Free The Blog: What does the writer next door say?
(This was originally posted at Free The Blog, part of Free the Word, this year's International PEN festival).
As the introduction to the Free The Word festival by International PEN international secretary Eugene Schoulgin suggested, questions are always more important than answers. And in that vein, some of the ideas provided by Alaa Al Aswany during the opening event on Friday, ‘The Writer Next Door’, posed questions of wider significance.
Al Aswany proved to be a mine of astute and subtle observations, under questioning by Maya Jaggi. A dentist by training, he has not given up his practice despite the wild success of 'The Yacoubian Building', one of the biggest sellers the Arabic world has ever seen. Why not? Well, it appears to be the human contact. “I don’t care about teeth, but the people themselves,” he declared.
He argued strongly that the act of literature is not just about the writing of the layer history below politics, but also that it is meant to attack hypocrisy, “the things we know but don’t tell the truth about.” In this context, when asked about the process of radicalisation in Egyptian and other societies, he suggested that “you can’t treat the symptoms without attacking the disease.” And for him, corruption, intolerance and extremism in Arab world regimes were merely symptoms of the underlying disease of those regimes being dictatorships or undemocratic. “Arab dictators try to say that they can cure the symptoms, but they can’t. If there were real democracies, these things would disappear.”
In addition to the pervasive atmosphere of surveillance in these repressive societies, he pointed out that it was generally the least efficient people, “the mediocrities”, who rise to the top, due to their closeness to the ruling party. Diseases won’t be cured by the worst doctors.
His new novel, ‘Chicago’, draws on the time Al Aswany spent as a student in the USA, to explore from a distance the pathologies of Egypt, and especially the complex relationship the country has with migration. “Egypt is a county that many migrants keep close to their hearts. But despite this, not every migrant to the west is a failure.”
He was also robust on the question of whether there is a ‘clash between civilizations’, the Islamic and western worlds. “There are wars between kingdoms, but the world is actually divided between the human and non-human, those who want to be treated with dignity and on a fair basis and those who are dictators, fanatics, the corrupt, George Bush…”
Perhaps the most contentious point Al Aswany made was his last; that the human rights of minorities in repressive societies, “is not a priority when everybody is suffering.” As practical as that may be, it’s a view that Free The Word has been challenging this weekend.