4.3 6
by Alaa Al Aswany

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The author of the highly acclaimed The Yacoubian Building returns with a story of love, sex, friendship, hatred, and ambition set in Chicago, with a cast of American and Arab characters achingly human in their desires and needs.

Egyptian and American lives collide on a college campus in post-9/11 Chicago, and crises of identity abound in this extraordinary

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The author of the highly acclaimed The Yacoubian Building returns with a story of love, sex, friendship, hatred, and ambition set in Chicago, with a cast of American and Arab characters achingly human in their desires and needs.

Egyptian and American lives collide on a college campus in post-9/11 Chicago, and crises of identity abound in this extraordinary and eagerly anticipated new novel from Alaa Al Aswany. Among the players are a sixties-style anti-establishment professor whose relationship with a younger African-American woman becomes a moving target for intolerance; a veiled PhD candidate whose belief in the principles of her traditional upbringing is shaken by her exposure to American society; an émigré whose fervent desire to embrace his American identity is tested when he is faced with the issue of his daughter's "honor"; an Egyptian informant who spouts religious doctrines while hankering after money and power; and a dissident student poet who comes to America to finance his literary aspirations but whose experience in Chicago turns out to be more than he bargained for.

Populated by a cast of intriguing, true-to-life characters, Chicago offers an illuminating portrait of America -- a complex, often contradictory land in which triumph and failure, opportunity and oppression, licentiousness and tender love, small dramas and big dreams, coexist. Beautifully rendered, Chicago is a powerfully engrossing novel of culture and individuality from one of the most original voices in contemporary world literature.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Egyptian author al Aswany (The Yacoubian Building) weaves a vivid tapestry of clashing cultures in post-9/11 Chicago. Dr. Ra'fat Thabit, an Egyptian-American professor at the University of Illinois Medical School, has burrowed deep into American culture, but finds his identity threatened after his rebellious daughter falls under the sway of a shady boyfriend. Ra'fat's colleague, Dr. Muhammad Shamay, retreats from his American wife into extended reveries of his life in Cairo in the 1970s when he was young and in love with a revolutionary. His histology student, Nagi Abd al-Samad, really wants to be a poet. Nagi begins a relationship with an American girl named Wendy (who just so happens to be Jewish). Meanwhile, Shymaa Muhammadi, a medical student who wears a veil, finds her traditional values under siege when Tariq Haseeb, another Egyptian med student, begins seducing her with dogged persistence. The characters are beautifully realized-Ra'fat's family trouble is especially well done-and though their cumulative effect is muted, each of the story lines is individually compelling. (Oct.)

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Library Journal

In this absorbing novel by best-selling Egyptian author Al Aswany (The Yacoubian Building), Egyptian medical students and professors at the University of Illinois Medical School experience various culture clashes and interpersonal problems. Shy and seemingly very religious, Shaymaa finds herself lost in her new life until she begins a relationship with the brilliant but repressed and miserable Tariq. This is the first relationship for each, and the author traces their emotional and sexual trials and failures as the two become closely attached. Another story line concerns a professor whose daughter has taken up with a young American artist and has followed him out of her parents' house and into cocaine addiction and sexual liberation. Egyptian politics and the repressive society under President Mubarak affect the lives of all expatriates, as evidenced by the presence of an older student named Danana, who is actually an agent of the Egyptian security department. Some of the American characters occasionally do and say things that, possibly as a result of the translation, strike discordant notes. Otherwise, the author is a fine, observant storyteller, and there is a warmth and intelligence informing these mostly sad stories. Recommended for larger collections.
—Jim Coan

Kirkus Reviews
In Al Aswany's follow-up to The Yacoubian Building (2005), Egyptian students and professors find scant refuge in post-9/11 Chicago. Originally published in Egypt in 2007, and a bestseller in France, the novel was inspired by the author's student days in the Windy City. His grad-student characters are in the United States to study histology on scholarships sponsored by the Egyptian government. Shaymaa Muhammadi is a modest, veiled, devout Muslim who, at 30-plus, has almost despaired of finding a husband. Top student Tariq Haseeb is given to boorish behavior, especially around women he likes. Ahmad Danana is an arrogant slacker whose scholarship is safe only if he spies on fellow students for the Egyptian secret police. Nagi Abd al-Samad, a dissident poet blackballed from Cairo's university system, seeks a safe harbor in science. Most of their professors are long-term Egyptian exiles. Muhammad Salah married for a green card but has never forgotten his activist Egyptian girlfriend Zeinab; he's still stung by her long-ago accusations of cowardice. Cardiac surgeon Karam Doss, a Coptic Christian, fled Egypt's regime-sanctioned religious intolerance. Ra'fat Thabit is undone when his daughter Sarah becomes a drug addict. American John Graham is a '60s holdover who still cherishes the radical ideals long forsaken by his fellow baby boomers. Rounding out the cast are wives, lovers and an arch-villain, General Safwat Shakir, who rose through the ranks of Egypt's totalitarian state by "improving" torture methods. Now, as an envoy in Washington, he extends his government's oppressive reach to Egyptian expatriates. Sexual obsessions (acted upon in lurid detail) intertwine with polemics: Charactersmouth Al Aswany's many pet peeves, among them America's support of repressive Middle Eastern regimes like Egypt's and the pernicious influence of Saudi Arabia's repressive culture on Islam. The story lines converge when Egypt's dictator visits Chicago, testing the mettle of dissidents and loyalists alike. Racy delivery and breathless cliffhangers scarcely conceal the author's pessimism about democracy's future in Egypt-or, for that matter, in the United States.

