Sex and the Windy City
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.