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A couple of years ago I took my first trip to the Middle East and asked a colleague to recommend some good books. He promptly recommended The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany. I was enthralled from start to finish of that excellent book so when I saw his next novel, Chicago for sale 2nd hand I excitedly bought it.
Chicago proves that Al Aswany is a master story teller and has more than one great book in him. He worked for many years in the Yacoubian Building (as a dentist) so I had some suspicion that the book was peopled by his neighbors. With Chicago, however he has once again created a full cast of characters that are fascinating, confounding, complex and believable.
Have you had any American fruits? … Here they use genetic engineering to make fruit much larger and yet it doesn’t taste so good. Life in America, Nagi, is like American fruit: shiny and appetizing on the outside, but tasteless… All success outside one’s homeland is deficient.
This time the link between the characters is the histology department at the University of Illinois and the characters range from professors and students, their spouses and lovers to secret police. The link between all of the characters is Egypt, with many of the central characters either Egyptian professionals who have been in the USA for 30 years or Egyptian postgraduate students. Despite being set in the USA, this is definitely a book about Egypt. In this book Al Aswany uses the experiences of the diaspora to express his love, frustration, pride and disgust in his rich culture.
Al Aswany’s style is to write a series of rich short stories with varying degrees of interconnection. I mean that as a compliment to his writing style because excellent short stories build believable characters in an unbelievably few words and Al Aswany achieves this chapter after chapter as he reveals a rich tapestry of characters to us. He ends each of the chapters with a ‘cliffhanger’ so that I found it very difficult to find a satisfying point to stop reading. Some of the 40 chapters revisit the earlier short stories and build steadily towards the crescendos of the book.
Al Aswany’s writing is rich in political messages but also rich in human interrelationships and sex. As a result the book is relentlessly captivating. I brought it with me on a family camping trip and found it to be a perfect companion to pick up whenever my children were safely occupied although it was difficult to put it down!
Al Aswany has a Dickensian sense of character. .. his remarkable gift for narrative momentum sustains Chicago: Guardian.
Al Aswany’s strength. .. is his lovingly detailed characterisation… his masterstroke in Chicago is to extract his characters from the comfort of their own cultures. In exile their personalities are stripped of the legitimising props; their self-deceiving fantasies, prejudices and limitations are laid bare: Daily Telegraph
As you embark on reading this book do not expect to like all (or perhaps many) of the characters because this is not that sort of book. Al Aswany is not presenting to you perfectly beautiful and flawless people caught up in happenings beyond their control but instead a cast of ‘rogues, idealists and monsters’ who are striding deliberately towards mostly unpleasant denouements that are largely of their own making.
For me the ending of the book was moderately underwhelming but that may be inevitable in a book that sweeps the reader along so steadily with its momentum. For me this book (and life) was more about the journey than the ending. If you don’t want to know what happens you should stop reading here.
Al Aswany introduces Ra’fat and Salah as Egyptian migrants who left Egypt at about the same time, one fleeing the fall of his family’s wealth and turning his back forever on his culture, to the point of racism against Egyptians (Ra’fat) and the other seeking political freedom impossible under the Egyptian regime (Salah). Although they have different backgrounds and motivations for adopting a new country, I found it difficult to differentiate between them in their respective chapters because they work together but only interact with one another once in the whole book, they are both unhappily married to American women, both sexually impotent and both unraveling.
I haven’t had any personal connection to addiction but I have friends with drug addicts in their families. I was saddened by Sarah’s rapid demise so quickly after developing a drug habit. I was surprised that Al Aswany chose cocaine as her drug (typically associated with wealth) particularly when her addict boyfriend lived in the poorest neighborhood where presumably cheaper drugs would be more prevalent. I can’t imagine how Ra’fat and Michelle will recover, especially Ra’fat after he beat Sarah and then paid for her drugs.
Salah’s rejection of his history and culture were discomforting to read and his intellectual crisis wasn’t particularly surprising. It was convenient that he was able to reconnect with his previous lover in Egypt after 30 years. We never discover why he backed away from reading the declaration written by the brave Nagi and Doss. Reading about Salah made me reflect on my grandfather who was forced to leave Poland in his late teens in WWII and after eventually moving to Australia never spoke Polish again and completely lost contact with his cultural heritage (except for one brief trip to Poland 60 years after he left). Poor Chris was treated badly by Salah and is left with a shell of a life. I always feel so angry about men who discard the women who have supported them, raised their families, and subordinated their own lives for their man.
Tariq is unlikable and I felt terrible for vulnerable, naive Shaymaa who confuses his lust for devotion and breaks her own taboos then pays a terrible price for it.
Carol’s choice to use her body to earn a living is an interesting moral dilemma. I found it strange that Graham, with his anti-establishment credentials would reject her.
I’m confused about why Al Aswany made Nagi suffer so much with the Egyptian secret police and then FBI. I suppose that he set the book in the USA, post 9-11 so that this could happen to one of his characters and thereby illustrate the intimate links between American and Egyptian regimes and drive home that resistance is futile and noone is safe anywhere if they speak out against a regime. I suppose that Al Aswany made Nagi likeable so that the reader would feel distressed at the bitter unfairness of his mistreatment.
Danana is very well written and I hated him and his conniving ways most of all for his mistreatment of his wife. In that sense I was reminded of A Thousand Splendid Suns but Marwa was fortunate that she was able to escape. I wonder if she was accepted by her parents? After reading about the chilling brutality of Safwat Shakir I was nauseated.