In 1990 Alaa Al Aswany was refused to publish his first book. The censorship committee had rejected the text, too far from the traditional values of Egyptian society: political corruption, bribery, religious extremists, homosexuality … a little too far for the ears of the censor. He had to wait more than ten years later to see “YacobianPalace” published inEgyptin 2002, when it forcefully broke into the Egyptian market. The success was immediate throughout theMiddle East; he would not get obtained it if he wasn’t able to touch the sensibilities of the Arab population, having the courage to address topics that might have seemed taboo.YacobianPalacehas been translated into French, in English and 14 other languages that have broken definitely all the reserves of the Egyptian government and the censorship.
Al Aswany’s allegations started from very far and hit sensible string the former Mubarak regime. He became an uncomfortable artist, not only for his writings which describes an Egypt of poverty, of oppression and injustice, where the wealthy are alienated from the rest of the people shut in satellite towns, but also because he was able to give voice to those many people from Facebook generation, millions and millions of young who do not identify themselves with that Egypt described by state media.
The success of his books was not enough to bring down Mubarak’s system, openly denouncing and attacking it, so in 2006 became co-founder of the movement Kifaya (Enough) asking for changes, in open opposition with the former regime. Al Aswany is an activist for many years, and he was one of those artists who during the revolution was constantly in Tahrir daily. He face’s features are relaxed now in comparison with the latest days of January. To understand his thought we must go back in time.
“How theUSAexperience influenced your writing? Would you still become a writer?”
“Yes, I’m sure; this was my dream since I was 11 years …
I have been in contact with Western culture since the primary school, butAmericais different. I totally disagree with the American foreign policy, often I consider it criminal, the surprising aspect is that the sameUSAcitizens are unaware of it, which is decided by a narrow lobby that moves the threads of the Secretariat of State. The American culture is centered on the achievement of success: how to overcome difficulties, how to focus and concentrate on them, how to establish personal goals and how learn to be in a continuous competition … work, work and work … you are free inAmerica, but solitude is constantly with you. I learned that even in a rich society people can not be happy, as I described in my novelChicago”
“How was difficult to speak of such matters as political corruption, military control, taboos such as homosexuality and violence in the novelYacobianPalace? Did you have doubts about the reaction of the Egyptians?”
“Writing is a free space where fear is far away. If you calculate the reactions, you’d never know the truth. Writing novels is a unique experience, because creating the characters, at some point, they become independent and get rid of my will, carry on their own way, then, after a while, I start following them through the screen of my imagination”
“Did you expect any form of obstruction by the Egyptian censors?”
“Officially there is no censorship for books inEgypt, but that does not mean that there is not. I have been refused publication of the first book three times: in 1990, 94, 98. After the third attempt, I decided not to publish inEgyptanymore.
The Egyptian publishers were afraid by the idea of publishingYacobianPalace. Thereby, I found a publisher inLebanon, but friends inCairoadvised me not to print abroad because it would have created enemies at home. Then, Mohamed Aresh had the courage to publish it. Fortunately he had a great success”. For statistics,YacobianPalacereached the figure of 16 reprints in the Arab world in just two years.
“Has working like a dentist doctor influenced your writing?”
“Medicine is the field which ever gave a lot of writers to literature; I think there is a secret bond, from different points. They treat the same topic: the human being. The doctor wants to understand the human to treat it; the writer wants to analyze it to explain his character into books”
“Is for your profession as a dentist that you focus the novels on social and political problems?”
“Exactly, I am convinced that participating in the revolution is a moral duty of every committed writer. We can not speak of freedom and democracy in our novels and stay home in the middle of a revolution!”
“Some of your patients have become part of your stories?”
“Certainly, a novel is life on paper, similar to real life, but deeper, more meaningful and more beautiful. The experiences in the life of a writer are reversed in the pages of his writings. He lives the events in his daily life with more intensity, it is important to know people, try to go to all places, understand and listen to people, and to love them. Literature is not a tool to judge man, but to understand him and understand his mistakes”
“InChicagoyou speak about the Egyptians’ stereotype abroad, a subterfuge to look into the Egyptian society, a parody. What does migration mean for Al Aswany?”
“The immigrant must try to integrate as much as possible in the new reality, but maintain his own roots, otherwise it is better to go home. It is the only way for migration to succeed. Europe, unlikeAmerica, does not have the preparation to receive immigrants, imposes its culture, so integration is more complicated”
“Because Europe has a deeper identity thanAmerica’s: historical and socio-cultural …”
“Of course, remarkable values, but does not change the content.Egyptwas not a migratory country, but it’s become so since the past 40 years, before migration involved only the Syrians and the Lebanese. Egypt has for centuries been a country receiving immigrants, in the latest one there were numerous communities such Greek, Italian, Armenian, French, English … The Egyptians have been attached to their land for 6000 years, so it is always a tragedy when a family member has to emigrate”
“Still in Chicago, you talk about masturbation, to watch porno films, erotic dreams … which represent in somehow the young Egyptians’ paranoia, who are curious but castrated by social and religious values which impose chastity until marriage, even though in reality is not properly so. Do you think that this “sexual” control is also a social control of the people?”
