By Sarah P. Blakemore
Novelist and columnist Alaa Al-Aswany launched the English translation of “On the State of Egypt” in an event attended by an eager crowd of journalists and fans at the recently re-opened AUC Bookstore in downtown Cairo on Sunday.
His work was completed last year, long before the events in Tahrir Square took place, but he has written a brief introduction placing his writing under the lens of the recent revolution. It is a collection of the weekly newspaper columns previously published in Arabic.
Al-Aswany quickly began answering a broad spectrum of questions about the role of women and Copts in the revolution, the role of the poor, intellectuals and politicians. What would the future bring? Who would lead the new government? He spoke of the Muslim Brotherhood and other political parties, artistic expression and the futility of a Ministry of Information in the new Egypt. He was careful to separate Western publics from their governments — he felt the Egyptian revolutionaries had the support of the Western people but not their governments.
Thoughtful and prepared, his answers were not lacking in wit. When a woman representing a European publication asked what Western governments could do to help bring about positive change not just for Egypt but for the entire region, Al-Aswany did not hesitate in his response, “Fire all Arab world specialists in the EU.”
The fans were aggressive in their questioning and very often did not have a question at all, but rather wanted to make their voices heard. One woman told a very long and difficult to follow story about the guards at the Egyptian Museum. By the end it was unclear if she was saying that nothing had been stolen from the museum or that the army had looted it. Others complained that Mubarak was still in power, ruling from Sharm El-Sheikh.
When asked how the revolution will impact Egyptian literature, his thoughtfulness became emotionally charged. He reminisced about poignant moments in Tahrir Square, speaking of how inspirational he found the experience. He is confident that the energy and encouragement he found in Tahrir will be reflected in his future work as well as that of other Egyptian artists. Later he came back to that point, saying that the post-revolutionary government will not be able to censor art; writers and other artists will be free to use all forms of expression to communicate their personal beliefs.
And how did he view himself in this revolution, as a leader or a commentator?
“I do not see myself as a leader, I see myself as just an Egyptian who has been participating. I did what I should, because I believe… the core of the art of literature is the artistic defense of human values. I write to present how people suffer and to defend justice and equality and freedom so I cannot stay home while the people are struggling to get freedom… I don’t see what I did as something separated from art, from literature.”
During the hour long question and answer session, Al-Aswany always returned to one fundamental thought: The revolutionaries must not allow the old regime to undermine the accomplishment of forcing Hosni Mubarak out of office. The old regime will constantly attempt to belittle their achievement, seeking to make Egyptians feel powerless by convincing them that they did not affect any real change.
He reminds everyone that the transition to a new government cannot happen overnight and Egyptians must vigilantly guard the joy and success of their revolution during this period of vulnerability.
Al-Aswany is the author of “The Yacoubian Building” (2005) “Chicago” (2007), whose books have been translated into more than 25 languages. He also recently published “Friendly Fire,” a compilation of his columns in Al-Shorouk newspaper between 2008 and 2010.
“On the State of Egypt” is an AUC Press publication and is currently available in bookstores across the city.