In Al Aswany’s follow-up to The Yacoubian Building (2005), Egyptian students and professors find scant refuge in post-9/11 Chicago.
Originally published in Egypt in 2007, and a bestseller in France, the novel was inspired by the author’s student days in the Windy City. His grad-student characters are in the United States to study histology on scholarships sponsored by the Egyptian government. Shaymaa Muhammadi is a modest, veiled, devout Muslim who, at 30-plus, has almost despaired of finding a husband. Top student Tariq Haseeb is given to boorish behavior, especially around women he likes. Ahmad Danana is an arrogant slacker whose scholarship is safe only if he spies on fellow students for the Egyptian secret police. Nagi Abd al-Samad, a dissident poet blackballed from Cairo’s university system, seeks a safe harbor in science. Most of their professors are long-term Egyptian exiles. Muhammad Salah married for a green card but has never forgotten his activist Egyptian girlfriend Zeinab; he’s still stung by her long-ago accusations of cowardice. Cardiac surgeon Karam Doss, a Coptic Christian, fled Egypt’s regime-sanctioned religious intolerance. Ra’fat Thabit is undone when his daughter Sarah becomes a drug addict. American John Graham is a ’60s holdover who still cherishes the radical ideals long forsaken by his fellow baby boomers. Rounding out the cast are wives, lovers and an arch-villain, General Safwat Shakir, who rose through the ranks of Egypt’s totalitarian state by “improving” torture methods. Now, as an envoy in Washington, he extends his government’s oppressive reach to Egyptian expatriates. Sexual obsessions (acted upon in lurid detail) intertwine with polemics: Characters mouth Al Aswany’s many pet peeves, among them America’s support of repressive Middle Eastern regimes like Egypt’s and the pernicious influence of Saudi Arabia’s repressive culture on Islam. The story lines converge when Egypt’s dictator visits Chicago, testing the mettle of dissidents and loyalists alike.
Racy delivery and breathless cliffhangers scarcely conceal the author’s pessimism about democracy’s future in Egypt—or, for that matter, in the United States.