Friendly Fire, the first collection of short stories from Alaa Al Aswany, acclaimed author of Chicago and The Yacoubian Building, deftly explores the lives o. A review, and links to other information about and reviews of Friendly Fire by Alaa Al Aswany. Friendly Fire. Alaa al Aswany, Author, Humphrey Davies, Translator. Harper Perennial $ (p) ISBN

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A practising dentist in Cairo, he had toiled at fiction for a decade but had been rejected on three occasions by the General Egyptian Book Organisation Gebothe powerful state-run publishers, the last time on his 41st birthday.

I’d given it everything. He made one last push. A novel was accepted by a small, independent publishers in Cairo. The first edition of The Yacoubian Building sold out within four weeks, and the novel became the Arab world’s No 1 bestseller for five successive years, selling more thancopies in a region where print-runs seldom exceed 3, It was made into a hit film in Arabic indirected by Marwan Hamed, and an Egyptian television serial last year. The book’s success spread to 21 other languages; last year’s UK edition sold 60, copies.

Inspired by a real art-deco block in downtown Cairo where the author had his first dental clinic, The Yacoubian Building is set at the time of the Gulf war.

What were once luxury apartments in the colonial quarter have seen the flight of the rich since the 70s, and an influx of rooftop squatters from the countryside. The building unites residents from disparate milieux: Al Aswany creates a microcosm of Egyptian society and the fiee that plague it – ruthless profiteering, political corruption and prejudice, police torture, Islamic extremism.

The Egyptian novelist Gamal al-Ghitani praised the book as having “enriched the art of the Egyptian novel”, while, for the Lebanese writer and journalist Elias Khoury, it “reinvented the popular Egyptian novel, which had died”. According to its English translator, Humphrey Davies, who lives in Cairo, the novel “met a critical need for books to address sensitive issues in Egyptian society – political corruption and social oppression – head on.

There was a sigh of relief in the Arab world: Speaking in a hotel beside the Nile, and later in London, he says he is unwilling to give up his clinic, despite being a rarity among Arabic novelists in being able to live from his writing Mahfouz was a government bureaucrat.

But if you block your freindly with the street, you’re in trouble. I must keep loyal to them, or I’ll lose everything. For 15 years, Al Aswany has written newspaper columns critical of President Hosni Mubarak, who has been in power since Barred from the premiere of Hamed’s film of his book at the insistence of the government, whose high-ups fide there, he says: They were obliged to hear my ideas, but they couldn’t tolerate my presence.

His latest novel, Chicagohas sold more thancopies in Arabic, sl an English translation is published on September 1. Set around a Apaa campus in the present, it draws on two years the author spent at the University of Illinois in the mids, on a scholarship to study dentistry.

The focus is on Arab expatriates, including the poet and medical student Nagi, who is involved in a movement for democracy. Through alqa such as Salah, an Egyptian intellectual in love with a Jewish-American woman, and Shaymaa, a veiled woman who questions the sexual constraints of her upbringing, the novel tackles issues such as extra-marital sex, abortion and antisemitism.


It exposes a pervasive system of patronage in which mediocrity rises and rebellion has grave costs. Some readers have been disappointed by a failure of nerve on the part of one of the rebels.

This is happening every day. Giving a picture of people who are not very courageous is a way frlendly push you to do something yourself. An exiled dissident is seized by the FBI on charges fabricated by Egyptian intelligence.

American detainees are exported to be tortured in Arab dictatorships, and they come back with confessions. Why do dirty work in my house if I can do it elsewhere? His demeanour is haughty, “as if he were a crowned king”, and “his hair, dyed jet black, was rumoured to be one of the best hairpieces available in the world”.

Al Aswany concedes that his success may have given him greater freedom as a writer. Chicago was first a hit serial in Al-Dustour. One said he’d never accept that a veiled woman would have a relationship outside marriage. And if you don’t like my novel, why do you read it every week? Al Aswany was born in Cairo inan only child. His mother Zeinab, from Alexandria, was a “real fighter” and worked at the youth ministry. Her uncle was minister of education before the revolution that overthrew the monarchy and brought Gamal Abdel Nasser to power.

Cairo calling

Al Aswany’s father, Abbas, was a “self-made man from the south”, a novelist and lawyer who won the state award for literature inand died when Alaa was He said, ‘you must keep writing.

