Chicago: A Novel Paperback – Sep 29 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
Egyptian author al Aswany (The Yacoubian Building) weaves a vivid tapestry of clashing cultures in post-9/11 Chicago. Dr. Ra'fat Thabit, an Egyptian-American professor at the University of Illinois Medical School, has burrowed deep into American culture, but finds his identity threatened after his rebellious daughter falls under the sway of a shady boyfriend. Ra'fat's colleague, Dr. Muhammad Shamay, retreats from his American wife into extended reveries of his life in Cairo in the 1970s when he was young and in love with a revolutionary. His histology student, Nagi Abd al-Samad, really wants to be a poet. Nagi begins a relationship with an American girl named Wendy (who just so happens to be Jewish). Meanwhile, Shymaa Muhammadi, a medical student who wears a veil, finds her traditional values under siege when Tariq Haseeb, another Egyptian med student, begins seducing her with dogged persistence. The characters are beautifully realized—Ra'fat's family trouble is especially well done—and though their cumulative effect is muted, each of the story lines is individually compelling. (Oct.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
“Egyptian author Al Aswany weaves a vivid tapestry of clashing cultures in post 9/11 Chicago. . . . The characters are beautifully realized [and] each of the story lines is individually compelling.” (Publishers Weekly)
“...Al Aswany’s knack for making the personal political.” (New York magazine)
“While the book explores political points, it’s ultimately a pluralist drama, complete with cliffhangers.” (Washington Post Express)
“Aswany sensitively probes the nature of courage and patriotism. . . . [T]he story moves in surprising directions, and the ambiguity of life is well reflected in an unabashedly untidy conclusion. (The New Yorker)
“Al Aswany writes about his Egyptian characters with charm, gentle humor, and genuine conviction.” (New York Times Book Review)
Top Customer Reviews
Married to Chris, an American, Ra'fat clashes with her over what to do about their rebellious daughter Sarah. He's in the grip of deathly jealously towards her current artist boyfriend Jeff and he just can't stand the idea that his daughter is in love with another man and be having a relationship outside marriage. Jeff likes to snort drugs and seems to be holding Sarah in his deadly psychedelic grip. When Ra'fat isn't pouring his heart out to John Graham, an old leftist hippy who marched in the civil rights movement, he's haranguing in defense of Western culture with perhaps even the mentality of the Eastern men which he constantly attacks and mocks.
Meanwhile, the vulnerable Nagi writes a journal that no else will read, an aspiring poet he writes for himself in order to record the points of change in his life while he moves from his old world, the only world he's known to a new and exciting world that seems to be filled with possibilities and probabilities.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
One thing that amazes me (although it really shouldn't) is how much I relate to some of the Egyptian characters in this novel that come from conservative religious backgrounds. Coming from a conservative southern Baptist background myself I find myself surprised to be relating with characters from a different religion and different cultures. For me this is simply more evidence that we are not anywhere near as different as we sometimes imagine we are.
The plot centers on Chicago University Histology department, and the author uses different narrative techniques to tell his characters stories. His transitions between characters is very fluid, and his use of the first person narrative with one character gives the book a deeper intimacy than the it would have had written solely in the third person. The transitions are what really moves the book forward and gives it a dramatic feel. The author chooses highly dramatic moments for his paragraph breaks and character transitions which leaves the reader wanting more. I had a hard time putting the book down at times because I wanted to find out what happened to one character or another. I really love when an author is able to employ this technique effectively which this author has done.
The author does an excellent job juxtaposing the old guard with the next generation as it comes up in the same world they once came up in. The old Egyptian emigrants stand in stark contrast to the idealism and optimism of the younger generation coming to school under them. Each character seems to represent immigrant experience in different ways. You have the one character who disowns his Egyptian roots completely (or so he thinks) to become fully "Americanized" and cast off the "backwardness" of Egyptian society. Then there are those who feel they have betrayed their country and live guilt riddled lives. These characters tend to focus the reader in the almost completely cyclical nature of our lives as the young Egyptians idealism forces them down much the same paths of those who came before them.
