Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Alaa Al Aswani Disappoints with “Chicago”

I just finished reading “Chicago” – the novel written by Alaa Al Aswani (author of Omaret Yaquobian). What a disappointment that was!

The story follows the lives of several Egyptian graduate students and college professors studying and teaching in the University of Illinois. I guess it’s meant to be a look at the dynamics of Egyptians’ interactions with the west – their motives, influences, personality transformations, etc… Unfortunately, the outcome was a very shallow and clich├ęd view of the above as seen by a “leftist” intellectual. Just look at this summary of the main characters and how they’re portrayed to get a glimpse of what I’m talking about (warning: spoilers ahead):

  • Prof. Raafat: a professor of histology who has lived in the US for decades. He has rejected his Egyptian roots and lives like an American with his wife and daughter, only to be rewarded by his daughter becoming a crack addict, moving out of the house to live with her junkie boyfriend (who the father almost kills after he sees his daughter giving him a blowjob). The ultimate Egyptian fear of living in the west: that the daughter will become a slut.
  • Prof. Salah: Raafat’s colleague. He also been living for 30 years in the US. However, he lives an unfulfilling life with his American wife. He belatedly realizes that he has wasted his whole life by living in America. He regrets that he “chickened out” and left Egypt and left the woman he loved in Egypt and took the easy way out by immigrating. Becomes impotent with his American wife (who in a notable scene decides to fill the void that her husband left by purchasing a vibrator and becoming too attached to it). Salah abandons his wife, re-establishes contact with his Egyptian college sweetheart, tries to prove to her that he wasn’t a coward by attempting to give an opposition speech in front of the Egyptian president visiting the US but chickens out at the last moment, then shoots himself at the end because he can’t live with his true cowardly nature. Cliches galore with the Egyptian conventional wisdom that immigrating equals running away and giving up your soul.
  • Shaimaa: a graduate student from Tanta who’s in Chicago on an Egyptian government scholarship. She’s religious, stern, and approaching spinsterhood. Lonely in Chicago she meets another Egyptian student (Tarek) who she falls in love with, starts a relationship and starts having sex with him (no penetration), but still gets pregnant and has an abortion. America as the land where even the pious get corrupt.
  • Tarek: the honors student mentioned above who impregnates Shaimaa but doesn’t really intend on marrying her.
  • Ahmed Danana: a graduate student who is really an Egyptian government agent. Got the government scholarship because he was an informant in Egypt. Is not academically qualified, and somehow he survives several years in one of the top US medical schools. He marries a rich girl from Egypt, but doesn’t mind pimping her out to the Egyptian mokhabarat officer from the embassy. Gets kicked out of his university, but is guaranteed another spot in another university because the embassy will guarantee him a spot. I guess he’s the symbol of the corrupt relationship between the tyrannical Egyptian government and the American administration.
  • Nagy Abdel Samad: another Egyptian graduate student. A patriot and a leftist rebel. Escaped the long hand of the Egyptian government but still tried to organize an opposition movement in the US, only to be taken in custody by the American anti –terrorism officers (framed by the Egyptian mokhabarat as punishment).
  • Carol: one of the few American characters in the novel. She’s the black girlfriend of one of the American leftist professors in the department. She can’t get ANY job because she’s black – not even as a dog walker (stereotyping at its finest). The only job she could get was as a nude model, and she has to sleep with her boss to get a promotion. Her boyfriend finds out and dumps her.

    It’s apparent that the writer really doesn’t have a clue. He took the prevailing views that Egyptians have of how it’s like to immigrate to the west, how they think American society functions, the decadence, the moral emptiness, blah blah blah, and created a novel out of it.

    Truly disappointing.