I've been practicing the pronunciation of Dr. Alaa al Aswany's name for weeks now and by the time we're set to meet at the Cairo Hilton, I'm confident I've got it down. He finds me in the lobby, a big, burly, effusive man, who apologizes for being late, the Cairo traffic impossible. I think about eating in some out-of-the-way foul and falafel joint, but we end up in the hotel's French restaurant, overlooking the Nile, dining on sole meunière, drinking American whiskey and talking about Chicago, the novel HarperCollins is publishing. The book is already a bestseller in the Middle East and Europe (50,000 copies in France alone in its first two months) and HarperCollins, which brought out Aswany's The Yacoubian Building in 2006, is counting on this new novel to introduce him to a wider American audience.
Chicago follows a cadre of Egyptian immigrants in the windy city who clash with each other—Muslim with Coptic Christians, upper class with lower—and with Western society: a young imported bride gets a taste of freedom, a medical student deals with his American girlfriend, and everyone deals with the politics of surviving two cultures and getting ahead.
Aswany, an erudite, accomplished man who studied dentistry at the University of Illinois in the 1980s, is above all a storyteller. “My dream was always to be a writer,” he says. A devoted Cairene, he still works there as a dentist, because, after all, writers in his part of the world can't make a living by writing alone: “Even Naguib Mafouz worked for the government.”
Of course, now Aswany is the world's bestselling Arab-language novelist. His 2002 breakout book, The Yacoubian Building, about the residents of a faded, once famous colonial building in Cairo who represent a cross section of modern Egyptian society—the newly rich, the desperately poor, the nostalgic, the aspiring—has sold close to a million copies and was made into a $3 million movie, the biggest budget of any film produced in Egypt. Until Yacoubian, Aswany says, “I was a successful novelist without readers.”
In that book, he deals with controversial subjects like homosexuality, government corruption and religious fanaticism, and while Yacoubian is sexy and funny, it's a pointed statement of Egypt's ills. “All literature is provocative,” Aswany says. “You write because you are not happy with the situation. The novelist is powerful and can use literature as sociology.” In fact, while he insists he never set out to write a political novel, the media may court him more for his political commentary than his fiction (an outspoken critic of the present regime, a strong proponent for democracy, Aswany has written political articles for 15 years). But for Aswany, novels are love stories. “I love all my characters,” he tells me. And he finds many of them in his dental clinic, his “window on Egyptian society. Writing is too solitary,” he says. “In the clinic, people tell me about their lives.”
Aswany smokes, we drink. He says he is proud and grateful for his success and feels the responsibility of representing Egyptian society. He punctuates his sentences with “thank you” at the slightest compliment.
We've closed down the restaurant and when we finally leave, I ask him if I've done well pronouncing his first name: Alaa. He doesn't hesitate. “You've been saying 'All-ah,' ” he tells me, “and that's flattering, but”—and he laughs—“I'm not God.”