“Praise the Lord who created beauty in a hundred ways!” declares an enraptured character in Alaa Al Aswany’s Chicago, and a similar attitude might be discerned in the writer’s attitude towards the many protagonists of his sprawling narration, whose particularities and quirks are so elaborately taxonomised as to seem like extracts from state dossiers. Equally fascinated by both sexes, alert to the tinkle of class and race in human commerce, sensitive to the consolations and the deceptions of religion, and interested above all in the question of the human body and its agitations, the narrator of an Aswany story seem to flutter above the world of his creation, hearing, noting, and sometimes whispering.
Aswany’s novel achieves something surprising, which is to turn a great city in the American midwest into a little Egypt. It begins, most unconventionally, with a short history of Chicago city, and then suddenly dives into the lives of a set of Egyptian doctoral students and emigrants resident in the city, some freshly arrived, others naturalised Americans. In Aswany’s previous novel, The Yacoubian Building, an apartment block served as a microcosm of Egyptian society; here, that crucible is Chicago, home to a set who have eagerly left home for better prospects, and yet carry that home in their hearts.
Are Quranic injuctions even more compelling in this strange and godless world, or are they in some way refuted by this carnival of liberty and licentiousness? Can freedom of speech and political allegiance make for a platform from which to question the suffocation of these rights in the motherland? Should one’s goal be the pursuit of excellence in science and learning, or is that, as one character claims, “all success outside one’s homeland is deficient”? Can the coloured and the white man meet on an equal footing, or must they observe an encounter replete with hypocrisies? These are the questions Aswany’s protagonists – a devout woman from a peasant background who continues to wear the veil, an arrogant student fixated on outperforming his colleagues, a political radical who thinks of himself as a poet, a professor who has rejected everything Egyptian and goes to baseball games on weekends “wearing his cap backward”, a Christian Copt hounded out of Egypt – ask themselves and each other.
Indeed, there are at least three levels of conversation in Aswany’s work. The simplest one is that between the characters, who feel a deep need to talk, and are roused and animated by the prospect of conversation in their mother tongue about themselves or the motherland. They debate politics and religion, banter till they find they have fallen in love, quarrel and fall silent, long for or dread the sound of another’s voice. But, on a second level, they also constantly talk to themselves, and Aswany reports these justifications, interpretations, changes of heart, and arcs of argument almost as speech. Here is the male chauvinist Tariq Haseeb vexed by the behaviour of his girlfriend:
He rang her number again and she didn't answer. When he tried one more time, she hung up. So, it was obvious. She was playing the role of the angry paramour. She wanted him to come running after her, humiliating himself. "Impossible!" he muttered [...]. Who did she think she was? He said to himself: This peasant girl wants to humiliate me? What a farce. So, she doesn’t know who Tariq Haseeb is. My dignity is more important than my life. From now on I am going to delete her from my life as if she never existed. Before I met her what did I lack? I was working, eating, sleeping, enjoying life, and living like a king. On the contrary, ever since I've met her I've been anxious and tense.Those sos are like the hinges of Haseeb's thought, showing us the moment at which a situation begins to bristle with private meanings that seem irrefutable to the person in whose being they take root.
And lastly, there is always in Aswany's work a kind of implied conversation between the narrator and the reader, a way in which we feel as if we are being taken into confidence. A character is described at length and then the narrator stops to ask, as if describing the world of the jellyfish to a room of students, “Have we learned everything about Safwat Shakir? There are still two aspects to his life we have not touched upon....” After detailing the grinding work schedule that Tariq Haseeb observes, the narrator asks: “Does that mean Tariq Haseeb does not have any fun? Not true. He also has his little pleasures...” We feel in Chicago as if a host is asking if we are enjoying ourselves at an evening at his house.
Aswany’s storytelling is also marked by its sensuality. From the self-denying student who allows himself an hour of recreation to watch wrestling and pornography to the lapsed poet whose voice and wholeness of self is restored by sex, everywhere we see the animal self lurking beneath the trained, dressed, and tutored body-in-the-world, aching to unsheath itself. If Aswany’s women sometimes seem implausibly beautiful and voluptuous, they at least have more selfhood and agency than Salman Rushdie’s sex goddesses. His warm-blooded, sometimes voyeuristic narration is clearly a man’s work, but it has a kind of Chaucerian love of human tints and foibles that redeems its faults.
Some of the twists and reversals in Chicago, as also its circling focus, make us in agreement with the character who feels “as if he were watching an Egyptian soap opera”. Aswany’s rolling cast of characters and panoramic vision tell us that he wants to investigate the human condition on the grandest scale, and as in soap operas, he wants to make the spectator feel like part of the family. His book resides firmly within the mainstream of Egyptian fiction, but it is also an unusual and striking post-9/11 American novel.