Through a smoky haze, I recognized Alaa Aswany across the rooftop at Cairo’s Garden City Club. I had already had my share of whiskey, but to fortify I poured another double. I rarely meet authors I love. Because mostly they’re long dead.
I’ll happily engage with almost anyone in a dive bar, but with literature I am a snob. My shelves creak under the weight of Zweig, Maupassant, Waugh, Maugham, Naipaul … you get the picture. Newer works tend to bore me; I sense that we ran out of literary elements about 50 years ago and are left with awkward, unreadable composites.
When traveling I often consult with one who knows: What’s the one thing I should read?
When I was en route to Haiti, the person replied: “Read The Comedians by Graham Greene. He was not Haitian, but it is the book to read.” I adored this chronicle of Caribbean skullduggery, mentioned it in a story I wrote, and then bought everything Greene had ever penned.
A few years ago I arrived in Cairo for the AP. “Read The Yacoubian Building by Aswany,” I was told. The story gripped me instantly. And while the troubles of 1970s shoe-shiners and shirt-makers are interesting, what I truly loved was a series of skillfully deployed devices.
First, the passage of time. The fear of death is the great agitator of the world. A story that tracks a person as they change, through experience or learning or decrepitude, will stir the soul. Then there are the interwoven narratives. Every person we meet has the potential to alter our future. Multiple narratives can be a cheap device, but in the hands of a master they mesmerize if the connections are not obvious. If a writer can tap the theme of sex without vulgarity that goes far, because this is what keeps the world going round. And of course, random absurdities are a useful device, for there is no real rhyme or reason to our lives.
Aswany had these covered and so I read his second novel Chicago and a book of stories as well; in 2015 his new novel arrived. I posted on Facebook: “I am finding The Automobile Club of Egypt almost impossible to put down, as evidenced by the late hour.”
Four days later I found myself marching across the rooftop of the Garden City Club.
“Dr. Aswany,” I said.
He shot up from his seat. “Yes, hello.”
“This book you have just written gave me immense joy, as all your books have done,” I said, with less than the usual journalistic dispassion. “Please just keep them coming, and know you have a fan.”
I prepared to go, but he affably insisted. “You will join us at the table.” I suppose I should have hesitated even a little to abandon my own crew. But I did not.
The conversation at Aswany’s table moved to English, and the other guests suffered me interviewing the author for a while. Whereas I had entered this scene as a fanboy, I reverted perhaps jarringly to journalist type. I had heard a scurrilous rumor that Aswany, a dentist by trade, was ghostwritten by his wife, a devout Muslim who needed to shun fame. I chose to craftily test this idea.
“Dr. Aswany, if I may: What are literary influences from which you glean inspiration for your work?”
Aswany replied: “Oh, the influences are many, each sublime in its own way. But for me, ultimately, it is the Latin American school that moves the spirit.”
“Is any particular author your favorite?”
“In theory there are many, but in reality, as you must know, it can only be Garcia Marquez. Naturally.”
Like Aswany, a master of interlocking narratives and ravages of time! They share magic realism as well. The connection was clear. And yet I carried on.
“Which of his books?”
Aswany appeared to consider me as one does a tax inspector. “Perhaps you would expect me to nominate One Hundred Years of Solitude, my friend. But I will surprise you. For me, the most evocative of his works is Love in the Time of Cholera.”
This was certainly, finally, good enough for me. The effects of the whiskey dissipated in cross-cultural bonhomie, and I began to feel somewhat ashamed of the interrogation.
Aswany warmly pressed his business card into my hand. I had a friend! Not a real friend, but more genuine than many a Facebook friend. I vowed never to abuse this, but soon enough I did.
Aswany is an Israel skeptic who refused to have his books translated into Hebrew (though this was somehow recently achieved). While I am no admirer of Egyptian quibblers about peace, I also dislike “cancel culture”; within certain limits, art stands proudly on its own.
A while later, needing an idealistic voice for an article I was writing about the wreckage of the Arab Spring, I called him up and he happily obliged. What do you say to those who argue the regional catastrophe shows Arabs are not ready for democracy, I asked, and he supplied the perfect quote: “The idea that some people are not prepared for justice is racist. It reflects a lack of respect for people. I absolutely disagree with it.”
I neglected to add was that I was calling from the Brown Hotel in Tel Aviv. In retrospect, that perhaps was not so sporting. He also had no notion of my ties to Israel, where my family lived the whole time I was based in Cairo. But perhaps he’s made his peace with Zionism by now.
Dr. Aswany, if you are reading this, please accept my apology. If it is any consolation, I have just ordered your brand new book: The Republic of False Truths.
It is set at the time of the 2011 upheaval that sparked too many now-dashed hopes, and I expect it to be the definitive work on that affair. The English edition was published this month and my copy is on its way to Israel. In our ragged little world, few things can give me this much joy.