A horrendously busy first week back at work after the holidays has meant something of a delay in my getting around to this first posting of 2009, but here it is.

A couple of years ago I picked up a copy of The Yacoubian Building, knowing nothing of Alaa Al Aswany, but wanting to read more non-Western literature. Chicago is a worthy successor to that novel and concerns the trials and tribulations of members of the ex-pat Egyptian community based at the University of Illinois Medical Center. It is, of course, a post 9/11 novel, exploring the frictions where cultures meet (amongst many other things), but it is not a novel that privileges one culture over another, but celebrates the triumphs and absurdities of both. It is a book that is not short on its tragedies, both the personal tragedies of the characters and the national tragedies of Egypt and the U.S.A., but it is also a very funny book in places and I was left feeling that this is essentially a work that is full of optimism.

It may be a coincidence, but is certainly a timely one, that the book was published in English only a couple of months before the extraordinary scenes in Chicago following Obama’s victory in the American elections (it was originally published in Arabic in 2007) and its relevance was not lost on me as I sat reading it a couple of weeks before his inauguration. This is a book that made me feel a bit better about things, all the more so because it is the work of an Arabic writer. In a review in The Times, Alaa Al Aswany was declared ‘a world writer’ (my emphasis). I couldn’t agree more and we are in need of writers like this.


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