
"The cast of characters is a large one, and Chicago weaves together their various stories - too many of them, perhaps... the American characters are scarcely believable, being thinly drawn caricatures who speak in a wooden manner, representing competing points of view and nothing more" ~ Guardian, UK.
Aswany’s storytelling is also marked by its sensuality. From the self-denying student who allows himself an hour of recreation to watch wrestling and pornography to the lapsed poet whose voice and wholeness of self is restored by sex, everywhere we see the animal self lurking beneath the trained, dressed, and tutored body-in-the-world, aching to unsheath itself ~ The Scotsman
Al Aswany, a dentist by profession, is probably one of the most popular writers in the the Middle East today. He shot to fame with his wonderful first book titled "The Yacoubian Building" about a group of families living in this one apartment block in the center of Egypt and their intersecting lives served as a microcosm of Egyptian society. He has attempted something similar with his second book 'Chicago" but instead of an apartment block he has chosen the venue to be the University of Illinois and while most of the cast are Egyptian expats there are also some Americans.
Now, in Al Aswany's defence I have to say that I didn't consider his writing didactic or schoolteacher-like in the least. True, he seems wont to give us the history of Chicago, but it's done in a very readable manner and I like to look at it as his tribute to the city where he studied dentistry for two years.
I do agree with the critics when they say that his fleshing out of the American characters in the novel was rather weak, but it doesn't surprise me. Al Aswany is Egyptian and he would know much more about the Egyptian psyche than that of the American one, also, he was a student in the US in the late '80's and it could be that some of his impressions of America and its people are quite dated, still, that's no excuse for weak, unbelievable characters.
One of his goals here in "Chicago" is to provide a window into how Egyptians think and act among themselves when they are away from the Motherland as well as the Arab experience in America and to that end I think he achieves what he sets out to do. The other goal of the novel seems to be to expose the regime in Egypt for what it is - corrupt, biased, oppressive and brutal - and Al Aswany does that effectively by using his characters to offer political commentary. One of the most fascinating passages in the novel comes when an Egyptian Muslim sits down to discuss politics with an Egyptian Coptic Christian. What is revealed is something I didn't know: the Copts or the original Egyptians as they are known are highly discriminated against in Egypt
About the use of sex and sensuality in the novel...yes...there is a lot of that...but I don't think it's out of place. You see, in Egypt young men and women are not allowed to have sex until they are married and pornography is banned...but in America, they are free to have it when they want, with whomsoever they want and even buy sex toys if they so desire. Al Aswany, I think, uses sex as a metaphor for freedom...
In reading this book I have come to the conclusion that this book was written mainly for an Egyptian audience. Al Aswany was showing them what life is like for Egyptians that immigrate to America, however, it is captivating stuff for an American audience as well because we get to see ourselves through the eyes of Egyptian immigrants.
The book seeks not only to entertain (although it does an excellent job of that) but seeks to get the reader to ponder the role of an immigrant. Does he or she owe it to the adopted country to sever ties with the old country and be totally loyal to this new one? Or can the immigrant successfully juggle being a hybrid of both countries? As an immigrant myself, I personally think that immigration is always a struggle and one is forever having to make choices...hopefully we're making more right choices than wrong ones.