In Other Words

Egypt’s Tortured Present

Imarat Yacoubian (The Yacoubian Building) By Alaa Al Aswani 348 pages, Al-Qahirah: Mirit lil-Nashr wa-al-Malumat, 2002 (in Arabic) Niran Sadiqah (Friendly Fire) By Alaa Al Aswani 210 pages, Al-Qahirah: Dar Mirit, 2004 (in Arabic) I discovered Alaa Al Aswani in prison, where I was incarcerated on charges of tarnishing the reputation of Egypt. Through Al ...

Imarat Yacoubian (The Yacoubian Building)
By Alaa Al Aswani
348 pages, Al-Qahirah: Mirit lil-Nashr wa-al-Malumat, 2002
(in Arabic)

Niran Sadiqah (Friendly Fire)
By Alaa Al Aswani
210 pages, Al-Qahirah: Dar Mirit, 2004
(in Arabic)

I discovered Alaa Al Aswani in prison, where I was incarcerated on charges of tarnishing the reputation of Egypt. Through Al Aswani’s writing, I left the confines of my cell and found myself in Imarat Yacoubian (The Yacoubian Building), a microcosm of Egyptian society that shocked, entertained, and triggered debates among urban elites and ordinary readers alike when it was published in 2002. Under the strict regulations of Egypt’s notorious Tora Farm Prison, all incoming or outgoing reading materials must be approved by the prison authorities. No sooner had the novel been cleared by the senior staff than word about its quality spread among the junior officers. They placed an early request to borrow the book as soon as I finished reading it. (Oddly, my prison guards later showed a similar interest in Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom.) My fellow inmates in Cellblock No. 6 were the second tier of book borrowers. Prisoners and guards discussed the book together late into the night, their roles as captives and captors briefly cast aside. The encounter did much to humanize an otherwise arduous and dreary prison experience.

The Yacoubian Building (which actually exists) is an old, European-style, multistory residential building in the heart of downtown Cairo. As narrated by Al Aswani, the lives of the residents reflect the tumultuous events of the last century: World War II, the Arab-Israeli wars, President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s populist revolution, President Anwar Sadat’s pro-Western counterrevolution, the first Gulf War, and the rise of Islamic militancy. The novel’s elegant prose touches sensitive nerves in its look at the country’s corruption and religious fanaticism, two of the ugliest features of contemporary Egyptian life. For instance, the country’s lack of social justice is laid bare by the tale of Taha, the intelligent and ambitious doorman’s son who aspires to become a police officer. His failure to be admitted to the police academy because of his humble background drives him to find solace in a faith-based support group in which all are “equal” before God. However, the seemingly apolitical support group soon devolves into a militant Islamic organization. Taha is arrested by Egyptian authorities and brutally tortured during interrogation — and, in an ultimate humiliation, raped by a security agent. In a passage capturing Taha’s transformation from a promising student into a hateful killing machine, Al Aswani writes, "He was heard saying, ‘Had I been detained in Israel, the Israelis would not have done to me what fellow Egyptians did. I have vowed to God to track them and take my revenge on them, one by one.’"

At the opposite end of the social ladder is Zaki Dessouky, an older upper-class resident. Much of his inherited wealth was nationalized by Nasser’s revolution, but he retained just enough money to maintain his prerevolutionary bourgeois lifestyle. A confirmed bachelor, even in his sixties, he manages to attract young and middle-aged women from all classes. One of them is Buthayna, a poor woman who has learned quickly how to survive through the art of seduction. She wonders why life in Egypt has deteriorated so much in recent years. While they are in bed together, Zaki explains, "The reason is the absence of democracy. If we truly had a democratic system, Egypt would be a great power. Egypt’s real problem is continuing dictatorship, which ultimately leads to corruption and bankruptcy."

It isn’t exactly pillow talk. But no other Egyptian, or Arab writer for that matter, has so boldly broken through the literary stagnation of the last 50 years by addressing these themes, except perhaps Naguib Mahfouz, the Nobel laureate who penned the Cairo Trilogy in the 1950s. Mahfouz’s setting was an old medieval Islamic City, with its narrow and winding streets and labyrinth of alleyways; his characters were torn between traditional and modern ways of life, with many of them aspiring to transcend the former so they might thrive in the latter. Al Aswani’s work has moved beyond these tensions to take up a fresher set of questions. His stories are all set in modern Cairo and follow people who have managed to break out of the confines of traditional Egyptian society. But after several decades of struggling, the characters are fatigued, broken, decaying, or rebellious because of competing ideologies and political systems that seem to have treated them as guinea pigs.

Two years later, I read Al Aswani’s short-story collection, Niran Sadiqah (Friendly Fire). By that time (early 2004), I, along with 27 of my research associates of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, had been acquitted of all charges leveled against us by the Hosni Mubarak regime. Although as penetrating as The Yacoubian Building, this latest book was not nearly as shocking (possibly because I did not read it under the same duress). "Friendly fire" is an expression that was frequently heard during the U.S.-led war in Iraq, a reference to casualties unintentionally caused by combatants on the same side. Al Aswani’s choice of this expression for his collection of short stories reflects the common theme that runs through all of them: Much of the pain and harm inflicted on the characters comes from the closest of kin, friends, neighbors, and colleagues.

Thus, we are introduced in the first story to a good-hearted schoolboy, Dawakhly, whose obesity makes him a target of ridicule by his classmates, despite his relentless efforts to be helpful and kind. In another tale, we meet Issam, a petty, middle-aged bureaucrat. Although he is an erudite man, he is getting nowhere with his life of bachelorhood. Much of his declining energy and modest income are spent taking care of his elderly mother. Issam’s fatal flaw is an excessively critical nature that ultimately turns him against himself. He sees ugliness beneath every thing of beauty, and cowardice beneath every display of courage. Even the lovely, silky skin of his girlfriend reveals wrinkles and blemishes upon closer examination. His realization of this absurd human condition leads him to withdraw from a reality in which he harbors contempt toward his nation, fellow citizens, religion, family, and friends. He is no longer for anything or against anything. He willfully opts for solitude, ultimately resigning from life and descending into madness and virtual death.

The salvos of Friendly Fire are allegorical of Egypt as a stalled society. Neither good will nor hard work by ordinary Egyptians, young or old, is sufficient to fulfill even their most banal dreams. Some essential prerequisite is lacking, due to the inertia of a country being pulled in two opposing directions. Egyptians bemoan their lack of freedom, yearn for an open society, fear Islamic militancy, and resent U.S. hegemony. Yet official Egypt proclaims itself to be the guardian of true Islam, a strategic ally of the United States, and a beacon of democracy. Few, if any, Egyptians believe these official proclamations, and worse, the hypocrisy is a crushing weight on their hope for progress.

Al Aswani and I share the same critical perspective on Egyptian and Arab life at the turn of the century. Yet, whereas his literary daring earned him accolades, my activist dissidence took me to prison three times. I cannot say whether my protests and agitation have meant as much to Al Aswani as his writings have meant to me. But it may be said that our lives complement each other’s critiques as visible manifestations of a society that both practices and celebrates a culture of shame and denial.

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