Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Alaa Al Aswany’

Alaa Al-Aswany Gets a Grilling

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 7th December, 2014

Alaa Al AswanyAlaa Al Aswany democracyLike 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.


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Playing Cards in Cairo

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 21st August, 2008

Many fiction writers have finessed the concept of ‘literature as place’. Thus Cairo, the biggest city in both Africa and the Arab world, has featured as a principle ‘character’ in books as varied as Alaa Al Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building and Olivia Manning’s Levant Trilogy. Now the British journalist (and author of a notable book on the al-Jazeera media phenonmenon) Hugh Miles has joined the ranks, with a powerful and often funny memoir of his time in the heaving city, his wooing of and eventual marriage to an Egyptian woman of good family and his consequent conversion to Islam: Playing Cards in Cairo (Abacus, £10.99).

In modern literature, there are many examples of ‘faction’: novels into which real people or actual events are integrated. But Hugh Miles has brilliantly succeeded in producing a mirror-like variant of this: a factual book that in large parts reads like a novel. Much of it is in directly reported speech, not least the conversation between middle class Egyptian girls (at which he is a card-playing attendee and eavesdropper) giving the flavour of an Oriental Tales of the City. It would make a wonderful feature film.

Because Miles is steeped in Arab culture — he was born into a diplomatic family in Saudi Arabia, and studied Arabic at Oxford and in Yemen — he is able to portray the Egyptian reality with far more authority and perspicacity than a less well-informed Western observer could have done. The bitter-sweet end product is a triumph, blending often hilarious dialogue with straight-down-the-line reporting of the underbelly of Cairene life, such as police corruption and brutality, and the grinding poverty of the masses. Highly recommended.

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Bringing Arab Literature to the UK

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 19th August, 2008

I’ve just received review copies of the first three titles produced by a new imprint on the London publishing scene: Arabia Books. Launched by two of the capital’s most adventurous independent publishers, Gary Pulsifer of Arcadia and Barbara Schwepcke of Haus, Arabia Books intends to bring out at least ten new fiction titles a year, as well distributing more than 50 additional titles of Arabic literature mainly acquired from the American University of Cairo Press (AUC). AUC has helped make known to a wider public such great Egyptian novelists at Naguib Mahfouz (who won the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature) and Alaa Al Aswany (author of the wonderful The Yacoubian Building), but this new venture will bring a much greater range of Arabic-language novelists to the attention of the English-speaking world.

Arabia Books’ publishing programme does not get officially launched until next month, but that gives us critics time to get stuck into the three initial offerings: Ibrahim al-Koni’s Gold Dust, Hala El Badry’s A Certain Woman and Bahaa Taher’s Love in Exile. I have often thought that the West would understand the Arab world much better if more Arabic literature were available in English — and vice versa!

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