Monday, April 27, 2009

“Friendly Fire” by Alaa Al Aswany

A review post on Amazon here.

Alaa Al Aswany is an Egyptian novelist, journalist and activist who trained at the University of Illinois in Chicago, and subsequently worked as a dentist (faute de mieux) in Cairo. He has previously written two novels: "The Yacoubian Building" set in Egypt where he worked, and "Chicago", exploring the experiences of Egyptians in the US and set at the University of Illinois where he studied. Aswany is also a founding member of Kefaya, the modernising political opposition in Egypt. "Friendly Fire" is his third book consisting of the novella "He Who Drew Close and Saw" and a further nine short stories.

In some ways I found the novella to be the most disappointing item of the collection. It tells the story of Isam, an Egyptian intellectual from a poor family who experiences considerable alienation both from his own family and from the society around him. We learn about his father, a talented artist who gets nowhere because of his 'lack of charisma' and who surrounds himself with other mediocre failures, and the other members of his family – all portrayed in an unflattering light. Isam gets a job at a research institute where no-one does anything, and the director sexually abuses the cleaning women. Isam finally has an epiphany: it’s western culture which provides salvation - all progress, innovation and new ideas have come from that one source alone.

Isam then meets a German woman, Jutta, in the German Cultural Centre and, improbably for such a timid and antisocial soul, makes a successful pass at her. After a torrid night of passion he arranges to meet her the next day only to find she has completely vanished, as has all evidence that she ever existed. Allegory or madness?

Aswany’s writing almost always holds interest, and there is meaning on many levels. My main concern here is just the structure of the plotting which seems loose and in the end confusing.

The nine short stories are a varied collection: snapshots and vignettes both of specifically Egyptian life and of the human universals of family life, career and relationships. There are several school-based stories which in each case feature an outsider (a disabled person, a fat-boy and an upper-class foreigner) with a theme of collective cruelty and betrayal.

My favourite two stories were “An Old Blue Dress and a Close-fitting Covering for the Head, Brightly Covered” and “The Kitchen Boy”. In the former, the young man Salah seduces a poor girl, gets her pregnant and funds an abortion – and persuades himself that she is at fault and is probably trying to manipulate him into marriage; in the second half of the story, we jump forward to Saleh’s infatuation with a ‘very religious’ girl with a very different outcome.

“The Kitchen Boy” is especially disturbing, recounting the fate of a very bright boy Hisham who finds his intelligence of no use whatsoever in Medical School. In the end Hisham’s miserable fortunes change as he discovers and accommodates the Chairman of the Department of General Surgery’s peculiar ‘moral’ preferences.

In summary, this fine collection illuminates the many facets of a society with endemic corruption, hypocrisy and the myriad cruelties inflicted by those in positions of power. Unfortunately, there is little hope given here of change any time soon.