Egyptian writer Alaa Al Aswany’s first novel The Yacoubian Building became a best seller throughout the Middle East and was transformed into a big budget Egyptian film. Now Aswany’s brilliant second novel Chicago has just been translated from Arabic into English and published in the United States.
Aswany studied dentistry at the University of Illinois in Chicago, and back in Cairo has supported himself as a dentist. He uses his graduate studies in Chicago and his familiarity with the city in his novel Chicago which has intertwining tales of two Egyptian professors at the university and four Egyptian graduate students in medicine as well as one left-wing white professor and his black partner.
Many of the characters deal with their own conflicts between Egyptian and U.S. cultures. New female graduate student Saymaa starts a friendship and then a romance with lonely brilliant Tariq Haseeb; both are from traditional families who believe in arranged marriages but the two explore new freedoms of dating. Tarif feels superior to Saymaa, a country girl, so how much should she trust him? Both Dr. Ra’fat Thabit and Dr. Muhammad Salah have made successful professional lives in the United States, married American women, and seemed to assimilate fully. When Thabit’s only daughter leaves her father's home to go live with a poor painter, Thabit becomes an enraged Egyptian traditional father. He struggles with rage and caring as his daughter develops a drug addiction. As for Dr. Salah, after years of full assimilation in his American life, he has such nostalgia for his old political girlfriend in Cairo that he starts searching for her through the Internet and ignoring his American wife. All of Aswamny's characters seems real with fascinating predicaments.
Aswany, a long-time dissident fighting to end the dictatorship in Egypt, has the core of the novel dealing with his characters differing reactions to the Egyptian dictatorship. Nagi Abd al-Samad is a newly arrived graduate student who is a poet and dissident in his home country but wants a master’s degree to support himself. His nemesis is graduate student Ahmad Danana, a spy for the Egyptian secret police who runs a student association where he bosses the other Eyptian students around. While Danana wants to organize a reception for the visit of the Egyptian leader, al-Samad wants to organize a protest. The characters argue over politics as Aswany reveals the brutality, torture, and sadism involved in a long-standing dictatorship. The book is immensely revealing about Egypt from a reasoned, intelligent critic of that government.
The book is brilliant about showing the conflicts of all its Egyptians characters and the conflicts within Egyptian politics, but it also pinpoints flaws in American culture such as our drug problems when Dr. Thabit’s daughter becomes addicted. Some critics have said Aswany's portrait of a black single mother's difficult job search is unrealistic, but what kind of job can a black single mother with little education get? Aswany seems accurate in his portrayal of a single mother's actual job prospects for only minimum wage wage but she still desires a job that can get her bling. Aswany is an astute observer of Egyptian but also American characters. All in all, if one wants to read one of the most famous Arabic novelists, read Alaa Al Aswany’s Chicago.