Since The Yacoubian Building was released in 2002 Alaa Al-Aswany has become Egypt’s most emblematic writer. Sometimes compared to Naguib Mahfouz the author has recently released a new novel, “I ran to the Nile,” published by Actes Sud, Paris.
How does one tell the story of the revolution? How can we describe the usual, linear human history which suddenly started to toss and turn, vibrate and tend towards uncertainty? How can we tell the stories of men and women who seized their destiny and bent it with all their strength to forge a new life for themselves? What words shall we use then to tell the revolution? This is what the writer attempted to do throughout his latest novel.
Al-Aswany is fierce when he writes, and does not spare himself from using irony, especially when he describes the typical all too well-organised day of the almighty General Ahmed Alouani. He is a good husband, a good father, strictly observes his prayers and is a humble believer. However, every morning he goes off to his office, “The Organisation” – a mysterious state institution – which he runs. There, he tortures without wrestling his conscience, convinced that obeying the men who rule the country means obeying God. Also, there is Sheikh Chamel, whose sermons are popular amongst the country’s military, media, and economic elite.
Alaa Al-Aswany gets his inspiration, his choice of words in “The Human Comedy” in order to describe the Egyptian revolution. A soft satire and a profound irony are also two of his main tools. His Balzac-like novel depicts the Egyptian society, made up of false pretenses and hypocrisies. It reminds us of Molière’s plays: Tartuffe and Egyptian Alceste also take their hypocrisy and misanthropy from there:
“I thought of Molière, especially of Scapin,” he says. “The satirical aspect of his theatre influenced me a lot when I was describing some of the characters. It’s true, I do describe quite a few ‘Tartuffes’ – hypocrites. I read in four languages: Arabic, French, Spanish and English. I studied at the Lycée Français in Cairo, hence I got to study great French literature there. I find this French influence in my writing, from Balzac to La Fontaine.”
“Why do you write?” seems to be the question that comes to mind as Al-Aswany is a natural-born novelist. His short, structured and yet sinuous prose gets you hooked. He is a brilliant storyteller of human behaviour and a precise anthropologist: “I write because I have something to say, a novelist’s world, an inner world. I pass on my world to others. I write because I don’t agree. If we agree with the world we’re living in, why bother writing? I try to build another world that would be meaningful for readers and make them want to experience something else.”
This novel introduces you to many characters that will leave you dizzy. Every single one of them are archetypes (but not caricatures). The novelist perfectly grasped each of their singularity: “The human being is too complicated and one cannot sum up a person or a character by reducing him to a single aspect. But at the same time, human nature is the same everywhere. A writer who has imagined an archetype character may see his creation resonate in other works, at other times. Not because it is an inspiration, but because human nature is the common inspiration.”
Al-Aswany is still a dentist, his Cairo practice still open. The novelist knows that his job allows him to be at the heart of Cairo society, a wonderful human source which feeds his work. “It has been very useful to be a dentist, I must say. First, it gave me my independence. I was never paid by the Egyptian government. Being a dentist allows you to meet various different people, which has proved very useful for my writing.”
Al-Aswany describes a country where the military dictatorship uses religion as a social corset. A country where the real state is the “organisation,” structured around the army and the police. He describes the emergency meeting set up by this “organisation,” with TV, sports, film stars, businessmen, prominent sheikhs and the military. The elite has a very negative view of the popular revolution. Everybody has something to say to show they do not support it. For instance, on television there are programmes where anonymous witnesses and “repentant” people from Tahrir Square come to tell how they were bought by foreigners (the United States and Israel) to destabilise the country.
“Everything I wrote was inspired by real events. Again, I used my imagination to present the scene in a more meaningful way. There is always a real event though, on which I base a story. Immediately after the revolution the “official” state backed down a little, and stories were published in Egyptian newspapers about this secret Egyptian ‘organisation,’ run by high-ranking military and Interior Ministry officials. It was this secret organisation that reportedly gave orders to open prisons and release criminals who were to terrorise demonstrators, Egyptian society and punish revolutionaries. The ‘official’ state then reshuffled and undertook a counter-revolution.”
