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Location: Dublin, Republic of, Ireland

Monday, 24 November 2008

Chicago by Alaa Al Aswany

November 24, 2008

by Suzan Abrams

The obnoxious prove fitful when sought by the yearnings of their inner selves; full of misgivings, hope and dilemmas and this reconciled to an ambitious future laden by the pandemonium of success.

So command the motley mix of Egyptian and American characters housed in their academic setting, where embattled university professors, secret government agents and ambitious students wearing stubborn agendas like torn badges emblazoned bravely on their shirts; strive in clumsy ways to achieve a flawless political correctness in dentist-turned-novelist Alaa Al Aswany's chunky hardback, Chicago.

All meet with strange episodes and failed notions at the end of the page, not necessarily pleasing ones but funnelled into surreal movements almost as if each character has been caught halfway and summoned to a standstill pose while doing the unthinkable.

For a couple of the book's resigned heroes, tragedy awaits. The reader is left while fingering the last page, to decide and conclude on the plot's own fate and destiny. Otherwise, a host of greedy, purposeful and even temptestuous characters set the stage for this bountiful chunk of fascinating storytelling.

There is the highly-eminent Professor Salah who regrets his move to America and his marriage to an American lady, Chris. This leads him to impotence where he will struggle to fullfill his bliss in a spiritual way. Salah also plans a daring reconciliation with his first Egyptian love, Zeinab, once a fiery and political activist. In younger years, she had felt compelled to label him a coward and reminded of this scene years later, he decides to prove otherwise. There is also the brainy medical student, Shyamaa regarded as a spinster back in Egypt. Her desire for a starry-eyed romance is met with the passionate interests of the volatile Nagi, whose hot temper is so reputed that his doting mother fails to find him a bride back home in Cairo.

Among the other cast which peppers up Aswany's raconteur skills with a series of colourful misdemeanors include Ra'fat who must deal with a supposedly ungrateful daughter, Sarah. Sarah has turned to a drug addict for a live-in boyfriend and Ra'bat angrily blames his misfortune on what he supposes to be America's notorious liberalization . Ra'fat on the other hand, forgets his own songs of America as the land of liberty for every oppressed dream and of how he would have denied his Egyptian roots as a young man if he could. Or the brilliant poet Tariq who is later mistaken for a terrorist simply for his daredevil ideas on demanding Egypt's democracy with a planned vendetta that's destined for a comical backfire, when the Egyptian President visits Chicago.

Aswany blends his characters together like an absorbing jigsaw puzzle. He appears to move tiny crowds in and out of chapters with the same affectionate pleasure that a cheery puppet-master would manouvere his beloved dolls on a string. His genius lies in shaping a number of sub-plots with meticulous ease and in the author's abiding love for these fictitious personalities.

However, he does at times try too hard by having a tendency to preach instead of demonstrating an intent. When the American Professor Graham relaxes with Tariq, over a glass of wine, the reader is treated to a sermon of America's moral and ethical values, rather than a heartfelt conversation. Also, Aswany aspires for too many ideals. He baptizes his characters with different faiths drawing on the peculiar historical and complicated difficulties that bind varied cultures. The drawback lies in Aswany attempting to solve an assortment of social challenges at one go. An Arab with a Jew and a white man with a black woman makes it easy to lay out a tray of prejudices with the usual offering of predictable expectations.

But as in the case of too many cooks spoiling the soup, so too will Aswany's attempt at a big-book story, appear the aspiring ambition that didn't quite succeed especially with its obvious clash of social and political lamentations or much-needed answers. Certain characters and situations may at times appear contrived and wooden thanks to this unfortunate catastrophe.

Still, on hindsight, Chicago commands a straightforward readablity and one deemed as truly entertaining.

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