10 December 2009

Alaa Al Aswany (2)

Now that I've read the stories in the collection, it seems to me that they most resemble James Joyce's Dubliners. There's that same sense of injustice over the colonial past, with the same sense of despair at the inability of post-colonial politicians to do any better. Also the writing is simple, sometimes with a Flaubertian narrator, who genuinely reveals little about himself. It's a big difference from the only other Egyptian writer I've read, Naguib Mahfouz, whose writing is formal and ornate - presumably in accordance with a classical Arabic tradition.

Most of the time the stories are small-scale domestic, but one or two stories deal with the politics of Palestine or Egypt. And they tend (like the novella) to have a gap at their heart. To take one example, in the story "Kitchen Boy" a promising young surgeon finds his career progress stalled in a hospital where bullying and intimidation filter down from the head surgeon. One day the young surgeon has a meeting with him.
No one knows what passed between Hisham and Dr Bassiouni on that day, but equally no one ever forgot that meeting of theirs because it was the beginning of the transformation.

Hisham becomes Dr Bassiouni's favourite, and prospers. The narrator concludes:
Frequently we visit him at the surgery department, where we have a lovely time with him, chatting and recalling old memories, though sometimes, despite the cheerful welcome he gives us, and despite our affection for and pride in him, we feel that something about our old friend has changed. It is, however, a thought that we quickly expel from our minds.

You get the feeling that he doesn't need to say the unsayable, because everyone in Cairo will be able to guess what happened, and there's no need for anyone else to know.

The two stories that cover overtly political issues are "To the air conditioning attendant of the hall" and "Waiting for the leader". In the first, a public speaker tells the story of the Jenin attack in the six-day war of 1967, treating it as a story of betrayal by the Jordanian army. The second is about the former leader of the Wafd party, a movement destroyed by Abdel Nasser. In both, there's the sense that both governments and opposition forces let down their people.

Joyce described Ireland as the sow that eats her own farrow; I think Al Aswany sees Egypt the same way.

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