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Alaa Al Aswany: Voice of Reason

Alaa Al Aswany
Photograph by Mark Thiessen

Dr. Al Aswany's recent novel has made him a literary superstar, often thronged by admirers as he walks the streets of his native Cairo.

Just who is the Arab world listening to? Not only radical sheikhs and militant politicians. The man whose voice has captivated the Arab public is a Cairo dentist by day and a novelist by dawn. Alaa Al Aswany's novel The Yacoubian Building is a phenomenon—the best-selling novel in the Middle East for two years and the inspiration for the biggest budget movie ever produced in Egypt. The novel paints a poignant and uncompromising picture of life in modern Cairo, as seen through the eyes of a carnival of characters—from the richest and most powerful to the poorest. An outspoken critic of the Mubarak regime and a friendly, self-effacing man, Dr. Al Aswany studied dentistry, and the American way of life, in the U.S. He has a humanist's love of pondering what makes people do what they do.

Interview by Karen Kostyal

There is much talk now of a "clash" of civilizations between the Muslim world and the West. How do you see this clash?
I don't think it's a question of civilizations. Civilizations are the best part of human creation. They don't cause any kind of clash—they are a means to communicate. The clash comes from the aggressive interpretation of some religions. Religions have been used throughout history as a cause to wage war and kill people, but it's my opinion that religions are the same everywhere. They are a way to find God, a way to have positive values, to prove oneself as a good human being. I was born Muslim, so I am Muslim. If I had been born Christian, I would have been Christian.

Where do you think the current fanaticism is coming from?
Poor areas, because the poor are desperate. The current regime here is dealing with them in an inhuman way, arresting and torturing them. Religion is being used as a cover for social unrest, a way to empower these people who are not empowered. In Egypt, there is an Islam for the rich and an Islam for the poor. And these two Islams have their own mosques, their own sheikhs. The rich use religion to ensure the status quo. They don't want any change. But poor people do want change, because they are now deprived of so much.

So God is not the true impetus behind extremist behavior?
You feel God in your heart, you feel God when you love others. Killing is not done because of God, but because people are marginalized and oppressed, without any future and any kind of human dignity. I tried to explain that in my novel. It is very easy to get such people to turn to fanaticism. The Western notion that Muslims are killing themselves so they will go to paradise and sleep with a woman is wrong—I myself think sleeping with a woman is much more enjoyable than killing oneself. This life is closed to these marginalized people, but they believe that they will have justice in the afterlife.

Do you think the Muslim Brotherhood can moderate itself?
They claim they are now better educated and more moderate, but they have bad records about the roles of women and other issues. They have a chance now to prove themselves by what they do in parliament. They must pass the test. They must act in moderate ways. I am for the right of everybody to form a religious political party, but they must do so according to secular means.

Some people believe there can never be a true democracy in Egypt. Do you agree?
I disagree. We must begin with democracy. But the Arab regimes play games with this word. They say there has to be an interpretation of democracy that fits the Arab world. I don't believe that. We need Western-style democracy, with a free press and the rule of law, where all people can choose their elected officials. People do not need to be educated to vote. You may be poor, but making the choice for democracy is not complicated. A person makes choices every day.

There is a lot of discussion about the role of women in society. What do you think it should be?
I don't see women as women, I see them as human beings. So I don't believe that you must encourage women particularly. Introducing the issue is like dealing with women as handicapped members of society.

How do you think the Arab world sees 9/11?
The question is rather, how has 9/11 been introduced to the Arab world? I saw 9/11 as a crime, and I have written against it. But I believe that events are always manipulated by regimes for their own purposes. Just as the American government has used Osama bin Laden to deflect attention away from its own problems, many of the Arab governments used 9/11 to play on anti-American emotions. They were hoping to convert the negative emotions people harbored against their regimes and channel those emotions onto a foreign entity. They also need the problem of Israel for the same reason. I do not agree with Israeli policy toward the Palestinians, but Arab regimes use anti-Israel sentiment to postpone moving toward democracy.

You've talked about the importation of Saudi values to Egypt, would you elaborate on that?
Over the past 25 years, about a quarter of the Egyptian population has gone to Saudi Arabia at some point to work. Those workers were often uneducated Egyptians, and the Saudis were rich. The Egyptians were influenced by the Saudi interpretation of Islam and brought it back with them when they returned to Egypt. That interpretation—Wahhabism—is very strict and concerned mostly with form, from wearing the veil to enforced prayer five times a day. It is an aggressive, intolerant approach that institutionalizes Islam as a state religion rather than allowing people to interpret it in their own individual ways. The Saudis have spent millions to export Sunni Wahhabism throughout the Middle East, in part because many Arabs in the Gulf States are Shiite. The Saudi princes fear the spread of the Iranian Shiite brand of Islam, which is more revolutionary and allows for more individual rights. Throughout much of Islamic history, Sunni governance has been in the hands of sheikhs who were in league with governments. The Shiites were usually shut out of power, so they had time to think and come up with a new, more humanist interpretation. I'm not comparing Iranian human rights to those in England, but in relation to Saudi Arabia, Iran has more respect for individual political rights and the people's right to know what's happening. And I must remind you that the American administration has been the most powerful supporter of the medieval Saudi regime because of Saudi oil. To support them is like having a tiger in your house.