I really hate when people discuss the ending of books, but I am going to finish by saying a little something about the end. I am going to be vague so as not to ruin anything, but if you are like me then I would stop reading now. The way the author was leading the book towards its conclusion I was afraid I was going to have to stomach a marshmallow, cushy ending that would have disappointed me greatly. Instead the author has a fabulous ending I really enjoyed, and that's all I will say.
I picked up this book because I was looking for some books by authors from this part of the world, and this book did not disappoint at all. It was a fun, dramatic and quick read. The characters were all engaging and forced you to care and read on. The translation was excellent, and now I have an author I am going to go back and read his earlier stuff and anything he writes in the future. I highly recommend this book.
Chicago's greatest strength is that it presents to the American reader a glimpse into a culture that is not only foreign to (most of) us, but on that has been distorted by the media. Aswany surprised me, particularly on two of the above themes: sex/love and politics. I never expected a novel geared towards a predominantly Muslim audience to be sexually promiscuous (with sharia consequences, of course), nor one that would so openly criticize Egypt's current despotic administration, the effects of which are displayed heavily in the novel, particularly with Nagi, an Egyptian student-poet who was once a political detainee, and General Shakir, a convincingly evil and sadistic part of the secret police machinery who takes pleasure in the human rights violations he commits. Another character of note is Shaymaa, a devout Muslim woman student who falls in love with fellow student Tafiq, and is faced with the needs of love and the conflicts in brings with her religious upbringing.
The problem with Chicago is the translation, especially during the first fifty or so pages of the novel. Much of it makes Chicago seem like amateur fiction, as if Aswany was writing a short story for a fiction workshop at some community center. The translation is clumsy and stiff, and at times I found myself wondering if I should bother finishing the book.
Ultimately, what won me over is Aswany's presentation of his own culture, particularly the way in which the predominance of Islam influences the choices the characters make, in addition to Aswany's strong and daring political views. Had the translation been better I might have given this 3.5 or 4 stars, however, once can't really escape the effects of a poor translation when considering the quality of fiction.
Another problem is dialogue that frequently sounds unrealistic. Mastery of American vernacular may be too much to expect from this Egyptian novelist, but the translator might have done more with the dialogue.
The narrative, when it finally gets going, consists of several interwoven stories. Situations are developed to the point of crisis, then left unresolved as the narrative switches to another storyline. The technique does create suspense, but it is used so consistently that it becomes irritating.
Despite these failings, Chicago is worth reading. Aswany creates memorable characters and dramatic situations. He shows a profound understanding of the motives that drive human beings and the pitfalls that can destroy their lives. There are scenes so vivid and authentic I will not soon forget them: Salah, a professor who regrets having left his native land decades ago, retreats to his basement and dresses in the clothes he wore when he came to America. Meanwhile his estranged wife goes out and buys a vibrator. Another character is reduced to peeping at his wayward daughter through a window.
Aswany has political points to score, and the political implications of the characters' choices are never far away. His villains - and some of his good guys - are defined by their politics and drawn a bit heavy-handedly. The story nonetheless rings true. Aswany's Chicago may be unfamiliar, but in the end, neither it nor his characters are alien to me.
That part is aimed, I guess, at readers in Cairo who might not have a strong notion of just where or what Chicago is. I mean, it doesn't seem to be presented in an ironic or particularly humorous way, or as a postmodern touch.
Thankfully the book moves on quickly to its main stories, a set of interlocking portraits of Egyptian students and emigres living in Chicago with their assorted spouses, lovers, and colleagues, some of whom are fellow emigres and some of whom are blonde or wear cowboy boots or whatever, and so are meant to represent native-born Americans. In superficial terms, then, this book resembles Zadie Smith's phenomenal "White Teeth," which deals with a group of Caribbean and South Asian emigres and native-born locals in a London suburb.
