It was immensely refreshing to meet Alaa Al Aswany. You don’t get writers like him in the West anymore. Writers whose references are Chekhov and the Nouveau Roman rather than the latest booktrack figures and Oprah’s choice of the week. This is a real writer. A man who laboured long and hard for no financial reward and no hope of any in order to be a writer.
In the Middle East you get nothing from the publisher. That’s it- nada on the advance front- and if the book sells 200 or so copies that’s excellent going. Very few buy books, a few read them and no one predicates a career on the earnings from books. It’s a job with the earning potential of a poet in the West without poetry awards, poetry competitions, lucrative teaching opportunities and the chance to become Poet Laureat. Being a writer of fiction in the Middle East is more akin to being a perfomance artist in a branch of Asda. Not many people know what you’re doing and fewer still care. An imported book costs a week’s wages for a civil servant. Imagine a £300 book in the UK- how many would that sell? An Arabic book sells for a day’s wages of a labourer. The only books you see on the Cairo subway are medical textbooks and the Koran.
Aswany is the author of the International bestseller- The Yacoubian building. I interviewed him in his dental surgery in Garden City, a pleasant area of downtown Cairo, near to the British Embassy. He didn’t have teeth problems- he’s a dentist, an eminently sensible decision for a man who takes literature seriously. He didn’t want to be a journalist or screenwriter- the only two paying professions for writers in Egypt, so he’d needed another source of income. Dentists have regular hours and don’t travel- ideal for fitting a writing schedule around. He writes from 6.30am to 10.30am then does dentristy from 12 to 3 and from 7 until 10. Now his books are finally making money – translations were the first writing income he ever earned- he can slack off on filling teeth a little and let other’s in his practice work longer hours.
Aswany has written two novels and is in his mid-40s. He has three children. He speaks excellent French and English- he attended French schools and studied dentristy in the US. He said his first novel took ten years to write. He discarded many ‘dead’ novels along the way. Now he has a method- he assembles character files on his computer , just building details over time. When the character finally comes alive he knows that they can be used in a novel. “Details are very very important,” he told me. His dedication to detail hunting extends to reading kid’s comics and perusing women’s make-up catalogues. “Searching for good details forces the writer to pay more attention and to care more about his characters.” His novel, the Yacoubian Building, is an ensemble piece set in an eponymous downtown building with poor people living in steel huts on the roof. Despite some of the characters being unattractive he told me he ‘loved them all’. The reader feels this affection, even for such rogues as the one legged ‘loyal’ retainer who tries to diddle his boss out of his home.
The Yacoubian Building provides a marvellous picture of modern Egypt with all its hypocrisies and fanatacism, its gulf between rich and poor more reminiscent of Dickensian London than the present day. The film of the book has also captured this very well. Aswany is typically generous about the film (for which he earned the small sum of £1500 sterling) describing it as “excellent”. He wasn’t even invited to the premiere. He smiles, “I’m a security risk.” He is a well known critic of the current government and it was rumoured ministers who went to the film premiere were embarrassed to meet him. Another advantage of being a dentist in private practice is that he can’t be told to shut up. He writes what he likes and is a member of the liberalization movement Kefiyeh, which means ‘Enough’. “The disease in Egypt is at the top, the complications are fanaticism. Treat the complications as if it were the disease and you will be in trouble- as we are.” It is with such deft characterization of a problem that Aswany, both the man and the writer, succeeds in providing a convincing template for understanding the craziness of what goes on in the Middle East.
We circle the idea of writing for the people rather than for critics. “It is a terrible temptation to write for critics in the Arab world because the market is so tiny. The influence of French avant garde writing is huge and disastrous in this context. I broke completely with such writing. I realized it was so easy to be obscure and ‘clever’ and very hard to be lucid and truthful.” He is proud that his Italian publishers also put out the work of Allende and Garcia Marquez. “They also write for the people,” he says, “Not the critics.”
Has he half an eye on the Nobel prize? I don’t ask, not after he has told me he never comments on the quality of his work- that’s for the reader he says. But like his compatriot Naguib Mahfouz before him, Alaa Al Aswany is a genuine world writer, making Egyptian concerns into human concerns and illuminating beautifully this always extraordinary but sometimes sad and baffling place.