The author of the highly acclaimed The Yacoubian Building returns with a story of love, sex, friendship, hatred, and ambition set in Chicago, with a cast of. The novelist Alaa Al Aswany places his emigré characters in post-9/11 Chicago. Review: Chicago by Alaa Al Aswany. Sukhdev Sandhu. AM BST 07 Sep Sukhdev Sandhu sinks into a gripping, steamy and occasionally soapy novel.
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A laa Al Aswany, the Egyptian novelist, became famous overnight in the Arab world with the publication of his first novel, The Yacoubian Building, in That compulsively readable book, which became a massive bestseller in Arabic, focused on a once grand but now decaying building in central Cairo; it was set during the Gulf war and offered a chlcago of Egyptian society.
Al Aswany wrote in a sawany manner, especially when it came to sexual and political matters.
In the mix of characters living in the building one found, for instance, an extravagant playboy, a gay intellectual, and a devout Islamic fundamentalist. The author drew each portrait with a bravado that was something new under the Middle Eastern sun.
Review: Chicago by Alaa Al Aswany
Chicago, his eagerly awaited second novel, is not as interesting or fully realised as the first, but has undeniable charms of its own. Al Aswany has a Dickensian sense of character, and one will not easily wswany the ghastly Ahmad Danana, who runs the Egyptian Students’ Union in Chicago, where the book is set.
As his new wife soon discovers, he has miserly and selfish tendencies. And it’s even worse than that: Danana stands in contrast to an appealing mathematician, Nagi Abd al-Samad, who reveals himself wonderfully in his journal, as when he writes: But if he were destined, just once, to cross to the other side and to walk among them, he would see one of them writing letters to his wife, another looking at his children’s photos, and a third shaving and humming a tune.
Between two worlds
Among Al Aswany’s other memorable characters is Shaymaa Muhammadi, who is “over thirty, slaa unmarried because her position as instructor in the College of Medicine has greatly reduced her chances, since Eastern men usually prefer that their wives be less educated than they”.
Her story is told with special poignancy. There is also Dr Muhammad Salah, who has adapted fairly well to life in the United States, although he pines for a lost love in Egypt; indeed, he yearns for Egypt itself.
The cast of characters is a large one, and Chicago weaves together their various stories – too many of them, perhaps. An impending visit aal the president of Egypt produces all sorts of plot possibilities, setting off a good deal of subterfuge.
Alaa Al Aswany’s “Chicago” – Words Without Borders
The spectre of an embarrassing political protest, for example, excites the “arrogant and suspicious” Safwat Shakir, a sleazy government agent with a military background and one of the least likeable actors in Al Aswany’s motley troupe. To these Egyptians abroad the novelist adds a small group of Americans, mostly professors in the department of histology. But the American characters are scarcely believable, being thinly drawn caricatures who speak in a wooden manner, representing competing points of view and nothing more.
This is a shrewdly conceived novel: There are profound, often chilling, moments of self-realisation along the way, as when the unhappy Dr Salah descends one morning into the basement of his house and uncovers an old suitcase that contains the clothes he had brought to America from Egypt 30 years before: Alaa Al Aswany is among the best writers in the Middle East today, a suitable heir to the mantle worn by Naguib Mahfouz, his great predecessor, whose influence is felt on every page.
Yet Al Aswany has his own magic.
His remarkable gift for narrative momentum sustains Chicago. It may not reach the heights of The Yacoubian Building, but it reveals a gifted novelist in mid-flight.