Alaa Al Aswany

ABDALLA F. HASSAN | Egypt Today | August 2004 

Through the prism of a fashionable downtown Cairo building, a dentist’s groundbreaking novel exposes the corrupt dealmaking and exploitative relationships of power in contemporary Egypt.

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Alaa Al Aswany

PHOTO BY ABDALLA F. HASSAN

When Alaa Al Aswany writes, he writes without fear. He makes no compromises, a quality he says gives depth to his writing, even in describing the seedy or sadistic aspects of human existence. The best-selling author who took the Arab literary establishment by storm with his critically acclaimed Imarat Yacoubian (The Yacoubian Building) does not shy away from weaving sordid tales of political corruption, sexuality and torture into his stories — elements that could have potentially seen the book banned.

 

Al Aswany’s novel of life in a downtown Cairo apartment building, which delves into a mix of power, corruption, sex, exploitation, poverty and extremism, managed to become one of the best-selling Arabic-language works of fiction in recent decades, receiving accolades for lucidly capturing the varied aspects of Egyptian life: rich, poor, straight, gay, powerful, powerless.

 

“I view literature as an expanse of freedom,” he says. “Literature should examine the subjects that aren’t talked about, to show us things we could be feeling but not seeing. Its function is to teach us that we are all different, that we should be forgiving, and that we should not look at human traits as being either wrong or right. Things are more complex. I tried, for example, to present the homosexual as a person, not someone to make fun of or to look at with disgust. Not all evil is concentrated in him as an individual. He is a human being with a different lifestyle. He may be happy with it or he may not.”

 

A novelist’s work is akin to researching a doctoral dissertation, describes Al Aswany, who frequented a number of small run-down bars, taking notes of the atmosphere that he recreates so colorfully in The Yacoubian Building. Then one day the police came.

 

“The police officer said to me, ‘What brought you here? You are a doctor,’” recalls Al Aswany, whose national ID card identifies his vocation. You should go to the Meridian to drink a beer. You shouldn’t come here. These places are full of thieves.’” Al Aswany eventually got a wasta at the police station, so when he was at a bar during a raid, the officers would know him, wave, and leave him alone.

 

Born to well-known writer and lawyer Abbas Al Aswany, who two decades ago was awarded the state prize in literature, Alaa credits his father with instilling in him a powerful love for writing and literature.

 

For three decades, until his death in 1977, the first floor office in the actual Yacoubian Building on Talaat Harb Street housed the elder Al Aswany’s law practice. When his law partner died, the heirs sold their half. Later, Alaa Al Aswany’s dental clinic would share the space with a shirtmaker and an accountant before moving to an office on Garden City’s Diwan Street.

 

A single episode inspired the idea behind his novel. Al Aswany was walking in Garden City when he saw an old building being demolished to make way for a garage. The structure was being torn down in longitudinal sections, making its many separate rooms visible. “Those rooms had life — there was someone studying, someone in love with the girl next door, a newlywed’s first apartment,” recalls Al Aswany. The image stayed with him for eight years until he finally sat down and began writing the novel in 1998.

 

The 47-year-old novelist is the author of four literary works, the latest being The Yacoubian Building. A novella and collection of short stories published under the title Niran Sadiqa (Friendly Fire) provocatively explore what it means to be Egyptian.

 

Al Aswany considered majoring in literature, but eventually concluded that being a novelist in Egypt would not earn him a living. After all, even Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz remained a civil servant until his retirement. Instead, Al Aswany enrolled in the faculty of dentistry at Cairo University.

 

In his 20s he wed a dental school classmate, but the relationship broke up. He remarried at age 37 when he felt he was more mature. He has a son, Seif, now an electronics major at the American University in Cairo, from his first marriage, and two daughters, May and Nada, from his second.

 

Al Aswany was accepted to a master’s program in dentistry at the University of Illinois in Chicago. He spent just under two years, from 1984 to 1986, studying, traveling and exploring American culture. He remains a practicing dentist and diligently writes for three hours early each morning.

 

Since the publication of The Yacoubian Building in 2002, Al Aswany has received calls and letters from readers around the world. The film rights have been sold and screenwriter Wahid Hamid has penned the script. An English translation is due out in the fall from the American University in Cairo Press, and French and Italian translations are in the works.

 

So how many copies of this best-selling novel have actually been sold?

 

“Only God knows the answer to that question,” Al Aswany says with a shrug. Publishers, not keen on doling out royalties to their authors, keep the actual sales figures a secret. “They give you a number. You multiply that number by two or five depending on your trust in the publisher. If you trust your publisher very much, you only multiply that number by two. But honestly, I don’t trust the publisher very much, so I multiply by five.”

 

The first run of The Yacoubian Building was printed by the Merit Publishing House and sold out in six weeks. Al Aswany sought a low-cost edition to garner a wider readership, so he took his book to Madbouly Publishers, which has handled the succeeding printings and has a wider distribution network. To his dismay, Madbouly also sold the book for LE 20, as Merit has done.

 

The Yacoubian Building has so far earned Al Aswany only about LE 4,500 in royalties. “And the publisher using his own numbers has made at least LE 150,000,” explains Al Aswany. “It is not the fault of the publisher or me. It is the fault of a system that fails to protect writers in Egypt. Some publishers are surprised that you want money at all.” Writers are granted little, and that includes greats like Mahfouz.