The day it’s not your first priority, you must quit. I was a child when Egypt was tolerant. This ap the secret of Egyptian civilisation: Ap Aswany considers Nasser a “great leader, who guaranteed free education for social mobility, but made one big mistake: He was the No 1 enemy in the western media in the 50s and 60s, and was afraid of establishing political parties that could be used against him.

But without democratic rule, even if you’re not corrupt, you lose your vision. As a dentist for 6, cement factory workers in southern Cairo, Al Aswany grasped at the “opportunity to keep contact with a world I’d never see elsewhere”.

His first wife, also a dentist, “didn’t understand me, though she’s still my friend. I could have stayed in America or worked in the Gulf and made a fortune, but I refused.

I was learning how to write. When Al Aswany remarried ininto a family of Greek-speaking Egyptians from Alexandria, he told his wife his only dream was to be a novelist. He reads four languages, including French and Spanish, but decided against emulating the nouveau roman, and was pushed towards realism by an encounter with Mahfouz in Alexandria.

I was strongly against this. I keep my own voice. The novel is like a love affair: An early novella, The Papers of Essam Abdel Aatyand two short story collections were “printed not published”. With friends, he paid for and distributed copies himself.

I don’t see any. But rather than be published abroad, in Lebanon, Al Aswany friendlly out, since imported books are easier to ban.

A daring press called Merit – founded in and run by the writer and activist Mohamed Hashem – published The Yacoubian Building, before it was taken up by the largest commercial publishers in Egypt, Dar al-Shorouk.

Alaa Al Aswany – Wikipedia

Merit also published Friendly Firea selection of his earlier work, to be published in the UK next year. Yet even now, Al Aswany says: Fruendly a new introduction frienrly Friendly Fire, he takes his rejection by Gebo as a sign of the control exerted by state publishing. You don’t have the time or concentration to rebel.


He is suing Gebo to force disclosure of how it allocates public funds. If I compromise, I’ll betray my father. There are, he believes, “two related struggles in Egypt: The strength of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has a fifth of seats in the people’s assembly, allows the government to pose as a bulwark against Islamism.

If you’re young and don’t have hope, you’re pushed to be a criminal or a fanatic. I’m proud aswanu we’ve had young fanatics there; some have become my friends. I feel a commitment towards these young people, who don’t really have an education.

To be fanatic is to categorise people, not to see the human being. Literature is the opposite, it’s a very individual vision of life. The man on whom the character was based “was a very good student, but was passed over as a policeman because he was from the wrong alwa, says Al Aswany.

I felt that, faced with a certain injustice, anyone could become dangerous, a terrorist, because he had lost the dream of his life. Yet Al Aswany remains optimistic. We’ve had terrible rulers, and been occupied many times. We’re professors of compromise.

But the moment Egyptians believe compromise is no longer working, they revolt. I believe we’re at such a moment. Meanwhile, a crackdown on the country’s media independence began last autumn. For more than 10 rriendly, you can say what frlendly want, but the regime does what it wants. If you attack a minister, they might even be promoted. Though there has been persecution of homosexuals, “there’s a big difference between the culture and the regime”, he says.

There’s a category of Arabic poetry about homosexual feelings. There are criendly, Egyptians detained without charge – many are in prison for more than 10 years – and torture is a daily practice.

What’s happening to homosexuals is happening to all Egyptians. Apart from lawsuits brought against Al Aswany by former residents of the Yacoubian building who claim he used them in his novel, fame has had other downsides.

Friendly Fire

According to Davies, “The stink of sour grapes is all over the Arab world about Alaa’s success. For Al Aswany, who “waited 20 years to be read”, his sales are a “reward from readers. They mean Egypt is still more tolerant than it appears. In fact, he had never stopped thinking about her for a single day. The old pictures were appearing in his mind with amazing clarity.

The foodgates of memory opened, came over and swept him away, as if the past were a gigantic genie let out of the bottle. There she was, standing before him, with her petite figure, her beautiful face, and her long black hair that she gathered in a ponytail. Her eyes were gleaming with enthusiasm as she talked to him in that dreamy voice of hers as if she were reciting a love poem. Our people have tremendous abilities. If we have democracy, Egypt will become a strong, advanced country in less than 10 years.