Chicago by Alaa Al-Aswani

On May 5th we discussed Chicago by the Egyptian author Alaa Al-Aswani, which explores the lives of Arab immigrants living in the United States, their struggle for cultural identity and varying perceptions of / integration into life in the US. Much like The Yacobian Building (Emaret Yacoubian), the iconic book for which Al-Aswani first gained international recognition, Chicago is a telling portrayal of the inner lives of an array of diverse, engaging characters, whose entangled lives are connected by a common setting. Just translated into English, Chicago was first released as a series of stories in the weekly Al Destour. The story carries just a trace autobiography (like many of his characters Al-Aswani also studied medicine in the University of Illinois).

The group, as always, expressed a wide range of views on the book of the month, but mainly centered on the following topics which are included below:

An easy read – this book was deemed by the group to be a more commercial, easy and fast read than the Yacoubian Building. The reason was variously assigned to the author having to sensationalize his writing to surpass the level of his last book, the perceived mores of a western audience, and the likelihood that the book would be made into a film.

Social stereotypes – almost written like an Egyptian soap opera the book is full of drama and cliff hangers. Some thought the different narratives too contrived, unrealistic and that there were too many different options crammed in to one book. Some though particular characters were drawn very well, that it was an amazingly accurate portrayal of Egyptian lives. As the American characters were also stereotyped – what was the author trying to tell us?

Gratuitous sex – opinion was split on this. Many thought there was way too much inclusion of sex, that the author could have found different ways to give depth and show alternate facets of his characters personalities. One Arabic reader even switched to reading in French to temper the tone of these scenes. Others expressed their belief that the sex scenes gave a better view of the internal/private lives of these individuals. Could these scenes contribute to the author’s message that Americans and Egyptians are not so different at all?

Tell us what you think – did Tariq and Shaimaa get married in the end? Where do you think the author goes from here?

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