He’s the world’s best-selling Arab novelist, a practicing dentist, a political detractor and a secular saloniste. He’s hard to pigeonhole and harder to pin down. Managing Editor Amy Mowafi speaks to Alaa Al Aswany, the man who courted scandal, confounded critics and became one of the most commercially successful Egyptian writers of all time.
Friday is interview day. So I sit in a tiny reception room in a little dental clinic in an old Garden City building waiting for my turn. To my right there’s an attractive female journalist from Beirut. She’s flown in especially. From beyond an old wooden pale-blue door, snippets of conversational French float in. A Parisian TV presenter is wrapping up his segment, and Alaa Al Aswany’s booming voice can be heard saying his polite goodbyes. Eventually he comes to me, his large frame bearing a small can of coke. I haven’t asked for it, but he’s preempting my request with all the awkwardness of a man left to his own devices. Because it’s Friday, remember, and it’s the receptionist’s day off. He will spend the next 12 hours like this. When everyone wants a piece of him; when the world’s media are vying for a quote, a sound bite, a piece of his soul; he might as well just get it all over and done with in a single day. At least he can spend the rest of week doing what he loves best: writing. He can sit at his creaky little desk in the corner of his bare-walled clinic and conjure up little pockets of Egypt on his thick laptop.
That is where he wrote The Yacoubian Building, the novel that transformed his life, revived Arabic literature and became one of the biggest Egyptian movies of all time. It’s where he typed out Chicago (on it’s way to surpassing Yacoubian’s record of one million sales) and it’s where he recently put the finishing touches to a collection of short stories entitled Friendly Fire: Ten Tales of Egypt. Every afternoon he’ll also see to his dental patients. Despite his global literary success he refuses to give them up. Because they inspire him and tell him stories. And because he also has a Master’s in dentistry from the University of Illinois, so it would be a shame to let that go to waste.
Every week he holds a salon, attended by the great and the good and those just eager to see the man in person. He discusses literature, art, religion and politics. All at once. He pisses the government off. He keeps going on about them being repressive. So they don’t really like him, but they’re stuck with him. Because for millions across the world, modern day Cairo is shaped by his words. From the city’s power players to its poorest, he told the tale of the real Arab street through the lives and loves of the inhabitants of a single building. Some critics called his writings simplistic, others hailed him a genius, but in the end, it was the readers who had the final say. Because they went out and bought his book, read it in 27 different languages and told their friends about it. So Al Aswany travelled the world, collected awards, courted the press and became the ultimate Egyptian novelist of the new millennium. And every Friday afternoon, back in Garden City, he has his interview day…
We’ve chosen you as a pioneer of Egyptian literature. Is that a fair statement?
I don’t know about this word ‘pioneer’, but I’m very proud of my success. My books have been translated into 27 languages and The Yacoubian Building has sold over 1 million copies. At the moment it’s looking like Chicago might even beat that record. I’ve received some of the most prestigious awards in literature and many accolades from the West. So of course I’m delighted.
Of which award are you the proudest?
It wouldn’t be right to prefer one award over another. But I can tell you this; the best accolade I’ve received comes from the Arab people. I have hundreds of thousands of readers across the region. Their appreciation is my biggest reward. Writing fiction is very tough, especially when it’s not even your day job! It’s a very solitary profession and for most writers, it doesn’t even pay. There were many times when I had to ask myself “why am I even doing this?”
Well, it certainly paid off for you!
I’m an exception only because my books have been so successful in the West. That’s where there’s money to be paid. If you’re talking purely about Arab literature, it’s thankless work. It was even harder for me to focus on my writing as I’m a dentist by trade. I’ve had a lot of very financially lucrative offers from the Gulf, but I refused them for the sake of literature.
You must have been tempted by the possibility of fame. After all, who ever heard of a superstar dentist?
No, absolutely not! It’s not about being famous. If that’s your goal, you’re in for disappointment. Many people are famous, but what have they really achieved? Fame is not the reward; it’s the appreciation of your readers that matters. When you invest so much into your writing and someone makes a connection with it, that’s the biggest reward.
Speaking of the appreciation of the masses, you’ve been widely credited with the resurgence of interest in Arab literature. How do you feel about being the man that made people want to read again?
If that is the case, then I’m very proud, but I don’t think it is acceptable for me to admit such a thing. We have very good readers of literature here in Egypt. And that’s why we have some of the best writers. But for about 20 years the biggest problem in Egyptian literature was that it was too complicated; too opaque and experimental. So naturally the masses lost interest. What no one seems to understand is that writing a complicated piece does not take special talent; it’s far harder to write simply. To create text that anyone of any level or background can understand. Literature is about creating work that everyone can understand and enjoy on different levels.
And yet there have been plenty in the industry who’ve been quick to criticize your writing as too simplistic… naïve even. How would you respond to them?
It depends if they are novelists or not. If they are novelists I would say they are jealous. Jealousy is a very human emotion and it’s aggravated in Egypt because everyone is frustrated to some extent. Most people feel they’re not getting what they deserve for their efforts. So they start to justify their frustrations by blaming others – the system, the people or the country. So I completely understand why other writers, who come from a similar background, go to the same places and experience the same things would be jealous of my success. They think, “Why him?”