“History is full of this sort of examples, religious and moral censorship are expression of the political one: it is not allowed to watch erotic movie scenes for people, as well as it is not allowed for them to vote. If I am a mature person, I should be able to distinguish between good and evil, while the censorship is a real insult to any individual, except that one in protection of minors, because someone establishes for you what is right and wrong!”
“Another Egyptian artist told me that the censorship is activated by the people themselves, because the censorship is into their minds and the censor most of the time sleeps, do you agree?”
“No, it is a complication of the dictatorial system which teaches that there is a difference between image and reality, preferring the former. The most creative Egyptian artists, Youssef Chahine, Naghib Mahfouz and others, were accused by the regime to give a bad image of the country abroad. My reply is that the rulers gave a bad image of the country: they are thieves and criminals who treated the people as an object. With my novels foreign readers might think that, yes,Egypthad a terrible dictatorship, but at least there are good writers! Censorship is an expression of cultural dictatorship!”
“How Chicagois a criticism of the previous Egyptian government to have adopted without hesitation the American capitalist system without worrying about the social infrastructure?”
“This was a major reason of the revolution. Gamel Mubarak was the leader of this unbridled neo-liberalism, for his clique life is just a matter of numbers, because the neo-capitalism can not understand other things rather than numbers without worrying about people. Before the revolution we had two countries with the same name, completely separated”
“Do you mean the rich and the poor?”
“Yes, contrapositions such satellite towns, as October 6, Tugamma El Khamis, Katammeyya, for the rich and slums for the poor. Two worlds that communicate with each other only in one way: the rich make the poor working as domestic servants and serve in their houses.
The division into classes is a terrible plague that we carry with us from the Pharaohs, although we have never had so abysmal difference between rich and poor as it is today! 45% of the Egyptian population lives on two dollars per day, while a small number of Egyptians is among the richest in the world. From writer is very interesting, but it is a plague that must be denounced without hesitation”
“Some of the children of the wealthy class were Tahrir, but they are the same sent to study abroad, as Gamal, then they return home from overseas to employ policies that are good for America but not for Egypt …”
“They do not suit any country. They ruledEgyptas it was a company, they wanted to obtain a net profit, but to govern a country is a completely different concept. There is a moral commitment to the state, we are citizens and not employees, and we have rights: to receive medical treatment, to receive support for unemployment and to purchase an house, to have a pension. Before the revolution they were preparing a law which imposes to the poor to pay the health service, otherwise they will be excluded!”
“Do not you think that a more European system, much more focused on social schemes, may be more suitable forEgypt?”
“Yes, I look with admiration those countries such asSwedenandNorwaywhich have somehow managed to realize the true socialism”
“History is often made up of moments, one of these forEgypthas been the revolution; can you tell us your feelings?”
“On the morning of 25th, I woke up early to write my new novel. I remember thinking that it would be another usual demonstration with 400 people surrounded by 10000 anti-riot police. My intention was to go to Tahrir square after finishing the chapter in which I was working; but when I turned on the TV and saw the time I’ve been waiting for years, I rushed into the street. I’d describe the revolution with two words: people, whom I have spoken and written extensively in my novels but only in Tahrir I understood what they mean; and death.
I will never forget January 28th. I was talking with a guy who encouraged me to write about the revolution, when we finished he left. At the distance of about 5 meters from me, I heard a whistle, the bullet hit his skull, in the space of an instant he was on the ground. At that moment I knew that it would be the end of Mubarak: if you are able to kill your people, you cannot be their leader; Mubarak got the opposite of what any dictator would expect: people had overcome the fear of snipers in Tahrir, and be brave to die for their freedom”
“The revolution will be the beginning of an Arabic’s renaissance? Don’t you think that there are counter-revolutionary forces now inEgypt?”
“We are obviously at the end of an era, made of dictators. The revolution will spread becauseEgypthas always been a leader in the Arab world. The monarchs of thePersian Gulfdo not want that Mubarak is judged by a tribunal; with democracy they are afraid they will also face the same trial. In theArabian Peninsula, the President is seen as the head of the tribe, a medieval vision, we want the President be a citizen like the others, a civil servant for the State and the whole population”
“The Arab revolution shows the lie behind the September 11th?”
“Undoubtedly, the Arab revolutions are a proof of badUSforeign policy, but bin Laden was a murderess, because you do not kill civilians for your cause. You can fight to defend your country from occupation, but fighting is not having the right to kill innocent people. In every religion, killing is always against the will of God, the religion that Bin Laden believed is not the authentic one, and the Egyptians knew it.
There will be less violence and terror after the revolution because there are two sides in man: the human and the diabolic; in the first there is the majority of people who want to live a decent life, in peace, work honestly and raise their children, on the other hand there are the multinational corporations, fanatics and dictators”
“The situation inEgyptcan end up as the Prague Spring in 1968, or the 1989 inEurope?”
“In a revolution there are always counter-revolutionary forces, which are more dangerous than the previous regime. Mubarak had a million and a half men working in intelligence agencies and security apparatus, now they are desperate and have nothing to lose, prepare to burn the country because they are aware that is their last battle”
“The elections in September will mean a big change for the country?”
