Gulping down memories, one bounding stride after another, Alaa al Aswany stops dead in the middle of the street, a middle-aged bear of a man oblivious to the students and traffic swirling by him.
“It was here,” he says in the warm growl of a long-time smoker.
Then he flashes the beatific smile that he sometimes turns on after a long discussion about the pains and joys of being a writer, and especially in Egypt where the financial rewards are few, and taboos many.
Here, he says at the corner of Polk and Wood Streets in the heart of the University of Illinois at Chicago campus, his understanding of Americans’ kindness was confirmed on a cold, blustery day over 20 years ago.
He was rushing across campus with a freshly typed master’s thesis, a work summing up one and a half years of graduate study at UIC’s College of Dentistry, when the papers just floated up and away.
“People got out of their cars and stopped and they and everyone else collected the papers,” he recalls. “But I wasn’t surprised,” he adds matter of factly. “I already knew that the American people are kind.”
But his return to Chicago earlier this year, his first since graduation, was more than a nostalgic rendezous with his past. It was in advance of the October publication of the English-language translation of “Chicago,” a novel that Arab readers have grabbed up in even greater numbers than his first record-breaking hit, “The Yacoubian Building.”
So much so, his publishers say it’s one of the best selling books in the Arab world.
“Chicago” is as calming a read as standing in the heart of a thunder storm.
There’s American decadence and racism, the soul-crushing loneliness of being an Egyptian immigrant in this strange outpost of outwardly friendly folks and the backward tug of Saudi-inspired Islamic conservatism on Egyptians here and at home. And there’s one of his favorite themes – his deep disdain for Egypt’s rulers and what he and others consider their disregard for democracy.
One reason for the emotional surge that erupts in almost every chapter is that the book appeared several years ago as a weekly serial in the Egyptian left-of-center al Destour (the Constitution) newspaper.
Though the book is called “Chicago,” the city and its residents largely form the backdrop for what happens to a group of Egyptians studying or working at UIC’s Medical School after the 9/11 tragedy.
A successful Egyptian professor, who disdains fellow Arabs, has his American dream shattered. Another Egyptian-born professor sinks into deep remorse over his decision years ago to forsake his homeland. A deeply religious graduate student has a relationship outside of marriage with an Egyptian student.
Another Egyptian student, who won a government scholarship only because he is a mole for Egyptian Intelligence, pimps his wife to a Chicago-based intelligence official who pulls incredible strings in the U.S. In turn, the agent sets up a young Egyptian leftist for arrest by U.S. anti-terrorism police.
Before his arrest, the student wrongly suspects his newly found Jewish girlfriend of setting him up.
Al Aswany, who writes a newspaper column in Cairo and belongs to Kefaya, (Enough) <cq> a struggling opposition party, disowns the notion that the novel is overly negative, or is a sociological examination of Egyptians at home and aboard.
“Literature is not a tourist guide,” he says. “I’ve been criticized for giving a negative image of Egypt. But I’m not a novelist working for the Ministry of Tourism. I don’t write novels to convince people to come to Sharm al Sheikh.”
What inspires him, he says, is human suffering.
As for the ambient sex in his writings, sex, he explains, is a “human language” that needs to told and explored.
The lure of al Aswany’s writing for Arab readers, suggests Farouk Mustafa, <cq> who translated “Chicago,” is that “he enlarges things in such a way as to bring them closer to the reader.” Al Aswany “has created a new class of novel readers,” says Mustafa, a professor of Arabic at the University of Chicago, who goes by the pen name Farouk Abdel Wahab.
As if to refute complaints that his novels revolve around trite formulas, al Aswany says he only creates his characters. After that they lead their own lives on his computer screen, and, he adds, often make the wrong decisions.
For example, he disapproves of the way the young Egyptian radical student in “Chicago” dumped his Jewish girl-friend. “I wouldn’t have done that,” he says with a frown.
Al Aswany’s own life, including his Chicago days, reads like one of his stories.
He arrived here, a relatively poor young Egyptian lured by the good reputation of the city and dental school. It was supposed to be a brief stay, but with dental faculty’s help he became a master’s degree student. When his money ran out, they helped him find a campus job, too.
Dr. A.E. Zaki, a professor emeritus at the dental school, recalls al Aswany’s “deep love of literature.” But he also was struck by al Aswany’s appetite for experiencing Chicago. “He lived it to the fullest,” he says.
Armed with the Reader’s weekly list of events, but little spending money, al Aswany roamed widely and frugally. He took in a Puerto Rican liberation movement meeting. He attended a church where, to his surprise, the parishoners were gay. He visited experimental theaters. He made friends with blacks, Jews, and a priest, who regularly invited him to services.
When he left for Egypt, he vowed to one day write a novel about Chicago.
He ached to be a writer, but heeded his father’s advice that since writers starve in Egypt he needed a steady paying job. His father, Abbas al Aswany, was a famous who earned a living as a lawyer.
He opened a dental office in Cairo, started writing on the side, and after years of frustration, his novel “the Yacoubian Building, published in 2002, exploded across the Arab world. It was a tale of political corruption, sexual abuse, religious fanaticism, homosexuality and the despair of the poor.
Just as that novel became a movie and runaway hit, there are plans to turn “Chicago” into a movie.
Translated into 20 languages, “The Yacoubian Building” has sold over 1 million copies, a half of that number in Arabic, according to Mark Linz, head of publications for American University in Cairo, which published “The Yacoubian Building” in English.
“Imagine, after 20 years you come back to this city, and you are one of the best selling authors in the Arab world,” he says, poised in front of the UIC dormitory where he discovered a new life so many years ago.