Book Review: Chicago by Alaa Al Aswany Drawing from an Interview and Talk

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Chicago Book CoverChicago by Alaa Al Aswany, published by Harper Collins, 4th Estate. pp. 342, hardback £14.99 Released in the UK 1st September 2008.

Click HERE to listen to the Kazbah interview with Alaa Al Aswany.

Hard on the heels of the global success of the Yacoubian Building, Alaa Al Aswany’s latest novel, Chicago, has a hard act to follow; a challenge which it meets as evidenced by bookstores’ bestseller lists, click HERE to view.

Al Aswany tells it straight, a story teller with an ability to craft readable fiction making it accessible to all. For an author with a passion for democracy, this is a democratic book to transport both the intellectual and ordinary reader alike.

With the Yacoubian Building, his previous novel, Aswany was hailed as a pioneer for his descriptions of class crossing love and intimate homosexuality. But, as he is swift to point out, such themes have been part of Arabic literature for over 1,000 years. What is new and different is the direct manner in dealing with the every day crises of life in Egypt.

Chicago, Al Aswany’s new novel, is a visceral tale about honour, hope, love, sex, betrayal, fear and revenge, set amongst the Egyptian expatriate community and their American colleagues at the Histology Department of the Medical School at Illinois University, Chicago. What makes the story so strong is the fact that Al Aswany studied dentistry at the same University in the 1980s.

Chicago illustrates a kaleidoscope of cultural and social themes: The arguments for and against rage across the page as the characters twist and turn, fighting for their points of view. Each chapter is a cliff hanger that keeps you reading to find out what happened.

“When you write about true people, you must change the name”

Teasingly Aswany recounts “the first lesson in fiction writing”, given to him by his father is that, “When you write about true people, you must change the name”. Who is who? Can we find Aswany in one of the students? Or, indeed, someone from Egyptian politics?

Aswany is too clever to let the guises slip. But, nonetheless, his book is an intricate portrayal of the machinations of religious and cultural mores and their influence and that of the Egyptian state on its expatriates. Aswany sets this influence against the backdrop of the USA and its strong currents of cultural and racial strife, which run like deep underground rivers beneath a surface of free choice and equality.

Alaa Al AswanyThe bedrock of the book is its characters: Politics and human choice are ever present as Aswany like a diamond cutter brings out in minute detail the incremental stages in the thought process of each character: The love story between shy, virginal Shaymaa Muhammadi with her buried lust and Tariq Haseeb the dedicated super student; The complex relationships of the brutal and self important Dr Ahmad Danana whose machinations in service of ambition seem to know no end.

Authenticity runs throughout the book, but at the end the reader is still left with a sense of awe and the realisation that this novel actually is an account of what life for Egyptians is like. We wait with bated breath for the next novel, previewed for June 2009.

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