Egypt: A Devastating Portrait | In 2002, The Yacoubian Building was an international bestseller, establishing Alaa Al Aswany as one of the Arab world’s most influential voices. Since then, Egypt has changed radically. However, Al Aswany’s new novel The Automobile Club of Egypt represents another situation, and he joins Edinburgh International Book Festival to discuss the book, and freedom of speech in a post-2011 Egypt whose government has tried to silence him.
“I believe that everything exists in everything.”
“I don’t think I choose,” says Alaa, on why he settles on eras for his books. “Writing a novel is an organic procedure” that belongs more in life than in theory. Like falling in love, the most important reasons in literature are not definable.
“The real challenge of literature is to keep the human message even if we change the context,” he continues. Despite being set in around 70 years ago, his novel featured many of today’s important questions in Egypt.
But it’s never pushed. He writes in the morning: one day it ended with the woman saying “I’ve been unlucky” – he felt bad the whole day. When he woke up the next morning he was delighted to discover that the couple had gotten married – he does not control them.
“I believe that everything exists in everything,” he explains. It’s just he keeps writing until it’s brought to the fore. His job is not to invent, but to discover the human history of where and what he writes.
When it comes to the shades of characters and empathy he is able to show even those in the darkest paths in his literature, he notes that “literature is deeper than a soap opera.” There, they have two colours: good and bad. “Literature is trying to explain that we’re all human beings. Everyone has good things and bad things in his heart. It just depends on the situation.”
“Freedom of expression is a tool of change.”
Talk turns to Egypt and the political and social turmoil in its borders. Alaa explains there’s a social hypocrisy – everything looks as if it’s true, but it’s fake. There’s always a distance between the image and reality of dictatorship. He explores these themes, and speaks passionately about the youth revolution. Many ban his articles and appearances in Egypt, but when it comes to gatherings, he says that the revolutionary youth always find a place.
“Freedom of expression is a tool of change,” he says, but they’ve never had that. Egypt have had the freedom to say what they want, while leaders do what they want. Now they’re not even allowed to say. It’s increasingly restrictive.
He turns to how freedom of expression will help any government with terrorists over banning it, that religion has absolutely no place in politics and they must be viewed separately, and how he dislikes labels because “the West” differs – government and people are not aligned in many cases, the Eastern and Western people have more understanding of one another than people give credit for – at the end of the day everyone is human.
It can feel at times bleak to talk about, but is there hope left? “Revolution is a human change,” he says. It’s not just a political change, it’s a change in people, and he believes that the revolution must overcome in the end. A revolution only has the courage of people, when the counter-revolution has absolutely everything – the people, the power, the media. Alaa is optimistic, looking at history. “We shall overcome.”