By Caroline Curran
Lauded for his novels, infamous for his sometimes caustic, often overtly political writings, things are never dull with Alaa Al-Aswany — especially when so-called tyrants and hypocrites are involved.
Until recently, English readers had access to only one side of Al-Aswany’s literary output. Though a great window into Egyptian society and thoroughly entertaining, after reading the recently published “On the State of Egypt,” a translated compilation of articles that appeared originally in Egyptian newspapers Al-Shorouk and Al-Dostor between 2005 and 2010 published by the American University in Cairo Press, it’s tempting to say that until now, those of us who don’t read Arabic were missing out on a lot.
Al-Aswany’s book, superbly translated by Jonathan Wright and published by the AUC Press, came out just before the Jan. 25 Revolution and was re-launched post-February 11 — when then president Hosni Mubarak stepped down — with a new paper insert introduction written from Tahrir Square.
The timing of this book is just right as it discusses many of the issues that contributed to the uprising, as well as realities that will continue to pose challenges for Egyptian society into the future. It will also provide an excellent source of insight for international readers looking to learn more about Egyptian politics during the Mubarak era.
Although Al-Aswany has authored two much-admired Arabic language books in a similar format, “On the State of Egypt” is specifically geared towards a foreign audience.
Dealing with contentious issues from Islamophobia in Europe to American meddling in Egypt’s affairs, Coptic rights and radical Islam, Al-Aswany presents forceful and succinct arguments, all leading to the logical conclusion that, in his words, “democracy is the solution” for Egypt.
Al-Aswany is at his finest when dealing with Islam; namely the Wahhabi-influenced, ritual-heavy brand of religion that has infiltrated Egyptian society since the 1970s, overwriting Egypt’s historically liberal approach to religion, introducing foreign practices such as the niqab, and shifting emphasis from morality to practice.
He links this discussion to Egyptian political life, exposing the hypocrisy of State Security officers who pray meticulously in designated spaces next to the torture chambers where they harass and murder Egyptian citizens. Most troublesome for Al-Aswany is the political apathy that Wahabbism preaches to its followers; for him, the lack of a sense of justice in this religious teaching goes against the core values of Islam.
In his concise articles, illustrated with clever anecdotes, Al-Aswany also discusses the situation of Egypt’s Coptic community, linking their fate to the destiny of all Egyptians regardless of faith. For Al-Aswany, although Copts are doubly oppressed in Mubarak’s Egypt, there can be no justice or safety for their community unless all Egyptians gain their rights in a democratic society. Indeed, he shrewdly notes that Pope Shenouda is one of the staunchest supporters of a regime that failed to give Copts their due and protect them from violence.
For all the issues addressed in his articles, from the horrific state of government hospitals to torture and Egyptian brain drain to the west, Al-Aswany’s conclusion is the same: only under a democratic system can Egypt’s problems begin to be addressed and only when the country’s leaders are accountable to citizens can Egyptians live with dignity. Despite the outcome of recent events, Al-Aswany’s observations remain relevant as Egyptian society tackles a difficult transition that will bring it face to face with familiar monsters created and fostered by the Mubarak regime.
Now that the first step has been taken towards a new Egypt, a step summed up in Al-Aswany’s assessment that “the consequences of courage are never worse than the consequences of fear, and the only way to escape an oppressive ruler is to confront him with all of our strength,” it will be interesting to see what Al-Aswany will write — and do — next.
For the moment, however, it is enough that Al-Aswany’s political writings are now available in translation alongside his novels, allowing international readers access to his sharp insight, nuanced analysis, and the kind of thinking that has brought Egypt to where it stands, proudly, today.
Alaa Al-Aswany’s “On the State of Egypt” is available in local bookstores.