America through Egyptians’ eyes

Frangieh is professor of Arabic at Claremont McKenna College.

With the death of Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz in 2006, only a few Egyptian writers of world stature remain, and Alaa Al Aswany has emerged as one of the most successful of these. A member of the Egyptian political opposition movement Kifaya (“enough”), Al Aswany strives to create awareness as well as ideological and practical opposition to the Egyptian political establishment. His first novel, “The Yacoubian Building,” captured the many dysfunctional elements of Egyptian society and portrayed its political corruption, sexual repression and religious extremism in the lives of characters living in modern Cairo.

Similarly, his second novel, “Chicago,” uses a series of vivid and interwoven episodes to detail the love affairs, ambitions, political views and intricate lives of a group of Egyptian graduate students, researchers and professors at the University of Illinois medical school. This is not a novel about the city of Chicago; rather, it is a novel written for an Arab audience about Egyptians in America. American readers will find it a fascinating (and sometimes humorous) window into how Egyptians think and act among themselves.

Al Aswany often uses his characters to offer political commentary on the Arab experience in America -- as well as make observations about American culture itself. In “Chicago,” for example, there is Dr. Ra’fat, a professor of histology, who has lived in America for decades and rejected his Egyptian heritage in favor of American values and identity. He becomes an expert on baseball and scoffs at Egyptian culture until his own daughter leaves home to move in with her unemployed drug-addict boyfriend. There is also Ahmad Danana, an insufferable graduate student, who is a secret Egyptian government agent reporting regularly to the Egyptian Embassy in Washington about the political leanings of his fellow students. When Egypt’s president plans to visit Chicago, Danana’s self-importance grows to enormous, even comedic, proportions as he orders his fellow students to organize a heavily scripted welcome reception. (Consider, by comparison, the indifference American students in Egypt would probably feel during a visit by a U.S. president.)


“Chicago’s” exhaustive cast also includes a professor who left Cairo when he faced discrimination as a Coptic Christian and several professors and students who left Egypt to escape political oppression. One of very few American characters in the novel is Carol, a caricature of an unemployed young black woman who is the girlfriend of a leftist white American professor. Carol is unable to find a job because she is black, and eventually she is forced to pose nude and have sex with a potential employer. (Unfortunately, in his simplistic portrayal of her inability to find even the most menial job, Al Aswany shows a lack of understanding of American society.) Though deliberately set in post-9/11 America, references in the novel to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks are brief: One occurs, for instance, when an Egyptian female medical student lands at an airport and experiences security measures there.

Al Aswany’s characters are fairly well integrated into American society: Two have American wives, another has a love affair with a young Jewish woman. In fact, without its strong political message, the novel might seem like a soap opera from another culture: The author loads his story with sex, including numerous scenes involving premarital sex, oral sex and masturbation -- all of which are considered taboo subjects in the Arab world. Oddly, most of the Egyptian characters are promiscuous; even poor Shaymaa, a very conservative medical student, eventually succumbs to the charms of a fellow Egyptian with similar traditional values.

Nonetheless, “Chicago” is intended to be a political novel: It criticizes the Egyptian government for its oppression, injustice and brutality while illustrating the close, complex ties between the Egyptian and U.S. governments. While Arab readers know very well how corrupt their governments are, this English translation by Farouk Abdel Wahab offers an excellent opportunity for Western readers to learn about the Egyptian government and the misery of living under regimes ruled by secret services and covert intelligence agencies. In “Chicago,” Al Aswany sharply criticizes the Egyptian establishment, telling the world that the day of change is approaching and that oppressive Arab regimes cannot stay in power much longer. For this alone, “Chicago” is a necessary book, bringing to light government injustice that many thousands of Western tourists and businesspeople never see.