In the days before Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was ousted in February 2011, Alaa al-Aswany, dentist, novelist, and founder member of the democratic movement Kefaya (“Enough”), was one of the most influential voices of the leaderless revolution. His 2002 debut novel, The Yacoubian Building, sold more than a million copies, laying bare the political corruption, degrading poverty, and rising religious fervor that drove thousands to occupy Tahrir Square.
Since then, Egypt has experienced the military overthrow of its first democratically elected leader; the massacre of the deposed president’s Muslim supporters; and the rise of a new regime under Abdel Fatah al‑Sisi, which Aswany claims to have brought “freedom of expression to its lowest point, worse than the days of Mubarak.” Now Aswany’s criticism of the government has become headline news. On 11 December, the authorities revealed that he had been forced to shut down one of his regular public seminars while his political columns and media appearances had been suspended.
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All this means that the English translation of Aswany’s most recent novel, first published in Arabic as The Automobile Club in 2013, could hardly be more urgent, not least because he once again takes the example of Egypt’s fairly recent history to illustrate a country on the brink of violent, irreversible change.
As with his first novel, Aswany presents a top-to-bottom critique of Egyptian society by cutting a cross-section through an iconic building. Like the Yacoubian building (where Aswany established his first dental clinic), the Automobile Club actually exists in the same shabby, downtown neighborhood of Cairo’s former European quarter. Aswany imagines the club in its heyday, between the end of the second world war and the officers’ coup of 1952 when it functioned as a louche haven for moneyed foreigners and a favorite bolthole of the King – who is not named in the book, but is clearly a portrait of the sybaritic Farouk I, a man famed for eating 60 oysters in one sitting and acquiring the 94-carat Star of the East diamond without paying for it.
EAs in The Yacoubian Building, the cast of characters is vast and not always easy to keep track of. Still, the principal narrative follows the affairs of Gaafar’s family, in particular his exemplary son Kamel, who combines door keeping duties at the Automobile Club with studying for a law degree. He forms a taboo relationship with his boss’s daughter, a self-willed English girl who espouses an EM Forsterish desire to experience “real life with real Egyptians.” Then there are the servants, subject to a brutal reign of terror exercised by the King’s sadistic personal valet, Alku, who causes the elderly Abd El-Aziz Gaafar, a former rural landowner fallen on hard times, to die of humiliation literally.
The Yacoubian Building features a plotline where a law-abiding young Muslim becomes radicalized, subject to police brutality. Kamel likewise falls into a resistance group of democratic sympathizers led by a renegade prince who worries that “the king’s love of gambling has turned the Automobile Club into the seat of Egypt’s government.” Kamel is ultimately fated to suffer the worst indignities that the security forces can inflict on him.
Cairo in the 1950s, home to the Gaafar family in Aswany’s story.
Cairo in the 1950s, home to the Gaafar family in Aswany’s story. Photograph: Frederic Lewis/Getty Images So why is it that the novel seems so bereft of the narrative drive and a slightly scurrilous whiff of scandal that made The Yacoubian Building teem with life? One reason is the strange succession of false starts. Aswany indulges in a curious metafictional prelude in which “a well-known Egyptian novelist” receives a visitation from some of his own characters, who urge him to abort the book and start again (which leads you to wonder if they may have had a point). For no very apparent reason, there then follows a series of chapters devoted to Karl Benz’s development of the motor carriage in late 19th-century Germany.
In The Yacoubian Building, Aswany uses Egypt’s recent history to illustrate a country on the brink of violent change. When the narrative finally does get going, Russell Harris’s deathly translation does its best to smother it. The novel is full of characters who either brook no delay or go full-steam ahead, flinging caution to the wind as if there were no tomorrow. Sometimes the cliches are strung together to the almost parodic effect: ‘“She may have led other lovers by the nose, but I’m a different kettle of fish”; “The servants’ joy was boundless at having their former life back … They had put up with the hard times, bent with the wind and, in the end, came out on top.”
I’m not able to judge Arabic, but it is hard to believe that Aswany actually writes like this. There is a telling comparison with Humphrey Davies’s much sprightlier translation of The Yacoubian Building, in which a young wife, having successfully pleasured her much older husband, “rubbed her nose against his and whispered, ‘It’s the old chickens that’ve got the fat!’”. It is a slightly incongruous phrase but conveys the impression of an unfamiliar idiom. Harris inevitably has the dastardly Alku puffing on a cigar “like the cat who had got the cream.”
It is, of course, both deplorable and deeply worrying that Aswany’s journalism and media activity has been proscribed. And buried somewhere within this long, surprisingly standoffish novel is a historical analog to the insurrectionary fervor that erupted in 2011 and maybe fomenting again. Aswany is undoubtedly one of Egypt’s most valuable writers, though the latest product of the Arab world’s best-known literary dentist feels disappointingly toothless.