Alaa Al Aswany – WSJ

Alaa Al Aswany, one of the most renowned novelists in the Arab world, almost gave up writing. After the Egyptian state publisher rejected his first two novels in the 1990s, he published them himself, winning critical acclaim but few readers. When the state, which monopolizes the distribution of books, rejected it a third time in 1998, Mr. Al Aswany felt “humiliated,” he says. He decided to release one last novel with a small private publisher in his hometown of Cairo, then give up his literary aspirations and move to New Zealand, because it was “very far away,” he says.

Yet a few weeks after its publication in 2002, the book was out of print. It was an “incredible phenomenon,” said Mr. Al Aswany, 64, of “The Yacoubian Building”, which was an instant bestseller in Arabic and has since sold over a million dollars. exemplary in the world. “This novel changed my life.

Serial portrait of the different tenants of a building in downtown Cairo, “The Yacoubian Building” dramatizes the corruption and hypocrisy of Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt. During the Arab Spring of 2011, when Mr. Al Aswany joined hundreds of thousands of his compatriots in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to demand the end of Mubarak’s 30-year rule, many other protesters told him they were there because of what he wrote he said, “I believe that’s the greatest honor a writer can get.”

The novel seethes with resentment for a country in which, deplores a character, “the fate of a person is more or less determined at birth”.

A decade later, Egypt is no less corrupt and only more repressive, says Al Aswany. Under President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, a general who seized power in a coup in 2013, poverty is on the rise and the government has thrown thousands of dissidents in prison. Mr. Al Aswany now lives in Brooklyn, NY, after the government banned him from appearing on television, holding his literary salons, writing his weekly column in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm, or publishing more books. “The dictatorship prevents you from staying,” he says over the phone from his apartment he shares with his wife and one of their daughters (his son is still in Egypt and his other daughter works in San Francisco).

This distance, Mr. Al Aswany says, helped him write his latest novel, “The Republic of False Truths”, released Aug. 10 from Knopf in a translation by SR Fellowes. Set in the run-up to the 2011 Egyptian Revolution and its bloody aftermath, the book uses an array of characters to chronicle the daily injustices of Egyptian life and the intoxicating ambitions of those who have taken to the streets to demand the change.

Alaa Al Aswany, whose 2002 bestseller “The Yacoubian Building” inspired protesters in Tahrir Square, has a new novel, “The Republic of False Truths”.


Jesse Dittmar for The Wall Street Journal

Mr. Al Aswany does not hesitate to confuse the piety of the Egyptian ruling class. The novel’s entire cast includes General Ahmad Alwany, a “God-fearing Muslim,” who views pornography, tortures prisoners, and demands favors for his children (while insisting that they be treated “without bias. “, thus sparing his” conscience before Our Lord “.”). Sheikh Shamel, a highly regarded religious authority with three Mercedes limousines and no formal religious training, “is said to have taken the virginity of twenty-three young girls, all in accordance with holy law.” There is also Asmaa Zanaty, an idealistic young teacher, who is horrified to learn that her school helps rich girls cheat, fails the poor and expects her to wear a headscarf for “moral” reasons. . She asks herself, “What is this swamp we live in?”

The novel seethes with resentment for a country in which, as one character laments, “a person’s fate is more or less determined at birth.” Mr. Al Aswany also conveys the mixed lessons of the revolution. Describing the many ordinary people who risked their lives to fight for freedom, he shows how the uprising debunked assumptions that the Egyptians had simply learned to live with tyranny. But it also captures how the brutal crackdown, in which the military killed protesters and subjected women to crude “virginity tests”, undermined the uprising. He notes that many Egyptians fell into the trap of state propaganda, which claimed that revolutionaries were treacherous agents of foreign powers. At the end of the book, Asmaa laments that the Egyptians “do not deserve a sacrifice. They love the stick of the dictator and understand no other kind of treatment.

Although Mr. Al Aswany says he sympathizes with Asmaa’s disillusionment, he does not necessarily share it. The purpose of a novel, he explains, is not to lecture, but to inspire empathy and “human understanding” through the living lives of its characters. The chorus of voices in the book also includes that of Mazen Saqqa, a young engineer and union representative, who insists: “You can’t fool people forever. Tomorrow, or in a week, or in a month, the Egyptians will inevitably turn to revolution.

Born into an upper-middle-class family in Cairo, Mr. Al Aswany says becoming a novelist was “the dream of my life”. An only child, he was very attached to his father, a renowned writer who encouraged his son’s talent. “He told me that you have to ask yourself every morning what is the most important thing in your life,” recalls Mr. Al Aswany. “If your answer is anything other than literature, then you should stop writing because you will never get there.”

“No one really chooses a religion. We are born with it and then we try to justify it because we get attached emotionally.

Mr. Al Aswany studied French Literature at a French Lycée in Cairo, Spanish Literature in Madrid, and obtained a Masters in Dentistry from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1985, aware that he needed a profession to support yourself. In Cairo, he wrote every day from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m., then saw patients in a clinic at his home in the afternoon. Dentistry, he says, was a great way to get to know “people from different backgrounds every day.”

In “The Republic of False Truths”, Mr. Al Aswany seems the most dismissive of those who privilege religious sufficiency over morality. Raised in a Muslim family, he says he believes in God but is not religious. “No one really chooses a religion,” he says. “We’re born with it, and then we try to justify it because we get attached emotionally.” He is nostalgic for the tolerant and open interpretation of Islam that reigned in Egypt for much of the 19th and 20th centuries. But the oil boom of the 1970s drew millions of Egyptians to the Gulf states to work, where they were influenced by a stricter and more militant Wahhabi reading of Islam, he says. “A Muslim and an Islamist are very different. In 2013, Mr. Al Aswany controversially supported the military against democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. Mr. Al Aswany, in turn, says he has always been against Mr. Sisi and that Morsi’s election “was not democratic”.

Mr. Al Aswany suggests that the government’s draconian censorship of opposing views, including of its own writings, is a sign of its weakness. When an administration is strong, he explains, it behaves like a tiger: “it knows it can attack anyone so it doesn’t have to attack anyone”. The government of Mr. Sissi is however like “a wounded tiger”: “without self-confidence, it attacks everyone”.

Like the young engineer in his novel, Mr. Al Aswany says he remains optimistic about Egypt. He notes that revolutions throughout history have caused counter-revolutions, but “revolution always succeeds.” The fact that Egypt remains such a young nation – around half of the population is under 25 – also gives it hope. “Revolutions are always led by young people,” he says. “The future is on our side.

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