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.