CAIRO: With a smile on his face, his lab coat buttoned to the top, dentist and award-winning novelist Alaa Al-Aswany describes a scenario he envisions for Egypt some 50 years from now.
“After living away, I go back to Egypt . after praying at the mosque, people spill out onto the streets to protest. I see police and I ask someone, ‘will they beat us when we get to the end of the street?’. He tells me,’no, they are here to protect us.’. There is a picture of a woman without a veil. He tells me ‘She is our candidate for president . Times have changed. Things were very bad, there was a leader who ruled for 30 years, but when he tried to make his son president, there was a revolt.’ ‘What was his name?’ I asked the man, and he said, ‘it was such a terrible time, no one dares to utter his name.’
When Al-Aswany, 47, sat down to write what would be his best selling book, the Yacoubian Building, little did he know his story would ultimately provide readers in the West with an inside glimpse at what he characterizes as the lives of the desperate and oppressed Arab people. Coinciding with the recent political turbulence in the region, as well as the rise of religious extremism worldwide, Al-Aswany’s book, documenting the lives of a group of Egyptians living in the same downtown Cairo building, has been picked up by international publishing giant, Harper- Collins. Having sold more than 100,000 copies in three years, Yacoubian Building now joins the ranks of HarperCollins classics, such as To Kill a Mockingbird and The Alchemist.
Son of Egyptian novelist Abbas Al-Aswany, Alaa has faced legal troubles surrounding the book, as many residents of the real Yacoubian building claimed the novel is an invasion of their privacy and libel against them. Al-Aswany has adamantly denied these accusations, insisting that none of the characters were modeled after any one person,but rather several people have inspired the storyline behind each. Secondly, there are three Yacoubian buildings in Cairo and two in Beirut,Al-Aswany adds, none of which resemble his description of the Yacoubian building in his book
The novel has inspired a screen adaptation by Wahid and Marwan Hamed – at LE 30 million, the most costly production in Egyptian cinematic history, it is set to hit theatres in June 2006. The controversial tale of humanity touches upon subjects ranging from homosexuality to sexual promiscuity and Islamic fundamentalism. Al- Aswany takes his readers deep inside the lives of the characters, most of whom are down on their luck and struggling to get by.
“The book is very, very bold, explained director Marwan Hamed. “It addresses some of the issues people don’t even dare to talk about. The amount of realism in the book and the amount of honesty Alaa Al-Aswany had for the characters is something I admired very much.
“One of my conclusions after writing the novel is that a majority of the characters were oppressed and treated in a very unfair way, Al-Aswany explained. “By supporting dictators, in the long run, you’re going to have terrorism. It’s a rule.
If you have democracy then there will be no terrorism. If you have a dictator, then you will never see the true victims. I don’t know if America is going to understand this or not.
An outspoken critic of many Arab governments,Al-Aswany, actually makes his living as a dentist. He says the profession is excellent for helping him to create characters, since he deals with so many people. He also contributes monthly articles to Egypt’s opposition newspapers, and is an active member of the Kefaya (Enough) political movement. While his novel may touch more upon regional sentiments, Al-Aswany has a theory as to why Western publishing companies may have pursued this particular title.
“They see my book as a kind of analysis, he speculated. “In the 80’s and 90’s, if the police were looking for 10 people, they’d arrest 100. [They] were beating these people, torturing these people, oppressing these people. What I described happens everyday. The result is that out of 100 who have been arrested, there were [originally] 10 who really were militants. In the end, all 100 are militants.
Al-Aswany pinpoints the migration of “Saudi Islam – or the rigid Wahabi school of thought – as being one of the major causes for the recent intolerance in some of the Arab world’s traditionally liberal cultures. Intolerance, Al-Aswany characterizes as an “un-Egyptian quality which has infected the nation like a contagious disease. He reflects back on a time when Muslims, Christians and Jews lived harmoniously in Cairo, free from prejudice or hatred.
He says the same of the homosexual character in his book, and the taboos that have formed around the Arab gay community
“I try to present homosexuals as human beings, not as stereotyped, not as bad people, not as a taboo, not as a person who is lost, someone we don’t even want to think about, said Al-Aswany. “This is not fair. One of the most important goals of literature is to make the human life more understandable – to present a human being who is a homosexual, not homosexual as a stereotype.
“The homosexual character was one of the most interesting characters for me because we are not used to talking about such people in our society and in film, said Hamed. “I think Egyptians are living in denial. They deny the truth they’re living in.
“Let’s say a woman is cheating on her husband, suggested Al-Aswany. “If you don’t understand literature, maybe you might think, ‘oh, she is a hooker.’ If you know about literature, you might ask; ‘why?’ If you were in her place, you might even do the same. Literature makes us question things – it makes us more human
Al-Aswany suggests that the evolution of Egyptian society toward more conservative ideals is evident in the recent success of the Muslim Brotherhood in the parliamentary elections, but equally in the ruling party’s longtime reign.
“The political regime is the Central Nervous System (CNS) of the country, he said, resorting to medical terminology. “In medicine, if you have trouble with the CNS, forget about the organs because you have a fatal problem. Forget about the kidney, forget about the liver. Everything will stop. You first must fix the political regime and our political regime is terrible.
Al-Aswany is currently working on a new novel called Chicago, though the plot remains a mystery.Meantime, he has no intention of giving up his day job, treating teeth.