Stories illuminating life in contemporary Egypt

2010-04-28 00:00

BOOK REVIEW

Friendly Fire

Alaa Al Aswany

Fourth Esatate

AFTER the success of his recent ­novels, T he Yacoubian Building and Chicago, Egyptian writer (and dentist) Alaa Al Aswany determined to publish his suppressed novella, The Isam Abd el-Ati Papers, a work which has been silenced in Egypt for some years owing to the protagonist’s critical attitude towards his homeland and his admiration for “the spirit of the West”.

The publication, Friendly Fire, includes the controversial novella, as well as the author’s defence of it, and sixteen short stories focusing on the lives of given individuals attempting to make a living and find meaning in a capricious, often incomprehensible world. It is a world in which people appear to be the playthings of fate and for many, disillusionment and disappointment results in lives that are “major unfinished works”.

Al Aswany vividly evokes the spirit of place and deftly and concisely creates character. Although his themes are corruption, hypocrisy, deceit, cruelty, cupidity and simple human weakness, the mocking tone in which he exposes these faultlines and foibles lifts and lightens the prose. The endings are frequently abrupt and there are secrets and silences within the stories so that one emerges a little tantalised, provoked into thought.

Isam (of The Isam Abd el-Ati Papers) is a professed Gypophobe, finding contemporary Egyptians contemptible, the climate unbearable, the history a catalogue of defeats and the glorious age of the pharaohs ­remote. However, in following his instincts for things Western, he falls into a trap.

Many of the characters in the stories are indigent and, in trying to ­elevate themselves, they encounter arrogance, deceit and favouritism. There is the brilliant Hisham, who repeatedly fails his medical examinations because the authority figure dislikes him; Mr Gouda, a civil servant, whose threadbare shirt is a source of humiliation; Uncle Ibrahim, a menial in a hospital, whose ­esteem is so damaged that he resorts to violence.

But the indigent themselves are ­also capable of devious behaviour, as other stories indicate, and those who loudly profess religious commitment are often guilty of hypocrisy. Two of the most effective (and affective) ­stories are about disabled children — one wearing an artificial limb; the other, too much lard.

Al Aswany’s is an exciting new voice (in the West) and Friendly Fire is well worth reading.

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