Al-Aswani, 'Ala'

Al-Aswani, 'Ala'
▪ 2006

      The appearance in 2002 of ʿImārat Yaʿqūbiyyān (The Yacoubian Building), the first novel by ʿAlāʾ al-Aswānī (Alaa Al Aswany), was in itself a novel event. The book attracted an unprecedented number of readers in Egypt and throughout the Arab world. The first edition sold out in 40 days, and nine more printings were subsequently ordered. The English version appeared in 2004 and was similarly successful. A paperback edition was scheduled for 2006.

      Aswānī was born on May 27, 1957, in Cairo, the son of a lawyer enamoured of literature who was credited with reviving the maqāmah (assemblies in rhymed prose) genre and who won the 1972 State Award for Literature for his novel Al-Aswār al-ʿāliya (“High Walls”). The younger Aswānī finished the French Lycée in Cairo and graduated with an undergraduate degree (1980) in dentistry from Cairo University. He received an M.S. in dentistry from the University of Illinois at Chicago, finishing in the record time of 11 months.

      Aswānī pursued dentistry and writing with equal fervour. He developed an interest in literature and culture early in life when his father allowed him to attend his literary gatherings. As a student Aswānī wrote short stories, plays, and newspaper articles dealing with politics and literary criticism. His father, however, strongly discouraged him from pursuing a career as a full-time writer. The list of Aswānī's publications included a novel, Awrāq ʿIṣām ʿAbd al-ʿĀtī (1989; “The Papers of ʿIṣām ʿAbd al-ʿĀti”), and two collections of short stories (1990 and 1997). Nīrān ṣadīqah (“Friendly Fires”), also containing some of his stories, was published in 2004. He also wrote a monthly article for the newspaper Al-ʿArabī. Aswānī was a staunch believer in reading national literatures in their original languages, and he studied Spanish to read the Spanish masterpieces. He also knew French and English.

      The Yacoubian Building was a story of social change in Egypt, presenting a pastiche of life—good and bad—in modern Cairo. It exposed corruption, abuse of power, and exploitation of the poor. Yacoubian was the name of an actual building situated in downtown Cairo where the elder Aswānī's law offices were located, though many of the details in the novel did not correspond exactly to the real Yacoubian Building. Aswānī wanted to name his novel Wast al-balad (“Downtown”), but the use of the catchy name Yacoubian was inspired and probably piqued the curiosity of many readers. The novel's success also did not escape the attention of Egyptian movie producers, and a film version was expected at the beginning of 2006.

Aida A. Bamia

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Universalium. 2010.

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