Logo The Fabulist

Alaa Al-Aswany

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  • Interview by James Romm
  • Issue 20
  • Free Radical

It’s a long way from Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the nexus of Egypt’s 2013 democratic uprising, to New York State’s Hudson Valley, but Alaa Al-Aswany has made many such jumps of distance, time, and culture in the past three decades, just as he manages to follow, simultaneously, two very different vocations. He trained as a dentist at Cairo University and the University of Chicago in the 1980s. Shortly afterward, he began to follow in the journalistic and literary footsteps of his father, the writer Abbas Al-Aswany. To this day, when at home in Egypt, he continues to practice dentistry during part of each working day, even though his literary ambitions might seem to mark him as a full-time writer. His acclaimed 2002 novel The Yacoubian Building;a candid, unfiltered portrait of a broad cross-section of Egyptian society—has attracted a large international following, and Al-Aswany has augmented his oeuvre with two further novels, most recently The Automobile Club of Egypt (2013, available now in English).

I spoke with Al-Aswany as he prepared to leave Bard College, where he had just completed a year’s visiting appointment as Distinguished Writer in Residence, and return to Egypt—a country now ruled by a regime that deeply mistrusts him and may, he fears, soon act against him. As an outspoken proponent of democratic reform and of liberal, pluralistic interpretations of Islam, Al-Aswany has become a prominent political figure.

James Romm

You write in Arabic. Do you think of the Arab world as your primary audience?

Alaa Al-Aswany

No, I write for human beings. I write about human beings to human beings. I write what I feel like writing. Accordingly, I write for everybody. And I think that any literature which could not be appreciated in other languages is not good literature.

The Yacoubian Building certainly attracted a worldwide audience. Is it still possible to read it freely in Egypt?

No. Writers should be dangerous to dictatorship and should be troublemakers. The regime cannot understand why you disagree, because they don’t have this culture: that I disagree, but probably you’ll listen to me. I have many, many friends in prison. I have been lucky, so far. But I'm banned from writing in Egypt. I’m banned from TV appearances. There is very strong propaganda against me on TV—character assassination. You find people who are accusing you on TV of being a CIA agent, a Mossad agent. You try to sue these people, as I did, and the prosecutor will cancel the case because they are absolutely protected by the regime. Now I'm banned in Egypt. I want to stay, but at the point when you realize that it has really become very dangerous, you should leave. I haven’t yet, but I don't think it’s far off.

So you will go back to live in Egypt. And you'll continue your dental practice?

Yes! I have a house about twenty kilometers out of Cairo. I have a dental clinic in the basement. On the first floor, I have my writer’s office. On the second floor, my residence. And I have a metal elevator. So when I go to the elevator, I decide which button to push—I’ll be the dentist or the writer.

Do you worry that you won't be able to leave, that you'll be detained?

This is a continual risk. Under Mubarak it was more humane—you go to the airport and they tell you that you are banned from traveling because you have a case against you and here is the number of the case, right? Now, just to give you more troubles, nobody will tell you. The moment you check in, and you’ve said goodbye to your friends or your family, before stamping the passport, they will tell you, “So, you’re going to lose your ticket.” Even the officer doesn’t know why you're banned. I have many friends who cannot travel anymore. Of course it's a risk for me to get back, but I don’t want to think at some point that I had an opportunity or a chance to stay and I didn’t.

You write very candidly about sexual matters. Is that a difficult thing to write about in the Arab world?

Of course. We usually think of sex as either a taboo or a pleasure. It’s much more profound: in sexual moments, you are true. So sexual experience has been very attractive to novelists. We have very old traditions of literature in Egypt, and what was written and published in the nineteen-twenties, for example, we can no longer publish now, or we publish with difficulty because for the last thirty years, Egyptian culture has been polluted—and I insist on this term—by the Wahhabis. At least one out of every three Egyptians did work in the Gulf, coming home with very different visions of life. People have been spending billions of dollars for the promotion of the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam. We used to have the Egyptian interpretation of Islam, which is not political, very far from politics, very tolerant, you know, and very compatible with democracy and women’s rights. Then we got polluted with Wahhabism, which is very vicious. As soon as you think that Islam is a model of the state, you become dangerous. The rest of the ideology is that you should fight the whole world to impose political Islam.

You also write empathetically about women in Egyptian society, about their attempts to deal with a predatory sexual culture.

Under a dictatorship, like in Egypt, everybody is mistreated except the people of the regime and the big thieves. But everybody’s mistreated. Some people are mistreated twice: once like anybody else, and another time because they are, for example, women, or because they are Christians. I believe that literature should present the people who don’t have a voice or who cannot say why they are suffering.

