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Novelist Alaa Al Aswany on Surprising Changes in the Egyptian People

October 12, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Egyptian novelist and dentist Alaa al Aswany speaks with Margret Warner about the surprising changes in political behavior of his countrymen amid the revolution earlier this year, and how the new Egypt is taking shape.

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, an Egyptian novelist’s perspective on his country’s revolution.

Margaret Warner talked with Alaa Al Aswany on her recent reporting trip to Cairo, before this weekend’s sectarian clashes.

MARGARET WARNER: In a quiet corner of Cairo, Dr. Alaa Al Aswany still maintains a part-time dental practice, scaled way back as the demands of his other pursuit, writing, have increased.

In 2002, he published his first novel, “The Yacoubian Building,” charting the lives of people in one Cairo apartment house during Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship. Aswany quickly became the Arab world’s bestselling writer and a social conscience in his homeland. Foreign translations, a movie and other books followed.

Aswany spent much of the Egyptian uprising in Tahrir Square, making common cause with his countrymen.

We spoke recently in his office just south of the iconic square.

Alaa Al Aswany, thanks for joining us.

ALAA AL ASWANY, “The Yacoubian Building”: Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: I want to start by asking about your novel, “The Yacoubian Building,” and its connection to today. It’s set in this once-gorgeous building, now dilapidated, all these characters sort of scheming, gaming the system to get by.

How much are the conditions in that novel and the way people related to one another, do you think, portray some of the conditions that led to the uprising?

ALAA AL ASWANY: Absolutely.

I think we usually write fiction when the difference between what happens and what should happen is very big. And that’s why I was motivated and inspired to write, because I felt that many people, millions of Egyptians, are suffering. And they just try to be treated in a fair way, and that was never the case. And then, at some point, they must do something.

So, I was — I felt that there will be a revolution.

MARGARET WARNER: Because there was such desperation in their lives, wasn’t there?

ALAA AL ASWANY: Yes, because I’m a novelist. I’m not a politician and I’m not a political analyst.

So, as a novelist, I try to feel the people much more than trying to make a kind of theoretical analysis. So I felt all the time that these were never lost, that the people are very close to what we call a revolutionary moment, a moment when the country is absolutely ready for the change, and it just waits for the spark.

MARGARET WARNER: Yet a character in the novel — he’s sort of a political fixer — he says: “Egyptians are the easiest people in the world to rule. The moment you take power, they submit to you, they grovel to you, and you can do what you want with them.”

Now, did you feel you were describing an ingredient in Egyptian character? And, if so, why did they finally rise up?

ALAA AL ASWANY: The novelist is, in a way, an actor. So…


ALAA AL ASWANY: Yes, because I don’t say my real opinion in the novel.

So, this is the logic of somebody who is a corrupt politician related to Mubarak regime. They must justify the dictatorship, the oppression and the crimes they’re committing against the Egyptian people. So I try all the time to use their own logic, not mine.

This is absolutely — what he said, this guy, is absolutely nonsense, and the evidence is this revolution, you see, so this is not true. But they were trying all the time to convince themselves and other people there this is the case.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the novel is setting actually in the very early ’90s. I think there’s reference to the Gulf War, the first Gulf War.


MARGARET WARNER: Mubarak had only been in power eight or nine years. So the conditions you’re describing predate even Mubarak, don’t they?

ALAA AL ASWANY: Yes, but I think, in the 1990s, it was the moment of truth for the Egyptian people. For the first time, they saw what kind of — clearly what kind of regime is empowering Egypt.

MARGARET WARNER: You’re talking about the repression, the torture?

ALAA AL ASWANY: Yes, oppression, torture, corruption, political corruption, everything.

So, from 1990 to 2011, there was always a kind of accumulation of the problems, but there were no new problems. So when I described the society in 1990, it is the same — they had — the society had the same elements which led to the revolution.

MARGARET WARNER: You were in Tahrir Square during the uprising. What do you think the Egyptian people learned about themselves during those days, and is it lasting?

ALAA AL ASWANY: Yes, of course.

I was really inspired. I — sometimes, during the revolution, I had my doubts that that was real, or I am living a dream? Are people — the Egyptians with whom I lived this revolution are very different from the Egyptians I used to live with before. They have this — they have only the same faces.

MARGARET WARNER: What you saw were the Egyptian people — a different Egyptian people than you see now?

ALAA AL ASWANY: Absolutely. Absolutely.

They were not frustrated. That was before the resignation of Mubarak. So we’re not even sure that we could make it, you see? But everybody said that, I got back my dignity or I feel I have my dignity back.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think, though, that all those years of living in this system, in which, really, corruption of every kind, not just bribery and nepotism, but even in relationships between people, did something to warp the Egyptian soul or character?

ALAA AL ASWANY: You see, we have a — I am a dentist. I am a writer and dentist.

It’s very essential for you as a doctor to know what is a disease. And if you try to cure the complications without knowing the disease, you could do — you could kill the patient. The disease in Egypt is a dictatorship. And all the negative aspects in Egypt were symptoms and complications of the disease.

MARGARET WARNER: And, finally, as a writer, as a novelist, what role do you see for yourself going forward in this transformation or the creation of the new Egypt?

ALAA AL ASWANY: I don’t think that literature is a tool to change the situation.

Literature is art to change the people, not the situation, to change us. We learn through literature to be less judgmental and more understanding towards us. Accordingly, through literature, we definitely become much better human beings, who are able after that to change the situation.

MARGARET WARNER: Alaa Al Aswany, thank you so much.

ALAA AL ASWANY: Thank you.