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by Alaa Al-Aswany
Translated from the Arabic by Farouk Abdel Wahab
Published by: AUC Press: ISBN 978-977-416-110-0 (Middle East)
Fourth Estate: ISBN 978-000-728-515-8 (UK)
Harper: ISBN 978-006-145-256-7 (USA and Canada)
An Expanse of Freedom
After the success of The Yacoubian Building, Alaa al-Aswany’s latest novel Chicago is set in the city where the author studied and trained as dentist. Typically for al-Aswany, Chicago is full of biographical traits from author’s life. Born in 1957, Alaa al-Aswany is a dentist and writer who has written prolifically for Egyptian newspapers on literature, politics and social issues. He is best known for his second novel The Yacoubian Building [Imarat Yaacoubian], published in 2002 (English translation by Humphrey Davies, AUC Press, 2004) and named after the building which was not only the centre of the novel’s narrative, but also the place where al-Aswany’s father had his law practice and where al-Aswany's first dental surgery was based. The Yacoubian Building was later adapted as a film and became a popular TV series in Egypt.
Chicago is, after Hannah al-Shaykh’s Only in London, the second significant Arab novel that introduces us to the world of Arab expatriates living in the West. The story is set in the University of Illinois Medical School where al-Aswany’s characters study or are professionally involved; and where al-Aswany himself spent three years, starting in 1985, attending a master’s programme in dentistry and travelling across America.
The novel is diverse in style with very rich and detailed description. The main character, Nagi Abd al-Samad, is an Egyptian medical student coming to Chicago to complete a master’s degree in histology. As the author himself did, Nagi thought of majoring in poetry, but concluded that being a poet in Egypt wouldn’t earn him a living and so enrolled in the medical faculty at the Cairo University instead. Nagi has strong political and social beliefs and becomes involved with expatriates’ opposition groups led by Karam, a world class American Egyptian Coptic surgeon who now resides in Chicago. The Egyptian secret services, represented by Ahmad Danana, a spy operating the Egyptian Students’ Union under cover of being an MA student in the histology department, become suspicious of Nagi’s activities and continue to prosecute him outside Egypt.
While many events in the novel are told from Nagi’s point of view, a large part of the narrative is presented from the perspective of other characters, masterfully allowing al-Aswany to tackle a range of issues and serious social taboos in both Egyptian and American societies: racism, religious discrimination, corruption, bribery, abortion, drugs and sexual abuse. These choices may seem shocking for an author who could see his books banned in his own country, but are logical for someone who once said that “he saw literature as an expanse of freedom that should examine the areas that people don’t talk about, to show us things we could be feeling but not seeing”.
The John Graham character, for example, is an atheistic anti-establishment American professor of the sixties’ generation who is in a relationship with a younger African-American woman Carol. While Carol is struggling to find a job because of the colour of her skin, she doesn’t hesitate to offer the image of her body to earn a living. Shaymaa, a bright 30-year-old single Egyptian student suffering from cultural shock and identity crisis since moving onto the university campus from the provincial Egyptian town of Tanta, becomes romantically involved with Tariq shortly after her arrival in Chicago. Tariq, who is an upper-class Egyptian student escaping from marriage and family responsibilities imposed onto him by his mother and relatives back in Egypt, is at first reluctant to show commitment to Shaymaa, but their relationship begins to take a different turn after Shaymaa discovers she is pregnant.
Ra’fat is an Egyptian American professor who, after decades of living in America, cannot accept his daughter Sarah’s independence when she decides to move out of the family home to live with her boyfriend Jeff, an artist eking out a dubious existence in a run-down area of Chicago, who introduces Sarah to drugs. Dr Salah, an Coptic Egyptian-American professor starts seeing a therapist after he faces a series of marital problems with his American wife Chris whom he appears to have married in order to obtain the US citizenship.
Chicago offers multiple perspectives to a number of stories developed in a great detail and set in an uprooted Egyptian society in post-9/11 Chicago. Its remarkable stories are now available to the English language readership in a translation by Farouk Abdel Wahab who was awarded, for his translation of Khairy Shalaby’s novel The Lodging House, the Saif Ghobash – Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation.