Lunch with the FT: Alaa al-Aswany

I have an appointment with Egypt’s most famous dentist. The waiting room is a smart hotel restaurant in central Cairo. Although Dr Alaa al-Aswany’s trade is pulling and polishing teeth, he has achieved international fame as a novelist. His first book, The Yacoubian Building, came out in 2002, was published in English in 2004 and made into a film in 2006.

The novel is a brilliant portrayal of social, political and business life in Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, viewed through the lives of the inhabitants of a single building. In the aftermath of the revolution that overthrew the Mubarak government earlier this year, the book’s focus on the social injustices and corruption of Egyptian society seems sharply prescient.

Aswany’s international literary fame – added to the fact that he is fluent in English, French and Spanish – made him a much sought-after commentator during the Egyptian revolution. It was a role that he was only too happy to play. For as well as being a dentist and a novelist, he is a campaigning journalist and, in the years before the Mubarak family’s downfall, was one of the few Egyptians regularly to excoriate them in print.

We are meeting just a few minutes’ walk from Tahrir Square at the Four Seasons, one of Cairo’s smartest hotels. It is a place so posh that even the X-ray machine that scans all bags coming into the hotel for bombs is covered in faux walnut. The large dining room of Zitouni, a Lebanese restaurant, is all but empty. The Egyptian revolution has been good for freedom but bad for tourism.

Just after 1pm, Aswany strides across the room. He is wearing an open-neck black shirt and a grey, pinstriped jacket. He has a broad, slightly pockmarked face and a heavy, boxer’s build. In fact, to my eyes, he bears a resemblance to Mubarak, a man he detests. As soon as he sits down, he lights up a cigarette – one of many that will be smoked that afternoon. The waiter comes over and we order a couple of locally produced Stella beers, while we consider what to eat.

Garden City, where we are meeting, is in central Cairo. Aswany was born there in 1957 and grew up in the area. Back then, he says, it truly was a green and pleasant suburb, rather than the traffic-choked, over-built district of today. “Until the end of the 1970s, Garden City was very quiet, very beautiful, very organised,” he recalls wistfully, looking out of the hotel window at the slate-grey waters of the Nile. But over the past 30 years, the population of Egypt has doubled. It is now more than 80m, while the population of greater Cairo itself is almost 18m. “Cairo is a country now, not a city,” says the author, shaking his head.

He has celebrated the life of the city in print but is planning to get out. “Cairo really has become, to me, too noisy.” He has three children: a son in his twenties by his first marriage and two teenage girls from his second. He hopes that in the new town he is moving to, 30km from the city, his children will have more space and he will have more time to think and write.

But even though he is moving out of Cairo, Aswany is determined not to lose touch with the city and its people. Though an internationally acclaimed novelist, he still keeps up the dentistry and holds surgeries twice a week. “I need to have human contact with ordinary people,” he says. “This is very important for a novelist.

“I must admit that I’m a different kind of dentist. Usually when you go to the dentist, after a few sentences he will ask you to open your mouth please. But I do care about the people. I listen to them. We become friends and many times they come to the clinic, they don’t feel like doing any dental work, so we could have coffee and chat and I think this is very healthy for me.”

We break off our conversation to decide on the food. I am tempted to order something from the menu but the waiter extols the virtues of the buffet. With the dining room still largely empty, it seems a bit self-indulgent to ignore the tables groaning with ready-cooked dishes. So, after a bit of humming and hawing, we both wander over to the buffet. I load my plate up with local dishes such as hummus, falafel, fattoush (a salad mixing tomato, cucumber and fried pita bread) and baba ghanoush, an aubergine dish. Aswany goes for the lasagne.

My guest turns out to be an easy man to talk to. He has a ready, slightly wheezy laugh and views on everything. He was in Tahrir Square for the full 18 days of demonstrations that eventually brought down Mubarak in February. I ask him if, one day, he will write a novel about the revolution. “Of course, I was absolutely inspired. I learnt many things. I learnt how people could be the same people physically but very different in their attitudes. During the revolution all the social problems of Egyptian society disappeared. We had a terrible problem of sexual harassment. One third of the protesters who slept in the streets for 18 days were females. Not one single sexual harassment. I know a friend who left her bag for 18 hours, nobody took the money ... Being able to revolt means you are going to be a better human being.”

Aswany conducted his own sociological research, asking scores of demonstrators what had motivated them to take to the streets. “In more than 90 per cent of the answers,” he reports, “there was the word ‘dignity’. ‘I feel I have my dignity back. I went to the street for dignity.’ ”

As the weeks and months have worn on since the overthrow of Mubarak, some of the early optimism generated by the Egyptian revolution has worn away as the depth of the country’s economic and social problems have become apparent. Some of Egypt’s liberals, so evident in Tahrir Square, have become alarmed by the strength of the once-banned Muslim Brotherhood, which wants to turn Egypt into an Islamic state.

Aswany has been outspoken in his denunciation of the influence of intolerant Islamism on Egyptian society. Both of his novels, The Yacoubian Building and Chicago (2007), feature outstandingly creepy fundamentalist characters. During the Mubarak years, many of his newspaper columns, recently collected in a book, On the State of Egypt, ended with the sentence, “Democracy is the solution.” It was a deliberate echo and refutation of the Muslim Brotherhood’s slogan, “Islam is the solution.” As he explains, “I don’t think that in politics, any religion could be the solution.”

Yet, while some are panicking about the potential influence of Islamic fundamentalism in a democratic Egypt, Aswany says he is relaxed. He acknowledges that fundamentalism has gained ground in Egypt in recent years but he thinks that it flourished because of the frustrations generated by the dictatorship. In a new, more liberal political climate, he thinks older Egyptian cultural traditions will reassert themselves. “There is something very liberal and very deep in Egyptian culture,” he muses. “That is maybe a difference between Egypt and some other Arab countries. You have kind of an immunity system against fanaticism. This is because Egypt has only been Islamic for 1,400 years but Egyptians have been on this land for 6,000 years.”

In Tahrir Square, he recalls, smiling at the memory, “a western-style Egyptian singer went on stage with his girlfriend. He began to play some songs, asking Mubarak to resign ... Even the Muslim Brothers were dancing.”

Aswany’s novels embrace and celebrate sexuality – including gay sex – in a way that would outrage the average imam. I ask him if he has run into trouble for the frankness with which he writes about sex. “It is now an issue sometimes,” he says, “because the Egyptian people have become more conservative. It is very interesting to me that usually females are much more liberal readers than males.”

Reading his novels – and watching the enthusiasm with which Aswany smokes and drinks – it is easy to conclude that he is a pure hedonist. But he clearly also has a self-disciplined side. He says he gets up at 6am every day to write and he tries not to eat or drink heavily in the evenings, so he is ready to work early the next day.

We return to the buffet to get some pudding. I choose some melon and this time it is Aswany who goes for the local option. He chooses a dish that he describes as “bread with sugar”, which he calls Zarabia. He explains that, according to folklore, it was invented in the Middle Ages by a musician called Zarab, who had been exiled from Baghdad and became a celebrated cook in Andalusia.

When we sit down again, I mention that one of the things I have enjoyed about his books is that they are not self-consciously “literary” novels. They are easy to read. Aswany seizes upon the point, talking with even more urgency and emphasis than when he was discussing the revolution. “It is very easy to write a text that nobody understands,” he snorts. “It doesn’t require any special talent. What is really challenging and needs a lot of work is to write something that is simple but profound.”

I ask whether he starts with the plot or the characters when he writes. “The characters are the most important thing,” he says, without hesitation. When he is working on a novel, he keeps a little notebook in which he writes down details about the characters he is portraying. “I put down details that could be really marginal in daily life but are very important to fiction. If it is a female character, the way she dresses, her hair, if she smokes or not – the kind of cigarettes count, you see.” I notice that Aswany himself is smoking a rather fancy brand, Davidoff Gold, and wonder what that says about him.

At the moment, he is writing a novel set in Egypt in the 1940s, the more tolerant, less crowded Egypt that he seems still to pine for. He was educated at the French lycée in Cairo and recalls fondly that some of his teachers were free-thinking “soixante-huitards”, influenced by the social turmoil in France in 1968 and very probably atheists. But, he says: “Until the late 1970s, for my generation, it was absolutely impolite to ask anybody about his religion. It was absolutely unacceptable.”

And what of today’s Egypt? Is it risky for somebody to say, “I don’t believe in God”? Aswany, who says he is a believer, looks uncomfortable. “It’s not really socially a very pleasant thing to do. This is the influence of the Wahabis,” he says, referring to the fundamentalist Saudi branch of Islam. “Over the past 20 years, they have changed our society.”

For Aswany, the true Egypt is the older, more tolerant society that he says existed before fundamentalism began to gain ground. “For centuries in Egypt, not like some other Arab countries, you go from your house and you have prostitutes, you have bars, you have the mosque, you have the church and you are the one who decides which way to turn. Nobody is going to impose on you.”

As we sip our coffees, I ask him if that Egypt is gone now and, if so, whether it can be recreated. His answer is emphatic. “It does still exist. I saw it in the revolution, in Tahrir Square.”

Gideon Rachman is the FT’s chief international affairs commentator


Four Seasons Hotel, Garden City, Cairo

Lunch buffet x2 E£360.00

Beer x2 E£90.00

Espresso E£25.00

Tea E£20.00

Total (including tax and service)

E£609.00 (£63.00)

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