When you were writing ‘The Yacoubian Building’, did you feel you were onto something special?
Thinking that way would have been very dangerous. If you’re thinking about the commercial success of a book as you write, you may be tempted to cater to your audiences when you should really be writing from the heart. There is a very big difference between artistically satisfying your reader and obeying your reader. I don’t write what people expect me to write, I write what I want to write without thinking about success or failure. Chicago is a perfect case in point. That was set in a very different world than The Yacoubian Building so it ran the risk of being less successful. But I wrote it because I felt I had to, and I’m very happy thats it’s proven to be an even bigger success.
Sitting down to write ‘Chicago’ must have been a terrifying experience… all that hype you now had to live up to…
I’m so glad you said that. That’s absolutely true. For a whole year after the release of The Yacoubian Building I stopped writing completely, which was exceptional as I’d written constantly for years. I’ve got more half-finished books than published ones! Writing is a skill; you have to maintain it. If you stop, you lose something. But I needed to stop for a while to be able to step out of Yacoubian’s shadow. Its success was starting to consume me, it was at the forefront of my mind and I couldn’t start another project in that state. I didn’t want to repeat the same book again and at the same time I didn’t want to find myself paralyzed. So I took a step back.
You wrote ‘Chicago’ based on your experiences as a Master’s student in America. Some say the cushy confines of a four- year fellowship hardly give you a real perspective of American culture. How would you respond to that?
There is a very big difference between literature and sociology. People who say such things are looking at the issue from a sociological or anthropological perspective. But I wasn’t writing a book about sociology; there are no statistics about the USA. I was presenting a group of characters inspired by people I had comes across. Besides, whoever said literature is objective? This is not a science. Fiction is biased by definition. It is a biased and non-objective form of artistic expression. Literature is a mirror of society, not the mirror.
Ok, let’s talk about the sexually explicit nature of your books. In an international context it all seems quite tame, yet regionally, it’s a big talking point. Was it your intention to shock?
The Egyptian interpretation of Islam has always been very tolerant and liberal. Traditionally religion was never a burden on this country, which is why we were pioneers in cinema, theatre, literature and Egyptian women were regional pioneers in their respective fields. But from the 80s onwards the Saudi Wahabi interpretation started to infiltrate our consciousness. Their’s is an interpretation that deals with women as taboo sexual objects. I could not allow that to affect my literature. Chicago was serialized in El Destour newspaper, and I thought I’d have a lot of problems, yet only 5 percent of the readers took offence. 95 percent of readers, most of whom are women, had no issue! Interestingly men had a bigger problem as they were uncomfortable with their wives reading sexually explicit passages. It’s a very protective and patronizing way of viewing women. Men who had a problem with my writings didn’t like the idea of their wives having any sort of sexual knowledge, yet at the same time, they’re happy to ask them to cooperate with them sexually. It’s just hypocrisy, and one of the main roles of literature is to highlight hypocrisy.
‘The Yacoubian Building’ was made into one of the most successful Arabic movies of all time. How did it feel to see your characters up on the big screen?
Actually I was scared. And for a long time I kept my distance from the movie, I never once even visited the set. As a novelist, the movie adaptation is not my responsibility. Months later I happened to be in New York during the Tribeca Film Festival where the movie was being screened, and the festival chairman called and asked if I’d seen the movie. He couldn’t believe it when I said I hadn’t. Of course he insisted I go along to see it. To be honest I was worried it was going to be a catastrophe, and then what I was supposed to tell them? But it was really good, and I actually went to watch again alone.
Both the novel and movie were famously critical of the Egyptian regime and as a result you were banned by state security from attending the Egyptian premiere. How did that feel?
It was one of the most beautiful days of my life. I felt very proud of myself because I’m a very simple person. A writer alone with his laptop, that’s all. And here I was with the entire Egyptian regime being affected by my words. They were obliged to watch my movie even though they couldn’t tolerate my existence. I was very proud.
You’ve travelled across the world on your book tours. Was there any particularly country where you were surprised by your success?
The book was a huge success in France which isn’t easy because the French have a very strong literary tradition. So for a man who is writing in Arabic to have such an impact is wonderful. One of the most beautiful moments in my life occurred in the small French city of Dijon. A French lady told me, “I love your literature, thank you very much,” and she gave me a music box which had been given to her by her father. When I opened it up it played the melody of La Vie En Rose, which was featured in the book. It was overwhelming and I was speechless. I’ve kept that gift to this day. I’m very proud of the distances this book has travelled.
Finally, which qualities do you most admire in other people?
I admire men who stand up for their principles; men who are objective and fair; which so few really are. I also have a very special appreciation and understanding for women. I find it much easier to write my female characters. The process is a pleasure; probably because I have a wonderful mother and I’ve always had good relationships with women. I’m not just talking about love. I feel much more comfortable and secure with women than men. At work I only ever have female assistants and secretaries who then become my friends. Women are far more reliable. If you respect a woman and show her that you need her, she will be wonderful with you; this is rarely the case with men, who will always be more calculating.