ARTYFACTS: Alaa Al Aswary

Monday, May 25, 2009

Alaa Al Aswary

Alaa Al Aswary, if you've never heard of him, is a novelist, and dentist, from Cairo. The Yacoubian Building was the best selling novel in the Middle East from 2002-2007, when it was pushed into second place by Chicago, his next novel. He remains a dentist because you can't make a living in Egypt, or the Arab world, by writing. Publishing is controlled by the state and there's paranoia around taboo topics such as sex, homosexuality and so on, so he prefers to publish privately. He also adds, that being a dentist puts him in touch with real people, an essential part of a novelist's work.

Egyptians have a very open, friendly and smiling character, and Aswary is no exception. He charmed the audience with his explanations and anecdotes. He was clear about the failure of the novel to change situations other than by changing people. It strikes me that The Yacoubian Building is read by the intelligensia, but not the mass of the Egyptian voting population. Egypt has a 58% literacy level and within this few read full length novels. The illusion created in the novel-loving west is that novelists have real policical cout in the Middle East - they don't really. This is why Aswary contributes articles to the major newspapers and gets involved in politics. His reputation as a novelist may protect him, in a way that bloggers in Egypt are not protected, but they don't make much of an impact politically. Aswary was more aware of this than the audience and was clear about the separation of art and politics.

He was scathing about Saudi Wahabbism, dictatorship and the erosion of liberal Islam, that was dominant in Egypt until the 80s. He also paid tribute to the many young bloggers who are often arested and even tortured in Egypt. However, he ewas dismissive of simplistic views of the 'West' or the 'Arab world'. these he regards as heterogeneous.

What was odd was when two of the audience dared criticise him forĀ giving his characters certain beliefs. An arab womed disliked his depiction of Arab men and gay men, then an older man in the audience criticised one of his characters for his depiction of Nasser. Aswary responded wit the usual 'these are characters and not me' argument. That's fine, but it needed a clearer argument about the role of the author to make things clear.

There's a whole debate around the intentional fallacy i.e. whether the intentions of the author really matter when expressed in a work. It is not to be dismissed by sneers from book group types, who simply regard novels as wonderful, and everything written in them as wonderful. The two questioners had a point. Of course one can't attribuet the beliefs of all characters in a novel to the author, as they may be contradictory and that may not have been the intention. But one can ask the question - do you agree with the views of that character. That's what the two people in the audience were asking.


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