In his new novel "Chicago," the best-selling Egyptian writer Alaa al Aswany has written a dark comedy about the lives of Egyptian graduate students and faculty at the University of Illinois in the years after Sept. 11, where they face the pressures of politics, love, sex and racism. The long arm of the corrupt, dying dictatorship ofis never far away, as the Egyptian secret police meddle in the students' lives.
In the novel, Nagi is a political dissident who comes from Cairo to study medicine in Chicago. He encounters Shaymaa and Tariq, whose love affair is preceded by a dance of sexual repression, and the professors Ra'fat and Salah, who have denied their Egyptian background with tragic consequences. Hovering over the students with menace is Danana, the bloated and corrupt student leader and secret police informer.
For al Aswany, the motivation to write a satire of his fellow Egyptians in the United States came from the desire to explore the troubles the students face and the rancid dictatorship at home. "You write fiction because you feel that some people are suffering," said al Aswany in a telephone interview from his home in Cairo. "You are trying to explain and understand these kinds of situations."
Though he spent three years studying dentistry in Illinois in the 1980s, he swears "Chicago" is not autobiographical. "As a novelist, you write from your own experience," he said. "That's why I wrote about Chicago, and did not write about New York. I was inspired by real people, but that does not mean that I copied what really happened into the novel. You have my imagination to take into account."
Even the rebellious Nagi can't seem to escape the chains of the dictatorship. "Nagi is an honest person, but he pays the price of being born in the dictatorship and not a democracy," said al Aswany. "A dictatorship tries to control everything and the Egyptian dictatorship is no exception. When you are studying in America, you become more important to the regime. You are going to have a much better education, and if you go home, you become one of their men."
Throughout the novel, Nagi mocks the corrupt Egyptian government and the Egyptian students in America who still cower before the secret police. "Nagi and I have many things in common," he said. "I have many of his opinions. I have been accused of being Nagi myself. This is not true, but his views on democracy and religion are similar to mine."
When the Egyptian dictator plans a visit to Chicago, the dissidents organize a surprise protest. Al Aswany creates a biting portrait of Egyptian expatriates abroad and how noble causes and idealism are all squashed by the strongman's boot.
Although his book is a satire, al Aswany draws full- blooded characters. Even Shaymaa and Tariq, the virginal 30-year-olds, have a touching romance as they seduce each other. His American characters are also nuanced. Other characters, such as two middle-aged Egyptian professors, are sad figures who are cruelly humbled in the end. One has denied his Egyptian heritage and the other regrets fleeing Egypt in the late 1960s.
"Professor Ra'fat in the novel doesn't have the right formula for immigration," said al Aswany, "because he decided to cut off his roots and tried to become totally Americanized. It doesn't work, because it is not natural. It has a profound effect on his personality.
"The story with Professor Salah is more complicated," he said. "He left his
Al Aswany, who is in his early 50s, is a practicing dentist and newspaper columnist in Cairo. His last novel, "," was an Arab-language best seller; "Chicago" has already topped all best-seller lists in the Middle East. In a region with high rates of illiteracy, "Chicago" has already sold an astounding 150,000 copies.
Being a dissident in Cairo comes with a price. Al Aswany's writer friends are routinely picked up by the police for questioning or thrown in jail. Despite chances to go abroad, al Aswany stays in Egypt.
"Writing for democracy is my duty," said al Aswany. "It could be dangerous, but writing and fear do not mix. Writing is not something you can do when you are afraid. The editor of my newspaper was arrested for writing that Mubarak was sick. My problems haven't been as bad yet."
Twenty years ago in America, al Aswany said he had an epiphany. Despite being a dental surgeon, his true calling was going to be writing fiction.
"When I was in America, I learned how to have a clear vision," said al Aswany. "I realized that I was going to be a novelist, and that I was going to write about the Egyptian people, the people that I know. It didn't make sense to stay abroad. The human situation changes every minute. You can't write about your home country if you do not live there. For me, if I am not in my country, I am not truly myself."
Dylan Foley is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, N.Y.
(Originally published in the Denver Post on December 21, 2008)