“I have written many articles on the lack of Egyptians participation in general elections, because they were corrupt, but in the referendum of March, I saw a large and confident presence. The important point is that after 60 years, we have free elections and our vote will count”
“Do you think that the initial insistence of the Shabeb for immediate elections after Mubarak’s resignation was right? To keep the revolutionary moment and block the emergence of reactionary forces?”
“Those are wise words. The Left was afraid that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the only ones organized in the territory, would win the elections with an overwhelming majority. Now we have no authority to defend the revolution, the only way to do so is to go into the streets”
“Was the fear of the West for the Muslim Brotherhood founded?”
“No, it was propaganda orchestrated by the old regime by sending only a message outside: either Mubarak or them”
“Could you envisage a role of the Muslim Brotherhood in futureEgyptsuch as the church lobby inItaly, thereby involving them in democratic government?”
“For me they are politicians. El Azhar and the Coptic Church are not involved in politics. The state should be secular. If the Muslim Brotherhood would be actively involved, they will lose their aggressive component: why you need to be violent if you can participate in the political and democratic activity? The media has created this state of fear against the Muslim Brotherhood. Those who benefit are the same who now are creating unrest in the country”
“Like what happened in thechurchofEmbebaset on fire?”
“There is no doubt about it. Who is maneuvering behind the scenes, are people who worked for the secret services of the old regime, so we’re talking about true professionals”
“Can you rely on the Army when they ruledEgyptfor 60 years, and Mubarak was their expression? Will they support the democratic development of the country?”
“Yes, they will support it.Nasserdid a smart thing: he kept the army completely separate from politics, only when retired, general could be appointed to public office like final career promotion. This formula has made the Egyptian army very different from the South American’s ones”
“Why Mubarak has been allowed to remain in office for so long by the army?”
“The army has no political ambition and is not prepared to rebel to the public authorities. They are military: orders and obedience. This is the first time they are involved in a political situation. We trust the army because there is no evidence that Mubarak asked him to shoot at the demonstrators and they refused. This is the difference between the Egyptian armed forces and the Syrian or Libyan, but it does not mean that it makes mistakes.
We have a unique situation because there is a revolution inEgyptsuspended, usually fails or succeeds. Here we have a middle way: there are the military, which are not revolutionary, but who are the guardians of the democratic path of the revolution”
“This is why the Egyptian case can not be like the Prague Spring?”
“Exactly, the military will never be revolutionary, but it is important to keep the tension high to guarantee the success of the revolution. It was a 100% Egyptian revolution, because most Western governments were with Mubarak, especially those on the right wings. For this reason it may not be the case of 1989 inEurope. In that situation theUShelped the dissidents against the Communist governments; there were no funds inEgyptagainst Mubarak. It was good that Obama did not get involved”
“Kifaya will become a political party and we will see Alaa Al Aswany as a political candidate?”
“No, I have no political ambitions, I’m happy with my life as a dentist, and being a writer is a thousand times better than being president”
“Will you continue to work on the book you were writing?”
“Yes, I was randomly at the point where I had to imagine a revolutionary moment, and I found myself in the middle of one!”, The heavy sound of his laugh echoes in the study. “I spent three months without writing a single line, but I’m returning to my routine, I intend to finish the novel for the end of the year”
“So we can shortly read it?”
“Do you expect any support from theUSorEurope?”
“I do not expect anything from the governments, but I am very happy because the common people of the West have supported us from the first moment”
“What is the role of women inEgyptafter the revolution?”
“The participation of women in the newEgyptshould reflect the same one that was during the revolution, and I can guarantee it was massive. Thousands slept in the streets with their peers, and I can say that no one has ever been violated, because everyone was respected in Tahrir”
“Do not you think that we should deal with the neo-capitalism with a neo-socialism?”
“I think the neo-socialism already exists, with the no-global movements to protect our rights rather than their own. I am convinced that the strength of socialism to create new ideas and concepts is much greater than the capitalism, because the intellectual and moral ability of the capitalism is limited to profit and to money, they are just numbers, while socialism put into the main focus the human being, the rights, the culture and the art. If you look at history, only a few artists you can label as a non-socialist, moreover if you’re a writer you can not be a capitalist”
“You have written extensively on corruption starting from your early writings, denouncing the abuses of the dictatorship. How do you feel now?”
“I feel proud and pleased, of having participated in the revolution and witnessed it. I slept all days in Tahrir; I went home only in the morning to reassure my wife that I was still alive; I gave speeches in the square every night. On February 11th, that night I was going home, but very slowly because I was stopped every five minutes by people, at one point I heard the crowd screaming, for a moment I thought the snipers had started to shoot as the night of January 28th, but the sound of that cry was something different, happy hysteria, so I knew we’d made it. The whole revolution was the most intense moment of my life, like talking to a crowd of two million people, a human tide that shares a single moment.
The old regime was looking for a leader to kill, but there was none, because a leader is one who can go into the streets and tell people to go home, but this was the revolution of the people, of a whole nation”