Tackling Taboos in Chicago Setting

Susan Muaddi Darraj

Chicago (A Novel)
By Alaa al-Aswany
New York: Harper Collins, 2008

On October 22, 2008, I listened to an interview of Egyptian dentist-turned-journalist-turned-novelist Alaa al-Aswany on NPR's "The Diane Rehm Show." During the interview, Rehm addressed the sexual themes in al-Aswany's latest novel, "Chicago": "In your books… you’ve written explicitly about many taboo subjects including homosexuality and abortion. Why do you believe you have not been silenced as a result of writing about such things?"

Al-Aswany responded that "Arab literature has not been presented to the West properly," and pointed out that for centuries Arab literature has tackled so-called "taboo subjects." Indeed, in "Chicago," al-Aswany handles sexual themes in a straightforward manner, such as in the case of Shaymaa Muhammadi, a female Egyptian studying at the University of Illinois Medical Center, the situation that anchors all the main characters together. Shaymaa is a histology student, deeply devout but sexually repressed.  In her early 30s, she is frustrated that, despite having lived a decent life, she remains unmarried – especially since girls she knows who were morally "loose" are enjoying their lives with loving husbands and children. When she meets Tariq Haseeb, a fellow Egyptian student – also deeply devout, also sexually repressed – they engage in a friendship that quickly turns romantic. They justify their sexual exploits – which fall just short of intercourse – by quoting religious law to one another; indeed, they spend so much time together, trying to enjoy one another while not feeling guilty, that Tariq begins to fall behind in his studies.

Most of the other characters also have sexual problems, such as Muhammad Salah, a professor who left Egypt years ago, married an American woman, and now regrets having abandoned his friends who stayed and fought for rights and democracy in Egypt. His regret is affecting his sexual life with his wife, ultimately leading to their separation. Salah spends nights alone in his basement, wearing the (now tight-fitting) clothes and shoes in which he first arrived from Egypt. Another character, Nagi al-Samaad, arrives in the United States on a student visa; one of his first actions is to order a call-girl from the phonebook. Later, he becomes involved with a young Jewish woman, and he spends much of his free time with her, making love and discussing politics. Yet another sexually troubled character is Marwa, the wife of the Egyptian Student Union president Ahmad Danana, who cannot stand her husband's rough, animalistic way of forcing himself upon her; she begins to endure their lovemaking sessions by imagining him as another man and dreaming of a route to divorce.

Al-Aswany also doesn’t shy away from political themes; indeed, those he juxtaposes – the discrimination in Egypt against Copts, the racism in the U.S. against African Americans – offer revealing parallels. Others are handled more overtly in this novel: a spy network, of which Danana is a part, operates with a stunning amount of power in Chicago, keeping tabs on the activities and relationships of the Egyptian-American population. Meanwhile, Nagi al-Samaad, from his relatively safe perch in the U.S., advocates vigorously for greater freedom and the end of the authoritarian Egyptian government. During a conversation with another Egyptian American, al-Samaad spouts phrases like, "The regime in Egypt is despotic and corrupt and it persecutes all Egyptians, Muslims and Copts... All Egyptians are suffering from discrimination so long as they are not members of the ruling party." Later, al-Samaad finds himself in trouble when he coordinates a demonstration against the visit of the Egyptian president (never named, but a clear – and almost comical – reference to Husni Mubarak) to the campus.

Some of the dialogue becomes didactic at times, for example when Nagi tells his Jewish girlfriend, "Read the history. Jews lived under Arab rule for many centuries without problems or persecution. They even enjoyed the trust of the Arabs, as evidenced by the fact that, for a period of a thousand years, an Arab sultan’s personal physician was most likely to be a Jew." Yet the range of characters, both Egyptian and American, created by al-Aswany is breathtaking in its scope – the drug-addicted daughter of a professor, the despairing wife of another – and aims to portray Chicago as a city teeming with diverse and conflicting ideals and desires. The structure of the novel, offering the perspectives of almost all characters, and the unapologetic exploration of sexual and political themes ensure a satisfying and engaging read.

This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 15, no. 60 (2009).

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