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09 December 2009

Alaa Al Aswany


Another chance find in Catford library, Alaa Al Aswany is a contemporary Egyptian writer, known for two novels and the book I'm reading, Friendly Fire, a novella and some stories. All I've read so far is the novella "The Isam Abd el-Ati Papers". I'd never heard of this writer before, but so far I'm impressed.

It would be easy to take this book as a fertile example of post-colonial literature. The title of the collection, for example. I've no idea what the original Arabic title (Nīrān sadīqa, نيران صديقة)‎ means, but "friendly fire", I think, only came into common usage during the first Gulf war, and is associated with that conflict, with all the irony you wish to put into it.

Then there's a preface, in which Al Aswany is at pains to stress that the views of characters in a book are not necessarily those of the author. He tells of how his attempts to get these stories published - where all commercial publication is controlled by the state - ran up against refusal, leading to his decision to self-publish.

And then the novella itself shows why that could have happened. The leading character, a first-person narrator, tells the story of his life as the son of a moderately unsuccessful artist, and his growing view that he'd rather be anything than Egyptian. He grows infatuated with images of the West, and eventually has an encounter with a German woman, which causes the crisis that ends the story. In the meantime, he is quite shockingly at odds with his mother, who is suffering from cancer (and from being a fairly obvious symbol).

But it does effectively dramatise the dilemma of someone who sees the faults in his own society, but risks losing his own grounding. While I've no doubt Al Aswany doesn't necessarily share his character's views, his reaction to Mustafa Kamil's view that "If I weren't Egyptian, I would want to be Egyptian" is strong. These words
represent (assuming that the one who said them really meant them) the sort of stupid tribal loyalty that makes my blood boil every time I think of it. What if the good Mustafa Kamil had been born Chinese, for example, or Indian? Would he not have repeated the same phrase out of pride in his Chinese or Indian nationality? And can such pride have any value if it's the outcome of coincidence? (p1)
The character then goes to accuse the Egyptian character of actually being worse than most, and it may be there that Al Aswany distances himself. I suspect that artists, or writers at least, must always live in the land of "it isn't as simple as that" - a land that Daily Mail readers apparently don't believe in.

So we could reduce the story to simple (yet ambivalent) post-colonial fable, but there's a level of detail that raises it above this. When Abd el-Ati's father receives a complimentary letter on his art, he reacts in a way that is entirely personal and biographical. And there's a subtle humour. After Abd el-Ati becomes infatuated with the West, he wants to meet some westerners, and so he goes where they will be: "their places - the Pyramids, the Egyptian Museum, Saladin's Citadel". (p68)

The ending of the novella suggests that Abd el-Ati's position - either personally or symbolically - isn't healthy, and I wonder if the other stories in the collection, or the novels, will move on from this.

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