Coleridge long ago said poets were humankind’s unacknowledged legislators. But if you care to read further you might agree with me that novelists too could enjoy this privileged position. Recently, I cited the Egyptian novelist, Alaa al-Aswany in an article for his insight and deep understanding of Egyptian society as evidenced in his much acclaimed 2005 novel, The Yacoubian Building. In this novel, one of his characters questions the 1952 Free Officers revolution in which Gamal Abdel Nasser emerges as the big pan-Arab hero.
As a fan of Aswany’s writing, I realize in hindsight, that I was wrong in underestimating him as a social critic. It will soon be clear why I say so, after a short detour to Cape Town at the opposite end of the African continent from Aswany’s city Cairo.
In early October, while visiting my birthplace, Cape Town, South Africa I did my customary round with my brother Sulaiman to Bikini Beach Books in the quaint coastal town of Gordons Bay some 40 miles outside Cape Town. There, I frequently browse and pick up books that might not have crossed my radar. Sulaiman strongly recommended that I read Aswany’s later 2007 novel Chicago. Half agnostic, I bought the novel. While other novels languish on my bookshelf, my brother’s recommendation of a page-turner made me read it. On the long plane ride back to the US, I became sold on Chicago as a gripping and compelling read.
While the entire novel plays out in the United States, particularly among Egyptians resident in the city of Chicago it is also all about the politics of Egypt. Four years before the January 2011 uprisings toppled the Mubarak regime, Aswany in Chicago predicted the fall of the despot. This time it is not in subtle hints and innuendo as in The Yacoubian Building, but almost with muscular confidence and technicolor detail as to how authoritarianism in Egypt had run its course. So I was totally blown away by novelists’ ability to not only figuratively “legislate” for humanity, but also predict the course of events. I will not spoil it for readers of Chicago, but the story-line depicts the real-life experiences of people, politics and their human predicaments. I see Aswany also has a new co-authored book out called, “On the State of Egypt:What Made the Revolution Inevitable.” I look forward to reading it and hopefully report back here.