Alaa al-Aswani, the Arab World’s Literary Taboo-Breaker [Archives:2008/1142/Culture]

March 31 2008
Alaa al-Aswani is currently the most successful Arab novelist. He was the only Arabic-language writer to participate in this year's lit. COLOGNE in Germany, the largest literary festival in Europe, where he read from his latest novel “Chicago”. Samir Grees was listening

The room is packed; a sell-out. A full half-hour before the reading is due to begin a large crowd has already gathered; an audience composed of both Germans and Arabs, all eagerly awaiting the appearance of the writer of “The Yacoubian Building”, contemporary Arab literature's most successful novel.

Alaa al-Aswani is a celebrity and the filming of his novel, with Egyptian stars such as Adel Imam, Nour al-Sherif und Youssra, has only served to increase his fame.

Al-Aswani is the only Arabic-language author to appear at the lit.COLOGNE. As he enters the room where the reading is to take place, the applause is warm and prolonged. The tall dark-skinned man greets his public with a smile, polite, yet with a touch of reticence. But as he reads from his second novel “Chicago” and begins answering questions, he visibly warms to the situation, his reserve melting away, the confident successful novelist coming to the fore.

The “Patrick Suskind of Arabic literature”

Alaa al-Aswani is a phenomenon in modern Arabic literature, simply the most successful novelist ever. His literary success can be compared to the Patrick Suskind phenomenon in Germany, an accomplishment that has turned him into one of Egypt's most lucrative exports. His first novel “The Yacoubian Building”, published in 2002, has sold more than 150,000 copies in the Arab world. Even the Egyptian Nobel laureate Nagib Mahfuz cannot match this volume of sales.

Al-Aswani's success is astonishing; especially in a region where the illiteracy rate is extremely high and there are very few readers per head of population. Writers in the Arab world in general are not high earners, works of fiction can expect print runs of one or two thousand at most, with sales spread over a number of years.

The writer who can afford to live on the proceeds of his literary endeavours is a rare beast indeed. Alaa al-Aswani is one of this select group. And yet he has preferred to remain a dentist. His studies took him to Cairo and Chicago, both of which cities have had one of his best-selling novel dedicated to them.

Panoramic visions of Cairo and Chicago

“It was clear to me from my first day on at Illinois University that one day I was going to write a novel about this unique cultural melting pot,” al-Aswani tells his listeners in Cologne. By 2007 the dentist had committed his idea to paper and his second novel, “Chicago”, which looks at the lives of Egyptian immigrants in the USA was published.

The real subject of the novel is Egypt rather than the United States, however. “Chicago” – like “The Yacoubian Building” – is a panoramic novel: peopled by an array of students, lecturers and their families, and American professors are the characters in this novel.

There are Egyptians who have been living in the US for years and now feel themselves to be American, while others suffer – to varying degrees – from homesickness. Most are living a conflict between their old and their new lives; all are living under the watchful eye of the Egyptian secret service.

“Chicago” went through 11 reprints within a year and has now been translated into several languages. The German translation by Hartmut Fahndrich appeared in February, published by the Lenos publishing house.

Taboo-breaker for the Arab world

What is the secret of Alaa al-Aswani's success? His work goes down very well in the Arab world because, no respecter of taboos, a writer who skilfully, subtly and humorously probes the no-go areas of Arab culture: politics, religion and sex.

His books do not shy away from detailed descriptions of both homosexual and heterosexual acts. The deplorable political and social conditions prevailing in his country – endemic corruption, social injustice, but also the discrimination against the Egyptian Christians (Copts), as well as feigned piety and Islamism are all put to the sword. Al-Aswani's special skill lies in his ability to deal with the big taboo subjects in a straightforward way and in a language that people can understand.

It's a style, of course, which leaves little room for the drawing of subtle distinctions or deep, convincing psychological analysis. An overload of cliche and melodramatic scenes is characteristic of both novels and led the Arabist Andreas Pflitsch to compare to “The Yacoubian Building” to a well-known German soap opera.

Sociology rather than literature

German press reviews were almost unanimous in their praise of Aswani's first novel, “The Yacoubian Building”. Some critics were even moved to compare Aswani with the great Egyptian writer Mahfuz. The thing that was very striking about the reception given “The Yacoubian Building” in Germany was that it wasn't necessarily the novel's literary qualities that were praised, much more the way it reflected the social and political ills of the country on the Nile.

It was praised as a work that provided a key to understanding Arab-Islamic society and that gave an answer to the question of what it was that made a terrorist.

So it came as no surprise when “The Yacoubian Building” scooped the Bruno Kreisky Prize for the best political book of 2007. It was also no surprise when “Chicago” failed to be nominated for a major Arab literary prize such as the recently initiated Arab Booker Prize.

Al-Aswani's willingness to challenge taboos, his sense of humour, clarity of structure, simple language and gripping narrative technique have brought him success not only in Egypt, Lebanon and Morocco, but in France, Italy and Germany as well.

Is the al-Aswani bubble about to burst? Are we witnessing a fleeting phenomenon, a literary shooting star about to burn itself out? One thing is certain; he has already proved himself a writer with the ability to captivate and enthral a vast readership. And his talent is proving more durable than many in the Arab world were prepared to allow following the first novel. Al-Aswani is still brimming with ideas and enthusiasm. He is currently busily at work on his third novel.