Alaa al Aswany
BORN: 1957, Egypt
The Yacoubian Building (2002)
Alaa al Aswany. Bryan Bedder / Getty Images for TFF
Alaa al Aswany is a contemporary Egyptian writer whose best-selling books use social realism to take an unflinching look at the problems of modern Egypt. Al Aswany also achieved recognition as one of the founders of Kefaya, a political coalition aimed at opposing the presidency of Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Dentist Turned Writer. Al Aswany was born May 26, 1957, in Cairo, Egypt, during the sixteen-year rule of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s second president. He was trained as a dentist in both Egypt and Chicago. Al Aswany opened a dental clinic in the Yacoubian Building, the setting for his best-selling novel, before turning to writing. His novel The Yacoubian Building uses the building itself, as well as the intertwining stories of its fictional tenants, to depict the political and societal decay of Egypt since its formation as a republic. Despite its controversial themes, the book became a success, and even spawned a film adaptation that set a record for theatrical debut earnings in Egypt. Al Aswany was also inspired by his experiences as a student in America, which resulted in his second major work, Chicago (2007), set on a college campus in the title city.
Al Aswany was also one of the founding members of Kefaya, also known as the Egyptian Movement for Change. The group formed primarily to oppose President Hosni Mubarak, whose controversial election reforms have made it difficult for other candidates to run against him for the position of president. Many members believe Mubarak is attempting to groom his son Gamal to become the next leader of Egypt and plans on transferring power directly to his son in the manner of a dictator rather than relying on a fair election process. The group is also known for protesting against the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Al Aswany holds weekly literary salons to discuss a wide range of cultural and political issues relevant to contemporary Egyptian life. Despite his great literary success, al Aswany continues to work as a dentist in Cairo.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Al Aswany's famous contemporaries include:
Jay Mclnerney (1955—): Mclnerney is an American writer who was one of the first members of the American ''literary brat pack'' of the 1980s.
Mohsen Badawi (1956—): Badawi is an Egyptian political activist and writer who founded the Abdurrahman Badawi Association for Cultural Creativity.
Rigoberta Menchu (1959—): Menchu is an indigenous Guatemalan whose writings publicize the plight of Guatemala's native peoples; she was the recipient of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize.
Rick Bragg (1959—): Bragg is an American journalist and memoir writer who won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing in 1996.
Luc Besson (1959—): Besson is a French film director known as the ''French Steven Spielberg.''
Works in Literary Context
Al Aswany is noted for his scathing portrayal of modern Egyptian society, particularly its political corruption and economic exploitation, as well as his inclusion of themes such as terrorism, radical islam, and homosexuality. His best-selling novel The Yacoubian Building is a historical novel set in 1990 just before the Gulf war, but in most ways, it is about the concerns of present-day Cairo, with the population’s fears of Islamic extremism and increasing repression by the government.
Egyptian Realism. The Yacoubian Building stands on one of Cairo’s main boulevards. Al Aswany uses the different characters in the building as a microcosm of modern Egyptian society. Though the novel is composed of a series of vignettes and the lives of the inhabitants are intertwined, the story follows the life of the doorman’s son who dreams of becoming a policeman. His girlfriend must turn to a life on the street to earn money. The novel not only focuses on the lives of building tenants, it highlights their living conditions, sexuality, corruption, social and political issues, Islamic terrorism, and the clash between ancient and modern Egypt.
Works in Critical Context
Al Aswany has faced criticism from Egyptian politicians for his unflinching look at corruption and sexuality, but literary critics in the Arab world assert that al Aswany may be the saviour of the Arabic novel. His bold storytelling and his willingness to tackle controversial issues avoided by most other Egyptian and Arab writers have earned him high praise in both the Arab world and the West. One reviewer noted that al Aswany ‘‘is becoming the Charles Dickens of Arab literature. Like Dickens, his novels are rooted in social realism and set agendas for reform.’’
The Yacoubian Building. Al Aswany’s second novel, The Yacoubian Building, caused a scandal at its publication in Egypt because of its social frankness and homosexual themes, but it became the best-selling Arabic novel for both 2002 and 2003. It was also voted Best Novel for 2003 by listeners to Egypt’s Middle East Broadcasting Service. It was subsequently translated into nine languages and made into a film in 2006 with the largest budget in Egyptian cinema history. The film, like the book, was hailed by both critics and audiences as a great success. Although the success of both the novel and the film have mostly been limited to the Arab world, they are receiving exposure internationally and gaining notice by critics in the West.
Caroline Moorehead wrote in the Spectator, “Poignant, sad, funny, often disquieting, The Yacoubian Building is a remarkable novel.’’ In the New York Times Book Review, Lorraine Adams wrote, ‘‘Aswany has conjured a bewitching political novel of contemporary Cairo that is also . . . about sex, a romantic novel about power and a comic yet sympathetic novel about the vagaries of the human heart. Even the least politically oriented reader will find it engrossing.’’
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Al Aswany portrays the struggles of a wide range of characters amid turbulent times in his country's history. Here are some other works set in similar circumstances:
A Man of the People (1966), a novel by Chinua Achebe. This novel explores the conflict between two generations of political activists through the story of a young man and his former teacher who enters politics in an unnamed African country.
The Black Book (1990), a novel by Orhan Pamuk. This postmodernist novel contains many stories within the main story that recount Turkey's past alongside present-day lstanbul.
A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007), a novel by Khaled Hosseini. This novel tells the story of two Afghan women struggling to survive through extremely tumultuous times.
Responses to Literature
1. The Yacoubian Building is set during the Gulf War and portrays modern Egypt since its revolution during the 1950s. Discuss how the building and its deterioration is a metaphor for what was happening in Egypt.
2. Al Aswany’s treatment of homosexuality is controversial in Arab literature. Do you think that this controversy makes it more or less likely that his other messages of social and political reform will be heeded? Explain.
3. Al Aswany tackles many controversial issues that are avoided by most authors in the Arab world, yet these same issues are common themes for writers in the West. Write an essay exploring the cultural, social, and political reasons for the different literary context faced by Arab and Western writers.
4. Al Aswany writes both novels and political editorials. Choose one of the messages for social reform from one of his novels and write a political editorial on this topic.
Adams, Lorraine. ‘‘Those Who Dwell Therein.’’ New York Times Book Review, August 27, 2006.
Mishra, Pankaj. ‘‘Where Alaa Al Aswany Is Writing From.’’ New York Times Magazine, April 27, 2008.
Moorehead, Caroline. ‘‘All Human Life Is There.’’ Spectator, February 17, 2007.
Diab, Khaled. Cultural rainbows. Retrieved June 4, 2008, from http://www.diabolicdigest.net/Middle%20East/Rainbow.htm. Last updated in May 2006.