Alaa Al-Aswany Gets a Grilling
Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 7th December, 2014
Like millions of people who have read The Yacoubian Building, I am a fan of the writing of the Egyptian novelist Alaa Al Aswany and a few years ago I was pleased to have the chance to talk to him a little when he came to an event put on by English PEN. So last night I was eagerly part of a large audience assembled on the fringes of the Gingko Conference currently taking place in London to hear him being interviewed by fellow author Tarek Osman about political developments in Egypt and the wider Arab world. For several years, Al Aswany wrote a newspaper column (now terminated) which always ended with the words “democracy is the answer”. So I was not the only person surprised by his spirited defence of the ousting of the democratically-elected President Mohamed Morsi last year, and his criticism of those who described the army takeover as a coup. It is true that millions of Egyptians had taken to the streets to protest against Morsi’s actions once in power and it was maybe not unpredictable that the Muslim Brotherhood would have a different attitude to democracy from Western liberals. But Al Aswany’s comments last night prompted the French-Algerian journalist Nabila Ramdani, who was in the audience, to launch a virulent attack on him. As a disgruntled English translator of Al Aswany’s work — whose exact grievance was not clear to the rest of us — had also shouted at the novelist before storming out of the auditorium, things were getting distinctly heated. Alaa Al Aswany, who physically resembles a big brown bear, stood his ground but was clearly not happy. And unfortunately therefore not all his answers to questions were as informative as they wold have been in quieter circumstances. The former Labour Foreign Minister, Denis MacShane, for example, asked whether a young Egyptian writer might now be writing a new Yacoubian Building, complete with corruption, sexual scandal and torture, as was the original (and therefore seen as a biting critique of the Mubarak regime), but he did not really get an adequate response. The Gingko Library has published the collected columns of Alaa Al Aswany in a volume Democracy Is the Answer.