Monday, January 26, 2009

Chicago by Alaa Al Aswany

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Harper (October 7, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • Genre: Fiction

Before launching into a note of praise for Egyptian author Alaa Al Aswany's second 'novel' "Chicago" (translated into English by Farouk Abdel Wahab), permit me to quote some witnesses for the prosecution.

"Al Aswany seems to see the novelist's role as being close to that of a schoolteacher. He writes, in the style of a Wikipedia entry by Howard Zinn or Noam Chomsky, about the wretched fates of the Native American peoples who once flourished in Chicago." ~ Sunday Telegraph

"The cast of characters is a large one, and Chicago weaves together their various stories - too many of them, perhaps... the American characters are scarcely believable, being thinly drawn caricatures who speak in a wooden manner, representing competing points of view and nothing more" ~ Guardian, UK.

Aswany’s storytelling is also marked by its sensuality. From the self-denying student who allows himself an hour of recreation to watch wrestling and pornography to the lapsed poet whose voice and wholeness of self is restored by sex, everywhere we see the animal self lurking beneath the trained, dressed, and tutored body-in-the-world, aching to unsheath itself ~ The Scotsman

Al Aswany, a dentist by profession, is probably one of the most popular writers in the the Middle East today. He shot to fame with his wonderful first book titled "The Yacoubian Building" about a group of families living in this one apartment block in the center of Egypt and their intersecting lives served as a microcosm of Egyptian society. He has attempted something similar with his second book 'Chicago" but instead of an apartment block he has chosen the venue to be the University of Illinois and while most of the cast are Egyptian expats there are also some Americans.

Now, in Al Aswany's defence I have to say that I didn't consider his writing didactic or schoolteacher-like in the least. True, he seems wont to give us the history of Chicago, but it's done in a very readable manner and I like to look at it as his tribute to the city where he studied dentistry for two years.

I do agree with the critics when they say that his fleshing out of the American characters in the novel was rather weak, but it doesn't surprise me. Al Aswany is Egyptian and he would know much more about the Egyptian psyche than that of the American one, also, he was a student in the US in the late '80's and it could be that some of his impressions of America and its people are quite dated, still, that's no excuse for weak, unbelievable characters.

One of his goals here in "Chicago" is to provide a window into how Egyptians think and act among themselves when they are away from the Motherland as well as the Arab experience in America and to that end I think he achieves what he sets out to do. The other goal of the novel seems to be to expose the regime in Egypt for what it is - corrupt, biased, oppressive and brutal - and Al Aswany does that effectively by using his characters to offer political commentary. One of the most fascinating passages in the novel comes when an Egyptian Muslim sits down to discuss politics with an Egyptian Coptic Christian. What is revealed is something I didn't know: the Copts or the original Egyptians as they are known are highly discriminated against in Egypt

About the use of sex and sensuality in the novel...yes...there is a lot of that...but I don't think it's out of place. You see, in Egypt young men and women are not allowed to have sex until they are married and pornography is banned...but in America, they are free to have it when they want, with whomsoever they want and even buy sex toys if they so desire. Al Aswany, I think, uses sex as a metaphor for freedom...

In reading this book I have come to the conclusion that this book was written mainly for an Egyptian audience. Al Aswany was showing them what life is like for Egyptians that immigrate to America, however, it is captivating stuff for an American audience as well because we get to see ourselves through the eyes of Egyptian immigrants.

The book seeks not only to entertain (although it does an excellent job of that) but seeks to get the reader to ponder the role of an immigrant. Does he or she owe it to the adopted country to sever ties with the old country and be totally loyal to this new one? Or can the immigrant successfully juggle being a hybrid of both countries? As an immigrant myself, I personally think that immigration is always a struggle and one is forever having to make choices...hopefully we're making more right choices than wrong ones.


Laura said...

I saw this in the bookstore a couple of weeks ago and put it on my to be read list. It looks fascinating. As always, I find so many good things to read on your blog!!!

Lotus Reads said...

Laura, hi!

I thought so much of you while I was reading this book. As a Chicagoan I knew it would interest you. i have to say, it doesn't compare favorably with his first one, "The Al Yacoubian Building", but it is a good read.

Sanjay said...

