Egyptian Students Explore America In 'Chicago' Former Egyptian presidential candidate Alaa Al Aswany is the Arab world's best-selling fiction writer. His latest novel, Chicago, follows several recent Egyptian emigres as they study at the University of Illinois and their professors, who emigrated to the U.S. decades earlier.
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Egyptian Students Explore America In 'Chicago'

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Egyptian Students Explore America In 'Chicago'

Egyptian Students Explore America In 'Chicago'

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Alaa Al Aswany is the Arab world's best-selling fiction author. He's also a journalist and makes his living as a dentist. His day job gives him an intimate look at the lives of Egyptians in Cairo, who often inspire his work.

His new novel, "Chicago," weaves multiple stories of Egyptians and Americans struggling to understand each other and to work together at a big American University. Alaa Al Aswany drew from his experiences as a student at the University of Illinois in the 1980s. He joins us from the BBC studios in Cairo. Welcome, Dr. Alaa.

Dr. ALAA AL ASWANY (Author, "Chicago"): Thank you very much.

HANSEN: How did you end up at the University of Illinois?

Dr. AL ASWANY: I had my first education as a dentist at the Cairo University, and then I applied for what we used to call a peace fellowship, and I was accepted. And then I was advised by some American friends to go to Illinois in Chicago because it's one of the biggest universities, especially in medicine.

HANSEN: And there were other Egyptians there on peace fellowships?

Dr. AL ASWANY: Yes, of course. It was very, very huge fellowship, but it was for training - training for the Egyptian professionals. I learned something very important in my life in America in the school of dentistry in Illinois, what I call the knowhow of success. How do you become a successful person? And I think it was very useful for me, even as a fiction writer, to concentrate exactly about what I'm going to do and to see clearly what are my goals. And I think it was very useful.

HANSEN: Useful in the fact that you could apply what you learned in America to your life in Egypt.

Dr. AL ASWANY: I got back to Egypt. I decided to get back to Egypt because of literature, as a matter of fact. Because I said to myself that if I'm going to be writing about a society, it doesn't make any sense for me to stay away from the people I'm going to write about.

HANSEN: I want to start with one character, and it is the character named - forgive my pronunciation if I'm wrong - Naji?

Dr. AL ASWANY: Naji, yes.

HANSEN: Naji. He's a poet and a revolutionary, and he's the only person in the book who tells the story from a first-person perspective. Does Naji in some ways represent you in your student days?

Dr. AL ASWANY: Well, this is a very common accusation.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. AL ASWANY: But we have many things in common, as a matter of fact. We share the same political opinions, for example, about democracy, about the Egyptian dictatorship, about many things. But I am a novelist, and he's a poet.

And usually, the poets are very special people in the sense that usually, they do not communicate with other people very well, and that was his case. That's why I did choose the first person to write his thoughts because usually, what he thinks is much more interesting than what he says.

HANSEN: Hah. There are so many plot lines in this book. Shayma(ph), a young woman, she is a student who comes to the university, and she's a devout Muslim, and her faith is tested when she falls in love. Another woman, Marwa(ph), who comes from a wealthy family, she's in a very unhappy arranged marriage. You also have some American women characters. Carol, she's African-American. She lives with a radically political professor, one who demonstrated in 1968. What role did you want the women to play in this novel?

Dr. AL ASWANY: Well, I always present my female characters with much - I think that I try to understand them better, and I believe that, even in the West, where the rights of women are very evoluted, still, I think that the women have not had what they do deserve, and in the Arab world, the situation is much more dramatic.

In a dictatorship, everybody suffers, but the woman suffer twice, once like anybody else and one extra time because she's a woman. So I believe all the time that one of the major rules of literature is to present how the people are suffering.

HANSEN: What do you want to convey about Islam and religion in these stories because some characters are quite devout, and there are others that seem to use the religion to justify their own actions?

Dr. AL ASWANY: I asked myself why the religion was the reason of all these troubles in human history, and the answer was, to me, the interpretation. And Islam is no exception. I mean, there is a very tolerant liberal interpretation of the Islam, which was the Egyptian interpretation til the '80s and after this, we had the Wahhabism, the Wahhabism in the desert interpretation of the same religion, which is very dangerous.

HANSEN: And the Wahhabism is a strain of the religion that originated in Saudi Arabia, if I'm not...



Dr. AL ASWANY: Closed and aggressive, aggressive not only against the people who are not Muslims, but even aggressive against the Muslims who are not sharing the same opinions. I believe that, in Egypt, we have two combana(ph). We have two struggles. There is a struggle for democracy, which is very visible, and there is another struggle which is parallel to the first one, in which Egypt is defending its own tolerance, its own tolerant interpretation of the religion against the Wahhabism.

HANSEN: The book is set after the events of September 11th, 2001. Did that in some way inspire the book?

Dr. AL ASWANY: Yes, of course because, I mean, all the problems we have had on both sides, you see, after 9/11 were existing before 9/11, you see. That the disease existed, but at one point, the immunity system is getting weaker, so we have an acute exacerbation of an existing chronic disease.

And I believe this is a problem because we have now a very negative vision of each other on both sides. And I believe that we must get to know each other better, and I believe that literature is a wonderful tool for the human communication and for the human understanding.

HANSEN: Alaa Al Aswany's new novel, "Chicago," is published by Harper Collins. He spoke to us from Cairo. Dr. Alaa, thank you so much.

Dr. AL ASWANY: Thank you very much.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: To read an excerpt from "Chicago," go to This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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