But Smith's novel is a masterpiece and already a classic, so it's probably not fair to make many comparisons with "Chicago," which often struggles just to get its stories told. Smith created memorable, quirky, individual characters and set them in motion to create a wholly unique series of events and experiences. Alaa Al Aswany has a journalist's instinct for sketching recognizable, culturally representative personalities, as long as they're Egyptian. So here we get the young radical (a misunderstood poet), the conniving president of a foreign students' union (who is also a religious hypocrite, a male chauvinist pig, and -- just in case you still missed the point -- a moocher with a secret bank account), a naturalized American who has deliberately rejected every shred of his Egyptian heritage and never fails to put down Egypt and all Egyptians in all his public conversations. And so on, including a young, observant Muslim woman, who has her values shaken by her encounter with American culture. Imagine that. There are others, but you can probably figure them out yourself if you've watched CNN for the last couple of years.
And these are the well-drawn characters. The problem is that there's virtually nothing surprising about any of them, so they come across more as types than as actual humans. Their predicaments are predictable, and so are their responses. By comparison, the "Americans" in the novel are stick figures. With their stock dialogue and limited responses, they seem to be there mostly to push the plots along. (I'm about halfway through the novel right now, so I'll report back when I'm finished, if anything actually changes about the whole character thing.)
Part of the disappointment of this novel doesn't reside with the author's work, however. It has apparently received the crudest, clumsiest translation I've ever encountered in a book first written in another language. At least I think that must be the problem. The prose seems wooden and childish at many points; surely the literate Egyptians who praised this novel and its predecessor didn't have to deal with the awkward locutions of the English here. (Or maybe they were so excited by the frank depictions of governmental corruption and the characters' sexy behavior that they overlooked its lack of purely literary merit?)
Some people will probably recognize themselves in the pages of "Chicago," especially if they squint. Everyone else can walk on by.
Aswany attended the University of Illinois so he knows the university and the city. If Muslims have never been well understood in the United States and Islam not appreciated, certainly after 9/11 the misunderstandings and lack of appreciation for the many positive aspects of Islam and Muslims have only grown. Perhaps you were not even aware of the difficulties Christian Egyptians (Copts) face. Aswany shows all forcefully this in his characters. Even as fiction, it seems more real than my own hearing in the "real world" of how Muslims who had applied for U.S. citizenship had been experiencing lengthy delays. Unfortunately, much more sadly than delays in citizenship, I've read and heard more.
I have Muslim friends but we have not discussed the personal impact of 9/11 or of life in the U.S. I feel it is something now I should learn from them. It was careless of me not to have done so.
So is there too much sex in this novel? Would you like a romance novel? You can find those. Aswany at least does not shrink from the role sex plays in people's lives. I would by no means consider this porn. Of commercial advantage? Perhaps but how much truncation of experience do you want from a novelist?
Too much politics? But in these times when even for Anglo-Saxon U.S. citizens life in the U.S. seems scary, Aswany's political concerns about Egypt and the U.S. may make you wonder why you have not been concerned enough at least about the U.S. if you haven't been. Of course, there are other countries and their peoples, for example in the Middle East, for example Iraq, which we would do well do be more concerned about. There is a world of injustice, how to respond without being overwhelmed? Perhaps in some way you are. Even small ways seem better than to somehow do nothing at all.
It may be a surprise, given the powerful social concerns, just how strong "Chicago" is just as a story, with the lives of many characters interwoven. Easy to read but probably only due to Aswany's craft because the characters are well-developed, the settings well-described, and the subplots by no means simple. All this working together so that, despite at times feeling maybe the sex was overdone, maybe the political concerns seemed too explicit, toward the middle I was trapped and by the end stunned.
Cowardice has its cost; hopefully Aswany's courage has its rewards. In these frightening times, may we all find such courage. I do not know that I will but so much seems to depend on more and more of us doing so. "Chicago" is a compelling novel that will challenge you at your core. It is doing that for me and I will be faced with having to look back and wonder if I just wrote that for the sake of a better sounding review or if I mean it: in these times, in the U.S., in Egypt, in Iraq, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, Aswany has trapped me with that question.