You studied dentistry at the University of Illinois in the 1980s. How did you feel about your time in the U.S.?
It was very positive, first because I was in Chicago. Before I went, I had heard about Chicago only in relation to Al Capone and shooting and all this kind of thing. And my impression of Americans was based on American foreign policy. America has supported bad regimes for years, and many Egyptians don't make the distinction between the American government and American people. But I had the chance to see that Americans are very helpful, tolerant people. They have a great ability to tolerate many cultures. I often tell a story about an experience I had one windy Chicago day. I was walking across the campus at the University of Illinois, holding my thesis, when the wind blew it out of my hands. All the people walking past stopped to help me gather the pages. This is the real American character.

What do you think of America now?
I believe America has made a big shift to the right. The whole world has shifted to the right, in a way. From the 1950s to the 1980s, people were more liberal. We don't respect free choice anymore. The globe has one superpower, and that superpower has to choose to be either a moral superpower or a capitalist superpower. This choice will influence history. America should say, "I am very strong, but I am fair." This isn't happening now.

How would you compare Europeans to Americans?
Europeans have many more traditions, because they come from very old cultures. It's like comparing a young person to an old one. The old person doesn't accept change. But the American experience is based on change.

Using that analogy, where would you put the Egyptian character, since you have a history thousands of years old?
We have been influenced by many cultures over the past 8,000 years. This has enriched the Egyptian personality. You can still even feel the pharaonic filament in our character. It makes us more peaceful and open than other people of the Arab world. It's almost impossible for Egypt to become fanatic. There will always be Egyptians who say no to this. We will never be like Iran.

When you talk about the Egyptian character and the American character, you seem to say some of the same things. Do you think there's a similarity?
Yes, yes. That is exactly what inspired me to write my latest novel, which is set in Chicago. I believe human beings have many things in common—a son is a son, a daughter is a daughter, a lover is a lover everywhere. But there is a lot of misunderstanding between people, particularly in certain situations. In Chicago, I saw poor people whose desperation led them to violence, in the same way that desperate Arabs become violent. And I was working in a department at the University of Illinois where all kinds of nationalities were present. Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Egyptian. I saw the kind of cultural shock that uneducated Egyptians coming to Chicago had. I was very inspired by the rich mixing of cultures I saw there.

Did you have any idea when you were writing The Yacoubian Building that you would become a superstar?
No, I never had any idea of this. I had had success before in literary circles with my other books, but what has happened with The Yacoubian Building is very rare for a novel in Egypt or the Arab world. Gabriel García Márquez said if you want to make a political point, write a good book. But writing a political novel was not my first intention. When I want to write about politics, I write essays. My intention when I write novels is always to discover characters. All human beings have inside themselves many political and social issues. If you think about your life, you'll find that your life has been influenced by political and social change.

How do you feel about the movie that has been made from your book?
I didn't write it, so I'm really not responsible for it, but I'm optimistic. It has a very big budget and some of the biggest actors in the Arab world. Movies and literature are different artistic languages. The novel writer has total freedom to write what he wants, a movie is teamwork. But I love seeing my characters enacted on screen.

How does your life as a dentist impact your life as a writer?
Very positively. You cannot make a living from writing, unless you write for the cinema. Even Naguib Mahfouz [the renowned Egyptian novelist and Nobel laureate] kept working for the government until the age of retirement. I can write independently—whatever I want—since I don't write for money. And the characters I meet through dentistry help me understand how people feel. I write about people, and I treat people. When I go from one to the next, I don't feel that I've made a very big trip. I don't see writing and the clinic as different worlds.

What is your daily routine?
I have a very firm schedule. I must wake up at six a.m. or I feel very guilty. I write from 6:30 to 10:30 six days a week, like a soldier—no interruptions. Then I read the newspapers and have a shower. I go to my clinic just beside my house from noon to three, then I have a nap because it's very hot during the afternoon here. From six to nine in the evening, I return to my clinic to work, and from nine to midnight, I read. For five or six days a week, I don't go out. My life is confined to my work, my family, my books, my writing.

Your fellow Cairene writer Naguib Mahfouz was stabbed by a fanatic one evening in 1994. Do you worry about your own safety?
No, I don't think about my safety. Probably because I'm not wise, but I don't. If I did, I would worry about the government much more than extremists. If I get scared, I cannot write, and if I write, I am not scared.

So you choose not to think about it?
No, I don't. But last winter my son was involved in a serious accident. He had just graduated from college, and a car hit him here in Cairo. I had been writing many articles, speaking out strongly against the regime, and some of my friends said, "You see, the regime did this to your son." But I don't want to think this way. Because what is going to happen is going to happen. In a way I'm protected by the fact that many people know me. So before doing something to me, the regime must calculate the repercussions. Rather than harming me, the regime would probably entice me to play for its team by offering money, a comfortable life, many things. The other thing they might do is exclude me from any kind of cultural activity. But I am beyond this. I don't need them—and they do need me.

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