Author: Alaa Al Aswany
Publisher: Harper Perennial
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Chicago, described by Daily Mail as a “powerful, political page-turner” is Egyptian journalist Alaa Al Aswany’s third novel. Set in post-9/11 Chicago, the novel examines the issues of immigration, cultural hijacking, identity crisis, the American Dream, politics, religion, racism and more. This is done through interlocking stories of Egyptian and American students and professors at the University of Illinois medical centre. The blurb describes the events in book as taking place against a “blistering background of sex, money, politics, and passion,” making it sound dangerously like a salacious, flighty paperback. While Chicago is certainly more than that, it does not quite rise up to the mountain of praise heaped upon it.
The plot centres on the racially diverse population at the Department of Histology and their everyday battles and conflicts. Shyamma Muhammadi, a young Egyptian student dealing with culture shock and the conflict between desire and dogma. Graham is a white American professor facing criticism over his relationship with an African-American woman. Ra’afat, a naturalised American citizen who manically distances himself from his Egyptian roots but still can’t quite assimilate American ideology. Nagi, the young radical who wants to liberate his country. Danana, the conniving head of Egyptian Student’s Union and a chauvinist pig who misinterprets scriptures to achieve self-serving ends. Almost every aspect of the immigrant’s life and dilemma is covered by the author. The sharp critique of the totalitarian, despotic regime in Egypt and his own culture’s various defects is very interesting, particularly in the light of recent political events in Egypt. The portrayal of the notorious State Security Investigations Service is chilling and believable. The gentle exposition of Islam’s true nature as a tolerant and peaceful religion is laudable as well.
The novel, however, suffers a considerable setback due to its stiff and clumsy translation. The dialogue seem awkward and stilted and is so soap opera-ish at some places, that even the campiest of Bollywood movies would blush at it. There is very little subtlety in the text with the author choosing to spoon-feed the moral instead of relying on the reader’s intelligence. The introduction of needless melodrama is quite grating as well.
Chicago is, therefore, best read in small doses at a time, while making generous allowances for the poor translation.