Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Alaa Al Awany : Chicago

There's a lot of reality in this book -- but it's not in the characters or the dialog. And it's definitely not in the place, Chicago, where I've lived for 35 years.

What's real here is a secular, educated, elite, creative Egyptian's love/hate relationship with America.

He loves America because it shares his secular values relating to art and science. I.e. -- Americans get to speak the truth, as they see it. They won't get killed for it -- and they might actually be well compensated.

But on the other hand -- Americans have no honor -- at least as an Arab man understands it -- and that leaves them shallow and despicable. And the author reserves his worst punishments for those Egyptians who have married Americans and tried to become like them.

And so -- every separate story ends in catastrophe - including the poet/med-student who emerges as the only character who tells his story in the first person. He is impetuous, ignorant, passionate, and brave. And he's the only Egyptian student who doesn't say his morning prayers. He's completely secular - even hooks up with a Jewish girl - so there's no hypocrisy when he calls up an escort service or gets smashing drunk. Obviously, he most represents the author, who himself went to Chicago to study medicine.

There's a lot of goofy scenarios here -- most memorable being the homesick Egyptian medical professor who escapes to his basement every night to put on his old Egyptian clothes and listen to Um Kultum while his sexually frustrated wife is upstairs in the bedroom playing with her $150 vibrator.

And the pious, thoroughly self-serving, and slightly effeminate student/informant is a joyously repulsive character worthy of Dickens.

But wait -- it just occurred to me -- there is one character who does not crash and burn in the final pages: the admirable Coptic heart surgeon who had to abandon his homeland to get an education - and who has tried, without success, to return to it. He makes up for the repulsive Coptic brothers who lived in the Yacoubian Building.

BTW - all the sad endings do close the book with a sense of despair regarding the prospects for Egyptians like Alwany as their pious Islamic countrymen are on the verge of hauling the country off into the dark ages. The problem is that the modern secular world seems to offer moral confusion - and how can that possibly be the foundation of a great civilization?

But wait -- on reflection, the story of the hard working, pious female Muslim student frames the entire book -- she's both the first and the last character whom we meet. And her story seems to be ending on a positive note as her nerdish boyfriend visits her at the abortion clinic to presumably continue a relationship that would have to proceed to marriage. Could their story have turned out the same way if they had never left Egypt ? A quick look at the internet tell us that she would need to have traveled to Paris or Amsterdam.

One narrative that is especially curious is the romance between Graham and Carol - neither of whom are Egyptian. He's a old-leftie college professor from the 60's she's a young African-American single mother who's the victim of job discrimination -- and for some reason the author feels that their story fits into this novel. It ends by her selling her body to get a good career -- and him self-righteously dumping her as a result.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Alaa al-Aswany : The Yacoubian Building

Ever since finishing The Cairo Trilogy by Mahfouz, I've desperately wanted to read another chapter of it. And now my wish has been granted by an author born 46 years later (1957) -- who obviously admired Mahfouz as much as I do, as he dumps us into an updated version of the same narrative world of central Cairo.

Aswany assumes that same celestial point-of-view, as he pulls the roof off a Cairo building and lets us examine the denizens within, with that combination of distance and compassion that characterizes the best entomologist.

And it's an equally scary view for folks like me -- as well as the author himself -- because Egypt is becoming an Islamic fundamentalist society whose true believers shout NO! to socialism, democracy, and the freedoms that allow for open discourse in literature and the arts. The tolerant sheiks are the corrupt ones who will twist Islamic law until it satisfies their wealthy clients. The honest, sincere sheiks are the ones who teach their flocks to love death instead of life, giving them an incredibly destructive power, like Muhammad Attah, one of the Egyptians who flew planes into the World Trade Center.

Aswany presents us with no vigorous counter-balance to that ferocious idealism -- other than the utterly brutal, vicious, and corrupt state security -- or the sweet, rich, aristocratic old lecher whose happy wedding to a whore celebrates the end of this novel.

A similar event occurred 50 years earlier in "The Cairo Trilogy" -- where the central character was also an old skirt-chaser (it's one his sons who marries a sing-song girl). But what's absent in this updated version is any sense of a strong, modern idealism that might oppose the approaching tyranny of fundamentalism. The only character with the intellectual ability to go in that direction is a homosexual half-French journalist who, unlike the gay character in Cairo Trilogy, was damaged by a childhood rape that has directed him toward an apparently inescapable tragic destiny at the hands of his poor, uneducated, pious Nubian lover.

No... wait.... there is one, and only one, strong character with modern sensibilities: the man who peeking down into all these lives: the author himself who is capable of a clear, compassionate view of both his mortal enemies and his allies. Though he might be trying too hard to please a young Arab male readership.

For one thing, he is a bit hard on the Copts. His Muslim characters may be dangerous and/or corrupt -- but the two sneaky Christian brothers are truly repulsive - as they wheedle their way into taking over more of the building. They pretend friendship or loyalty - but they are back stabbers. And I'm sure that's not a helpful stereotype as the Coptic community enters into a period of Muslim intolerance.

And for another, we might note the dominant role of male sexuality, and the male gaze, in all the episodes of Aswany's book-- even in the story of the poor doorkeeper's son who is looking to move up in the world and ends up in the bed of a jihadist widow who teaches him about good old-fashioned Islamic sex. The entire book is framed by the story of a failed engineer who has devoted five decades to the pursuit and delectation of women.

One might also note that the only adult female who plays a role in this novel is the vituperative, ruthless, thrice-divorced old harpie who is the sister and nemesis of the above mentioned playboy. All the other women are young, hot, and sexy -- in contrast to "The Cairo Trilogy" whose focus in on an entire family, with women of all ages, and framed by the life and death of the family matriarch.