Thank you for the wonderful review about Chicago. I found it most
entertaining, especially the way you included the different takes on
the book by the different reviewers. You are right in that he is likely Egypt's most well known author thanks to his work "The Yacoubian Building". I suppose we have to read the book for ourselves to judge if his writing style is as described, but perhaps it comes from the point of view of the different critics coming from adifferent place. Not every writer especially one from a different culture will write in a manner familiar to the critics. Also was Al Aswany's book translated? That might play in to how it gets interpreted as well?
I agree that the presence of weak and unbelievable characters cannot
be excused, one reason for that is that it leads to a disconnect. How
does that impact that narrative in your opinion?
Also considering that the author himself has not lived in the US for a while, does that influence his painting of the Egyptian characters living away from home?
Sex is often used as a metaphor for freedom not just by Aswany, but by individuals every where in free and not so free societies as a way to experiment and "find" out about themselves no?
I would question though, how accurately are we seeing ourselves thru the eyes of Aswany or his characters if his portrayals
of Americans are a bit dated? Presumably he draws upon what has been widely reported since 9/11 to make up for that?
To address the very valid points that you raise about immigrants and
their ties to the adopted country and the country of their origin. I
think as a citizen who takes an oath during citizenship, their loyalty is expected to be to the adopted country, but that is just on one level, on many other levels such as culture, food, language, most nations do not expect you to completely give up or forget where one comes from.
Immigrants enrich their adopted homeland with what they bring with
them and for the most part that is good. But I agree with you that it
is not an easy answer. I suppose many embrace the hybrid identity to
some extent. I suppose everyone has to find their own place of
Were there any characters in the book that particularly appealed to
you or got your attention?
How has his book been received in Egypt?
Thank you for another absorbing read, your posts are always much anticipated.

Happy Reader said...

Lotus, Being immigrant myself, I always find immigrant stories very interesting. I am currently reading "The Yacoubian building" and I like it so far..Hopefully, I will get time to read this in the future..

Joji said...

got two questions for you:)
1) how do you manage to read so many books (and write so intelligently about them) in so little time, and
2) could you tell me who illustrated the cover of Chicago?

Zibilee said...

Great review, with a lot of insight. I particularly liked how you noticed that the sex in the book was a metaphor for freedom. Sounds like something I would like to read.

Alpa said...

Hi Lotus,
I love that line you wrote... "Al Aswany...uses sex as a metaphor for freedom..."

I think this in itself is a pivotal point in society in general.


Alpa said...

Hi Lotus,
I love that line you wrote... "Al Aswany...uses sex as a metaphor for freedom..."

I think this in itself is a pivotal point in society in general.


Lotus Reads said...

Hello Sanjay!

HOw are you? Sorry it's taken me such a long while to get back to you but things have been busy here. Thanks also for taking the time to read my review, you always ask such interesting questions...thank you!

Yes, you're absolutely right, I think Aswany's character sketches of the Americans dates back to the time when we was a student in Chicago and that is why it seems glaringly incongruous when you read it today. Did it affect the narrative? I would say it did because the characters seemed like parodies and not real people, which is a shame because his Egyptian characters are warm, wonderful, funny and very engaging. I know he didn't mean to do this deliberately but it sort of makes you feel like the American characters are so terribly unevolved (OK, so I know it isn't a word, but it describes what I want to say!) :)

How was this book received in Egypt? Very well I am told! Infact, as I mentioned in my review, I do believe this book was written primarily for the Egyptian reader...the translation is very recent...the book is not.

Thank you for the wonderful answer on where the loyalty of an immigrant should lie...I think you nailed it. However, I don't think it is easy for many immigrants to embrace his or her adopted country quite that easily. There are a myriad of reasons as to why people leave their motherland to live elsewhere and I think much of whom they become lies in the motivation for their leaving.

Lotus Reads said...

@Chitts ~ I really loved "The Yacoubian Building". I so hope it does for you what it did for me (help me gain insights into Egyptian society and how the recent political events have shaped them as a whole).I saw the movie too and while it was nice, I much preferred the book!

Lotus Reads said...

@Joji ~ Sorry for taking so long to come back to you. I'm not usually this tardy with my responses but the last few weeks have been crazy-busy!