 

The novel’s success may have a lot to do with Al Aswany’s narrative style. He was always against avant-garde fiction that employed arcane symbolism and convoluted allegory. “I was mindful that the novel should be understood by the reader. This does not mean it is superficial, but that it has several layers of meaning,” says Al Aswany. “My writing is not above the reader. I respect the ordinary reader. What made great writers — Hemingway, Tolstoy, Chekhov — is the ordinary reader, not the people sitting in salons.”

 

Along with authoring novels and short stories, he has been writing monthly political articles in the Nasserist Al-Arabi for the past three years. Before that, he wrote for Al-Ahli and Al-Shaab, where he was responsible for the literary section, all this before the infamous campaign Al-Shaab waged against the Ministry of Culture’s printing of Walima li A‘shab al-Bahr (Banquet for Seaweed) by Syrian novelist Haider Haider. “Although I’m not a member of any political party, I formed a relationship with the editors of these party newspapers so that they would give me the space to write independently.”

 

Personally, Al Aswany is revolted by the system of inherited power and institutionalized corruption that is corroding Egyptian life. Culture is no exception. “We are talking about a system that needs to be changed completely,” he says candidly. “It has reached a point where we are at zero. The zero we received in the Mondial [the official scoring for Egypt to host the 2010 FIFA World Cup] is a fair result. That zero really should not be given to the Egyptians. It should be given to the Egyptian government. The Egyptian government should get a zero in all fields, not only in soccer, but in health and education, in democracy, and in everything really.

 

“Egypt deserves better than this. It deserves a true democracy. It deserves human rights. It deserves that citizens have the right to choose their rulers and representatives. It deserves a system that allows those who are talented and strive in succeeding to reach their natural place. Anyone with ability in Egypt is pushed aside.

 

“It is often written in the West that true democracy will usher the Islamist trend to power,” Al Aswany continues. “If this occurs and Islamists adhere to the rules of democracy so they rule for a specified term, I see this as being very beneficial. People imagine the Islamists as being something holy. When the Islamists govern, people will realize that they are like everyone else. They have candidates who are decent and others who are crooks demanding ‘commissions.’ People will have a chance to reconsider and elect someone else.”

 

Literature is definitely political at times, but can it affect social change?

 

Not directly, believes Al Aswany, arguing that political writing is plain and direct. “Literature gives us a human model. It makes matters more profound than a political problem. The political realities are simply part of the literary panorama, but it isn’t everything.”

 

He believes the government jeopardized literary expression when it delivered to Al-Azhar a judicial mandate. Now the institution’s religious scholars can tour bookshops, collect editions they find religiously objectionable, and have them confiscated on the spot, he explains. The author would then have to file a lawsuit to overturn the ban and await years for a final verdict. “The sheikhs of Al-Azhar have the right to forbid practically any writer from writing,” remarks Al Aswany.

 

“The government thought it very clever to create a duel between secular intellectuals and Islamists so the issue of reform is forgotten,” Al Aswany says matter-of-factly. “It is a political issue. It has nothing to do with religion or government’s fear of Islamism. It is meant to divert attention away from the lack of democracy in Egypt.”

 

Al Aswany was exposed to Western values at a young age. His primary and secondary schooling was at the elite Lycée Français in Bab al-Louq, where he learned French along with Arabic and English. “My father was an accomplished writer and artist. I had a liberal upbringing. Whoever wanted to pray, prayed. Whoever wanted to drink, drank. Whoever wanted to fast, fasted.”

 

When he lived in America, he became aware of the importance of Spanish. As a lover of literature, he found that learning the language would allow him to read Latin American storytelling in the original. When he returned to Egypt, he took language courses at the Spanish Cultural Center and excelled — rewarded with a grant to study Spanish civilization in Madrid.

 

Al Aswany’s experiences were also enriched by life in America. He would pick up the Chicago Reader and browse the weekend listings. Each week, he would explore a different venue. 

 

He attended services at a church for homosexuals, founded by a gay priest who saw no contradiction between homosexuality and Christianity. “Creating your own church? That’s America,” he says with a smile. He took part in meetings calling for the liberation of Puerto Rico, joined with people devoted to the struggle, and learned about the tumultuous history of this commonwealth. He went to concerts and performances, including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the ballet.

 

One incident he will never forget: he was walking on campus when his entire master’s thesis was blown away by a gust of wind — this was before the age of word processing. On that cold and windy day, all the cars screeched to a halt. The drivers got out and along with passersby collected the floating pages of his research.  

 

His devotion to writing prompted him to take the decisions he’s made, like coming back to Egypt. “I had the opportunity to stay. I decided to return for the sake of writing,” says Al Aswany. Egypt is unique in its complex social and political tapestry, which is the writer’s muse.

 

He has received numerous offers, owing to his American education, to work in the Gulf at impressive salaries. He turned them down, convinced that it would come at the expense of his literary career. He describes it as being caught in a fishing net. “Once you go, and are lured by lots of money, you won’t be able to return.”

 

Following the overwhelming acclaim of The Yacoubian Building, he was offered huge sums to pen screenplays but he felt it was yet another snare. “I can spend three years writing a novel and not earn a dime. But you can’t do that if you spend four months writing a scenario that earns you a quarter of a million pounds.”

 

Al Aswany keeps his professional and literary worlds separate. “When I am in the clinic, I am a dentist. I don’t discuss literature. When I am outside the clinic, I am a writer who has nothing to do with dentistry.”

 

And why the divide? 

 

“Imagine your ear is hurting you so you go to a doctor, and instead of talking to you about your ailment, he tells you he plays music and has composed a piano sonata that very morning,” explains Al Aswany. “You’ll lose confidence in your doctor. He may be a great musician, but he will ruin your ear.”

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PHOTO BY FATIHA BOUZIDI