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Product Details

American University in Cairo Press, The
Publication date:
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

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A Novel

By Alaa Al Aswany
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
Copyright © 2008

Alaa Al Aswany
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780061452567

Chapter One

Many do not know that chicago is not an English word but rather Algonquian, one of several languages that Native Americans spoke. In that language chicago meant "strong smell." The reason for that designation was that the place occupied by the city today was originally vast fields where the Native Americans grew onions, the strong smell of which gave the place its name.

Native Americans lived for scores of years in Chicago, on the shores of Lake Michigan, growing onions and herding cattle. They lived peacefully until the year 1673, when a traveler and mapmaker by the name of Louis Joliet, accompanied by a French Jesuit monk named Jacques Marquette, "discovered" Chicago. Soon thousands of colonists descended upon it just like ants on a pot of honey. During the hundred ensuing years the white colonists waged horrific genocidal wars, in the course of which they killed anywhere from five to twelve million Native Americans throughout North America. Anyone reading American history must pause at this paradox: the white colonists who killed millions of Indians and stole their land and other possessions were, at the same time, extremely religious Christians. But this paradox is resolved once we learn about the prevalent views in that era. Many white colonists believed that "American Indians," eventhough they were, somehow, God's creatures, were not created in the spirit of Christ but rather in another imperfect and evil spirit. Others confidently asserted that they were like animals, creatures without a soul or conscience, hence they did not have the same value as white men. Thanks to those convenient theories, the colonists were able to kill as many Native Americans as they liked without any shadow of regret or feelings of guilt. No matter how horrific were the massacres they conducted all day long, it did not detract from the purity of their bedtime prayers every evening. The genocidal wars ended with a crushing victory for the founding fathers. Chicago was incorporated as an American city in the year 1837 and in fewer than ten years had swelled to sixteen times its original size. Adding to its importance was its location on Lake Michigan and its vast pastures. Then the railroads made Chicago the indisputable queen of the American West.

The history of cities, like the lives of humans, however, suffers vicissitudes of happiness and pain. Chicago's black day came on Sunday, October 8, 1871. In the west of the city lived Mrs. Catherine O'Leary with her husband, children, one horse, and five cows. That evening Mrs. O'Leary's animals were grazing quietly in the backyard of the house. At around nine o'clock, one of the cows was suddenly bored, so it decided to leave the backyard and go to the back barn, where its curiosity was aroused by a kerosene lamp. It circled around the lamp for a while and stretched its neck to sniff at it, then suddenly it responded to a mysterious desire to give it a strong kick, whereupon the lamp overturned and the kerosene spilled and the floor caught on fire. There was a pile of hay nearby that was ignited, and soon the house burned down, then the neighboring houses also burned down. The wind was strong (as is usual in Chicago), so the fire spread everywhere. Within an hour the whole city was engulfed in flames.

The catastrophe was made even worse by the fact that the firemen were exhausted from staying up the whole previous night putting out another fire that had damaged much of their equipment, which was primitive to begin with. The flames soared in the sky and began to devour the houses of Chicago, which were mostly made of wood. People's loud, anguished cries mixed with the sound of the raging fire as it gutted the city, producing a frightful din, as if it were snarling a curse. The scene was frightening and mythical, like the description of hell in holy scriptures. The fire raged mercilessly for almost two full days until it was finally extinguished at dawn on Tuesday. The damages were tallied: more than three hundred people killed, a hundred thousand (about one-third of the total population) left homeless. As for monetary damages, they exceeded two hundred million dollars in nineteenth-century monetary values. The catastrophe did not stop there: fire and destruction brought forth total anarchy. Roving gangs of miscreants and criminals, thieves, murderers, addicts, and rapists spread like maggots coming from all over to wreak havoc in the unfortunate city. They began to loot contents of burnt-out houses, stores, banks, and liquor stores. They guzzled liquor on the street and killed whoever crossed their paths. They abducted women to gang-rape them publicly. In the midst of the catastrophe the churches in Chicago organized special masses and prayers to lift the pain and suffering, and all the clergy spoke in a sincere penitent tone about the catastrophe as just punishment from the Lord for the spread of heresy and adultery among the citizens of Chicago. The destruction was so rampant that whoever saw Chicago at that time was certain it was irrevocably lost.

But what happened was contrary to expectations. The enormity of the catastrophe was such that it motivated Chicagoans and gave them courage. A merchant by the name of John Wright, who throughout his life understood only the language of numbers and deals, and who was never known for literary inclinations to eloquence, found himself standing in the midst of dozens of shocked and bereaved citizens milling about after having lost all they had to the fire. Suddenly a mysterious, poetic energy burst forth from him and he improvised a speech that was to become memorable in the history of the city. John Wright held out his arms in front of him and his features hardened in what looked like pain (he was a little drunk), then shouted in a loud, cracked voice, "Courage, men! Chicago did not burn; it entered the fire to get rid of its bad elements and will come out stronger and more beautiful than it has been."


Excerpted from Chicago by Alaa Al Aswany Copyright © 2008 by Alaa Al Aswany. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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