To answer your first question...I don't read that many books any more. There was a time I could read a book a week but that was because I wasn't working. I have a full time job now so my reading has been sacrificed at the altar of work :(

Glad you noticed the cover...the modern hieroglyphics were a clever idea indeed..I read on the inside book flap that it's been designed by one Jarrod Taylor. Talented fellow, eh?

Do visit again Joji, thanks!

Lotus Reads said...

@Zibilee and Alpa ~ Thanks! One of the criticisms Aswany received was that his book had too much unecessary sex in it. It got me wondering why he had done that. I knew he wasn't using sex to titillate, so I had to read it in a way to understand why it was being used and the only reason (and a very valid one in my opinion) was that he was using it as a metaphor for the freedom experienced by these once-closeted Egyptians when they reached the shores of America.

Saaleha said...

I've got The Yacoubian Building. Started reading it, but somehow its let me down. SO ive move on. Maybe someday I'll return??

Lotus Reads said...

Sorry to hear that Saaleha! What exactly are you not liking? The narrative? Characters? Plot?

Pfeiffer Photos said...

Some of these look to be excellent reads...thanks. Just found your blog today. :)

The villager: said...

Great site, book fiend !

Mama Mima said...

hi, greetings from jakarta! congratulations on the blog of note. i don't read much, but your blog is very useful. thank you for sharing.

Devid Haryalesmana said...

WEll, this is a VERY GOOD blog that i've ever visited. So inspiring.

Nadir Paes said...

Hi Lotus Reads!

I'm love China!
Do you speak portuguese?
I'm brasilian e adoro a China.
I loved your Blog.


Lotus Reads said...

Hello, Pfeiffer Photos, The Villager, Mamma Mia, David and Nadir and welcome to the blog! Want to thank all of you for visiting and for staying long enough to leave a comment. Just curious, will you tell me how and where you found my blog? Thanks so much and good day to all of you!

Rebecca Lynch Photography said...

I found your blog through Blog of Note. I am going to subscribe. You have commented on some interesting sounding books.

Samantha said...

Hi Lotus, just admiring your blog and wandering how you find time to read so much and then write such intelligent commentaries too. Haven't had much time for reading since becoming a parent in 2006 and I felt that I'd lost my thread - if you know what I mean, I mean, one book used to lead hungrily on to another, and I'd be reading reviews about new books before they came out, waiting excitedly to get my hands on them. Thought I'd lost my excitement but I found some of it again whilst reading your blog.
I particularly like your choices, as I've always been drawn to writers of non-english origin, and the subject of feeling 'foreign' or being an immigrant. My childhood experiences were not quite as exotic as yours but my parents were from opposite sides of the worlds, and I was always either the english girl in australia or the australian girl in england. I didn't find my own sense of identity until later into my twenties really.
I shall be back to look at your latest books again! Bright Blessings.

Aarti said...

This sounds really good. And, as a Chicagoan, I obviously will put it on the TBR pile. Thanks a bunch!

Also, congrats on being a blog of note!

Jerry K said...

Thanks for the tip on Troost's new book. I didn't know it existed, although I've read his first two.

Israel Macedo said...

I like

Angela in Europe said...

I love your new look. I haven't stopped by in a long time. Good to see you are still at it!

Maciek said...

If you're looking for some great book on modern China (or even more on change that took place in China during XX century) pick anything by Mo Yan. He might be the best contemporary Chinese writer.

calleexo said...

egypt is in africa not the middle easssst

but, i want to read this book it looks really interesting.

Sarah said...

I just finished teaching Chicago at the end of an Arabic Cont. Fiction class so was glad to find your comments. But more specifically, I found Aswany's depiction of female sexuality pretty ridiculous, not believable. The sexual pleasure derived from the ritual of waxing one's legs? The perpetual sexual desire of all the characters, ok, perhaps he can claim knowledge of egyptian (and NOT Arab as a whole) men. But for (Egyptian) women? It seems a stretch...even in the name of 'freedom'. SO here's the question: what did YOU think about his depiction of Shayma's sexuality? (I agree that much of the other aspects of her character seem believable enough...) Thanks.

Lotus Reads said...

Sarah, thank you so much for your comment! It's been ages since I read Chicago that I wouldn't be able to give you a fully crystallized and thoughtful response unless I do a quick re-read which will not be possible at this time. I hope, however, someone else here who has read "Chicago" will be able to give you an answer.