But who was Al-Aswany in 2011? Was he Ashraf, the Coptic actor who rediscovers Tahrir Square with the freedom to break with religious and social ramparts, refusing to resign himself? Ashraf, from now on, will be part of the revolution alongside his Muslim mistress, Akram, his former maid. Or was he the novelist Mazen, the young idealistic engineer who organised the blockade of the cement factory where he worked? Or perhaps he was Issam, the director of this factory, a former communist, tortured and raped during the previous revolution and who has been despising the people ever since, considering them incapable of leading a successful revolution? Perhaps Al-Aswany also became Asma, a young teacher, full of ideals but who quickly gets overwhelmed by the apathy of her people?
“All these characters exist in me,” he says. “I was in Tahrir Square in 2011 from the beginning. I have done my duty. I organised press conferences every day at 1 pm at my dental practice. I was doing it for the Western press. These journalists came to listen to me because I wanted to present the truth, which the Egyptian authorities did not do, they always lied. I also did my duty as a writer; I did not do it as a politician but as a writer. As such, I must defend the revolution.”
Al-Aswany has been criticised for his political positions in his articles in the Egyptian newspaper, Al-Masry Al-Youm, (and since October, he’s been writing for The New York Times). He is a critic of Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood and a defender of the man who deposed Morsi, General Al-Sisi, whom Al-Aswany has called a “National Hero”. He was one of the most vocal supporters of the Egyptian army’s bloody crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood – according to him, Morsi’s Muslim Brothers “are not the peaceful, democratic force that they said they were for 40 years”.
Oddly, his book is banned in his country. But can we really censor a book nowadays? “The Egyptian security mentality is from the 1940s. They believe they can still censor a novel. My novel is very much read in Egypt, on the internet. I receive very positive feedback. But the security services live in a bubble and think that if they ban it, no one would read it. Only Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia have authorised this novel. It is prohibited everywhere else in the Arab world.”
The strength of Al-Aswany’s novel obviously lies in reflections that go beyond Egypt alone: freedom, social weight, religion used as a tool for political purposes, men who are making history without really knowing what history they are making, according to Marx’s intuition. “What is said about Egyptian society also applies to other Arab countries. As early as The Yacoubian Building, I received messages from Arab readers saying, ‘you described what is happening in my country’. I am not surprised because we have the same problems. Corruption, dictatorship, taboos around women.”
Why doesn’t he get in that much trouble in his own country since he fiercely reveals so much about what is going on backstage? “True, I have not gotten arrested yet, but my books are banned in my country. They also try to tarnish my reputation by accusing me of being a traitor, a foreign agent. Whenever I travel, I’m always being held at Cairo airport for two hours to get questioned. Even my family is affected; my daughter had a problem, they created a fake street accident. In the end she was not put in prison but for three months we lived with a lot of difficulties, it was a big toll [on us] especially for my wife. The situation has become very difficult for me. Most of my friends are in jail, but we put everyone in jail now. If you express an opinion that differs from the official one or if you criticise Al-Sisi, you go straight to prison. The human rights situation in Egypt is worse than ever. I accept invitations to teach literature in some American Universities. I keep myself far from what is happening there but I have not left Egypt.”
The book ends with a heartbreaking letter from Asma to her lover Mazen. She had always refused to emigrate to the Gulf countries, but eventually, she had to flee to Great Britain. Arrested in Tahrir Square, she got beaten up, had to endure a virginity test, before being sexually assaulted by a young soldier in tears and forced to obey filthy orders. Asma, like Issam 30 years earlier, concludes that it is impossible to liberate the Egyptian people who are content with an “as if it was real” society, full of political, religious and social appearances.
But what if the revolution also was an “as if,” a pretence? “Not at all. It was a genuine revolution. The characters’ opinions are not mine. Each character speaks for itself. I don’t necessarily agree with what they say. Another thing is that I don’t write to express my own opinions. I put them in my articles.”
So what does Al-Aswany think seven years on after the revolution? It looks like Egyptian society is stuck in a counter-revolution movement embodied by Marshal Al-Sisi. Is the revolution dead? Does it still hide under the ashes and dust of Tahrir Square, of the Maspero massacre, in the prisons overcrowded with opponents?
“No one can stop a revolution; that is the lesson of history. It will continue no matter how many obstacles and imprisonments it will have to endure. It will continue because that is the nature of the revolution. It is impossible to return to the previous state. This is the lesson of the French Revolution. I am optimistic but I am sure that the revolution will prevail because the future is on our side. You can kill people, counter-revolution has done it and still does it, but you can’t kill dreams, ideas. That’s impossible. We can put people in jail, but we can’t put ideas in jail. Even if revolutionaries are put in prison and they are tortured and slandered, ideas fly and remain free.”