Sex and the Windy City

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Jose Borgh­ino Chicago By Alaa Al Aswany Fourth Es­tate, 342pp, $ 32.99

EGYP­TIAN writer Alaa Al Aswany’s 2002 book, The Ya­coubian Build­ing , is the big­gest sell­ing novel in Ara­bic, with more than 250,000 copies sold in the Arab world. It has been trans­lated into more than 20 lan­guages, and was made into a hit movie in 2006 and a tele­vi­sion se­rial in 2007. The only book to race out of Ara­bic shops faster is his new novel, Chicago . It sold 25,000 copies in its first week.

Num­bers such as th­ese make any pub­lisher sit up and take no­tice. But the ap­pear­ance of the English trans­la­tion of Chicago is also tes­ta­ment to our post- 9/ 11 fas­ci­na­tion with things Ara­bic. Hav­ing ig­nored the Mid­dle East as a petroleum­soaked back­wa­ter for decades, the West feels it needs to know more about the re­gion and is play­ing cul­tural catch- up.

Un­like The Ya­coubian Build­ing , which was set in Al Aswany’s na­tive Cairo, Chicago takes place in the US metropo­lis. This makes bi­o­graph­i­cal sense — Al Aswany stud­ied den­tistry there in the 1980s — but apart from a few strange minilec­tures about Chicago’s his­tory scat­tered through the book, the city barely sur­faces. The action could be hap­pen­ing in any mul­ti­cul­tural, West­ern city with drug and racial is­sues. Even the lec­tures sit awk­wardly, sound­ing as if they were sourced from Wikipedia and in­cluded to shout ‘‘ This is Chicago!’’ in case any­one for­got.

Chicago is about a group of Egyp­tian ex­pa­tri­ates liv­ing and loving in a large US city. They are all con­nected in some way to the his­tol­ogy depart­ment of a no­table med­i­cal school there. Most are stu­dents, a cou­ple are pro­fes­sors and oth­ers are work­ing for the Egyp­tian se­cret po­lice.

The Ya­coubian Build­ing was a ru­n­away hit partly be­cause it dealt openly with Egyp­tian taboo is­sues. Chicago doesn’t dis­ap­point on that count: it is a rol­lick­ing saga full of sex, drugs, sex, an abor­tion, ex­tra­mar­i­tal sex, the drink­ing of al­co­hol, in­tra­mar­i­tal rape, cor­rup­tion, the id­iocy of ar­ranged mar­riage, im­po­tence, sex with Jews, po­lit­i­cal tor­ture and, oh, did I men­tion the sex?

Yes, some­thing is clearly hap­pen­ing to the moral fi­bre of Egypt. At times, Chicago reads like a cross be­tween Num­ber 96 and the in­ad­ver­tently hi­lar­i­ous Le­banese soapie The Storm Rages Twice ( which you can catch on SBS on Tues­day af­ter­noons). It re­minded me of the early ’ 70s in Aus­tralia when decades of block­headed cen­sor­ship were lifted so we could en­dure hours of soft- porn mas­querad­ing as TV drama.

For peo­ple liv­ing through shifts in the pre­vail­ing moral frame­work, the stakes are high: a flashed nip­ple is an­other nail in the moral cof­fin or an­other free­dom won. For out­siders, how­ever, it can some­times just seem a lit­tle silly. De­pict­ing some unattrac­tive Arab men panting a lot and per­form­ing rough sex be­cause that’s ‘‘ what women want’’, as Al Aswany does here, is clearly a cri­tique of cer­tain pre­vail­ing male stereotypes in Egyp­tian so­ci­ety. But al­most all the men in Chicago pant and sweat pro­fusely be­fore sex, most of them are ob­sessed with breasts and a dis­con­cert­ing num­ber think of their moth­ers dur­ing in­ter­course.

I un­der­stand irony and cross- cul­tural mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion. I get the mes­sage that West­ern per­mis­sive­ness and Is­lamic sex­ual re­pres­sion are flip sides of the same coin. But I ad­mit I lost pa­tience when one of the women in the book de­scribes her hus­band ‘‘ let­ting go of his dis­gust­ing warm plea­sure in­side her’’.

Sex is dif­fi­cult to write and the trans­la­tor may be do­ing Al Aswany a dis­ser­vice, but why do his char­ac­ters, in­clud­ing the Amer­i­cans, in­sist on speak­ing in a wooden, for­mal dic­tion that de­notes for­eign­ness, as did Sabu in The Thief of Bagh­dad or Bar­bara Eden in I Dream of Jean­nie ?

Chicago re­ally hits its straps two- thirds of the way through, when the Egyp­tian pres­i­dent vis­its the US. In a long stretch of nar­ra­tive prose mer­ci­fully free of panting sex, Al Aswany bril­liantly picks apart the ridicu­lous foibles and in­grained cor­rup­tion of the sep­tu­a­ge­nar­ian, toupee- wear­ing tyrant ( who is un­named but clearly mod­elled on strong­man Hosni Mubarak).

Al Aswany’s pur­pose is po­lit­i­cally charged all along. The sex and US set­ting are smoke­screens for a danger­ous, sub­ver­sive mes­sage. In a coun­try that is a repub­lic in name only and where the se­cret po­lice wield al­most lim­it­less power, it is prob­a­bly only his pop­u­lar­ity that keeps Al Aswany out of jail ( or worse).

There are many rea­sons to read Chicago : cul­tural, po­lit­i­cal, so­ci­o­log­i­cal. Un­for­tu­nately, there are few lit­er­ary ones. Maybe, in the fu­ture, Al Aswany won’t have to cam­ou­flage his po­lit­i­cal mes­sage with lu­di­crous, panting sex. But for the mo­ment, if you want to read great Egyp­tian sto­ry­telling, try Naguib Mah­fouz, or if you want to un­der­stand the clash of moral cul­tures that helped pre­cip­i­tate 9/ 11, read Lawrence Wright’s bril­liant The Loom­ing Tower. Jose Borgh­ino lec­tures in lit­er­ary jour­nal­ism at the Uni­ver­sity of Syd­ney.

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