In The Yacoubian Building you gave a rather sympathetic portrayal of an Islamist fanatic.

Literature is not a tool of judgment. It’s a tool of understanding. I don’t write literature to tell you that terrorists are terrible, because everybody knows that terrorists are terrible. I write literature to tell you that nobody is born a terrorist, but he could become a terrorist at some point, and we should understand why he could be a terrorist. Because I explain this attitude, it doesn’t mean I justify it. I’m happy because that was very clear to everybody except some political writers, one or two. Do you know Dessouki, the old man character? We have the same background. I come from the upper middle class. I had a French education. When I first learned French, I was fourteen years old. The Western factor in my culture is very strong. I believe that 1952 was a coup d’état that sent us to a military rule, and we are still struggling to get out. I am not happy with the king before 1952, but I believe that we could have richer or real progress without the army’s interference. Dessouki thinks the same thing. We have many things in common. To tell you the truth, he loves women. I do love women as well.

You’ve said that you feel optimistic about Egypt’s future. Has that changed at all?

No. It depends on your perspective. If you’re talking about my everyday problems, of course you could say I'm not optimistic as far as my life in Egypt may be concerned. But I read history, and I see that the revolution had many people who did not revolt. But something happened, and it is irreversible. Accordingly, with the French Revolution, for five or six years it was terrible. Everybody was killed. But the idea, the concept, the spirit of the revolution persisted. I’m optimistic in the long run.

You know the famous story about Zhou Enlai, the Chinese premier, being asked whether the French Revolution was a good thing or not. And he said, “Too soon to tell.”

[Laughs.] Yes, yes.

What is your view of Sisi now?

It’s no surprise to me that Mr. Sisi and Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin will be very good friends, because they share the same vision in life. Two of them were generals, right, and the third has the same mentality. “I know. You don't know. You shut up.” Their concept of being president is the same. Sisi did not like Obama. Why? Because even though Obama didn't do anything really effective for Egypt’s human rights issues, he kept talking about it. Every time he would say, “There are people who are detained. Why are these revolutionary youth in prison?” Sisi didn't like it. The message from Trump is, “My dear, you torture as many Egyptians as you want. You send them to jail. I love you.” After their last meeting, Mr. Trump said, “We’re not going to tell our friends what to do in their own countries.” The interpretation of this sentence is very dangerous: “You do whatever you want. I will never object.” But the U.S. has strong institutions where Egypt does not. I have no doubt that if Mr. Trump had the power, he would act like Mr. Sisi. You are lucky to have judges, universities, general opinion, and lawyers.

You used to end your newspaper columns in Egypt with the phrase, “Democracy is the answer.” Is that phrase still central for you?

Absolutely. Our problem is that in the Arab world, our rulers do not learn from history. Now Egypt is exactly like it was in 1965, with the great leader oppressing and repressing everybody, and if you disagree, you are against our Egypt. Egypt has found a hero. If you compare the newspapers from then and now, it’s the same language. I’m going to write a nonfiction book called The Dictatorship Syndrome. What I found in my research is that dictatorship is a mutual relationship. A dictator can’t impose himself alone. He comes along at a moment when the people need a hero. The idea for this book came about from a conversation I had in London about dictatorship. I had a long conversation with my publishing house and they recorded it, and they were just about to publish it in that form, but I wanted to do something more with the material. I said to them, “You know, I would feel guilty if you publish it like this. I’m going to write it as a text.”

And after that, will you go on to another novel?

I have a postponed novel about Alexandria. My mother and half of my family are from Alexandria. Until the nineteen-sixties, one out of three people in Alexandria was European. Everybody lived together. There are two places we should study more: Alexandria and Andalusia. In Andalusia there was an unbelievable coexistence, you know, until Ferdinand and Isabella. The physician of any king was a Jew. There were Jews, Muslims, Christians living together. We Egyptians lost this experience, and I have nostalgia for it. I’m searching for what is left of it. A novel is a piece of life. I expect to find everything—sex, the feeling of loneliness, women’s problems, political issues. The novel is a piece of life that has all the evidence. Isabel Allende wrote something like, “We don’t invent novels. We discover novels.” It’s very true. Every novel you write exists beforehand in your mind, in your heart, and you must work to get it out.

James Romm is the James H. Ottaway Jr. Professor of Classics at Bard College and author of several books, including Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero (Knopf).

Portrait of Alaa Al Aswany, 2017
Photograph by Tanya Marcuse