Review: Chicago by ‘Alaa Al-Aswany

February 15, 2009

I just finished reading the new novel Chicago by Egyptian novelist (and dentist!) Alaa Al-Aswany. The novel is set in contemporary Chicago, a city that Al-Aswany introduces by telling the story of the Great Chicago fire, started in 1182 by Mrs. O’ Leary’s cow who knocked over an oil lamp in a wooden barn. 

The story is swiftly drawn, sometimes the characters feel more like fascinating archetypes than actual people. It is perhaps because he is a writer of such broad political vision that he chooses to give us a representative sample of some of the characters who inhabit a modern research university in the heart of Chicago. Though the novel is written in a realistic style, his prose sometimes veers towards the poetic. He deserves praise for coming up with sentences like this: 

” He has a large head and very thick glasses, their bluish lenses reflecting his sly eyes in many intersecting circles that often disorient his interlocutors.” (45) 

!! Anyone who can use disorienting and interlocutors in one sentence, in this case referring to an Egyptian pharmacy professor,  deserves accolades in my book. 

Some of the characters, like the PhD student masquerading as a government official (Ahmed Danana) illustrate how we bring aspects of our cultures with us to a new home, while others like Dr. Rafat choose to mock their own race spitefully while completely embracing America.

Al-Aswany spares nothing in his critique of both contemporary American and Egyptian society. His characters are flawed and complex, perhaps slightly skewed towards the lascivious. 

NYTimes article on ‘Alaa Al-Aswany:

Al Aswany claims that the “dynamic” postcolonial culture created by the secular left in Egypt survived until the mid-70s, when Anwar Sadat, overturning Nasser’s pro-Soviet socialist policies, began to liberalize the economy and move closer to the United States. “When I went to Cairo University in 1976, the left was very powerful,” he told me. “That’s why Sadat encouraged the Muslim Brotherhood against us. He banned all the political groups, except the M.B. at the university. This is something that people in America don’t understand — the way the dictatorships use the Islamists against liberals and social democrats. Today we have Mr. Mubarak using the fear of the Muslim Brotherhood to fool the Americans and liberals and maintain himself in power.”

The West is obsessed with terrorism, but if it supported democracy here, there would be no terrorism. They say, ‘We want democracy in the Middle East,’ and then get scared when Hamas or the Muslim Brotherhood wins. They don’t understand that even if people in a democracy vote for the Muslim Brotherhood, they have the chance to see that these people in power are no good and then can vote them out. But if you have only dictatorship, there will be more terrorism.”

I reminded him that this was the justification the Bush administration used for the invasion of Iraq. “Ah, no,” he retorted, “that was what we call ‘moral cover.’ In 1882 the British never said, ‘We are going to occupy Egypt and take its resources.’ They said, ‘We are here to protect the minorities.’ You must cover your imperialism with something beautiful. No, what we want is to be left alone to build our own democracy.


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