Where Alaa Al Aswany Is Writing From
One evening last fall I joined a small crowd in a dusty room off busy Qasr-Al-Nil street in Cairo, facing a banner that read, “Welcome to the Cultural Salon of Dr. Alaa Al Aswany.” Many of those seated around me seemed to be simple celebrity spotters, there to see in the flesh the biggest-selling novelist in Arabic, Al Aswany, who is also an increasingly bold critic of President Hosni Mubarak’s regime, which in Egypt has held power uninterruptedly for 27 years. The rest appeared to be aspiring writers or students eager for literary and political instruction. Austerely furnished with a single fluorescent light, half-broken chairs and a solitary table scarred with overlapping teacup rings, the room defused all expectations of literary glamour. Nevertheless, it offered a frisson of political danger. When the salon was held the previous year, Egyptian intelligence agents so intimidated the owner of the cafe where the meeting was taking place that he screamed at Al Aswany and his audience to go away. He later apologized, explaining that he had done it for the sake of the government spies who were watching him.
This year the weekly salon was being held, more provocatively, in the office of Karama, a center-left political party that is still awaiting full official recognition. (Political parties in Egypt have to be licensed by the government; the most influential “illegal” party is the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, whose candidates, standing as independents, won 20 percent of the parliamentary seats in 2005 and now form the biggest opposition bloc to the ruling National Democratic Party.) Al Aswany, a barrel-chested giant with a disarmingly genial manner, usually walks to the salon from his office-cum-residence in nearby Garden City, a British-built, elegant Cairo neighborhood, where he combines his decades-long practice of dentistry with an increasingly successful literary career. On the September evening I attended the salon, he was late. It turned out that he had been inquiring into the fate of his friend Ibrahim Eissa, the editor of the antigovernment newspaper Al Dustour, who had been interrogated for nearly seven hours by security agents early in the week for spreading “false” rumors about Mubarak’s health.
It was warm inside the unventilated room where cigarette smoke hung in straight sharp columns. From where I sat, I could see a photograph of a handsome man in military uniform. It was Gamal Abdel Nasser, president of Egypt from 1954 to 1970. Grime covered the laminated picture as thickly as it did everything else in the party office, which, surrounded by naked-brick buildings, suggested hard days and nights of often fruitless idealism. But there was an especially forlorn quality to the image of Egypt’s greatest postcolonial leader — the secular nationalist (and dictator) who was the icon of Arab and third-world unity before he lost the Six Day War of 1967 to Israel and was repudiated by his own successors.
As though underlining Nasser’s failure to build a modern and secular Egypt, there were budding Islamists in the audience that evening: two thin young men, most likely students, wearing piously long beards. Defiantly asserting their faith in a secular setting, they invited curious, even slightly hostile, glances, especially from a woman with dyed blond hair who wore stilettos and a purple T-shirt over tight white pants. A balding middle-aged man, who while we waited for Al Aswany smilingly passed around copies of a book with a glossy green cover (self-published, it was dedicated to “all the oppressed people in the world”), ignored the young men.
Silence fell as Al Aswany, wearing a bright yellow short-sleeved shirt, entered the room. After some brief remarks about the books to be discussed the following week, he began to speak about the evening’s topic, “art and religion.” Initially slow, he gathered speed until something like passion appeared in his Arabic speech, and he leaned forward on the table and waved his long thick arms.
He described the controversies surrounding Salman Rushdie and the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, explaining why the two realms of art and religion, which in the West were typically seen as separate, often clashed. It was a complicated argument, and I could follow only some of it in the translation provided by my interpreter. But the bearded young men diligently took notes and then were the first to raise their hands after Al Aswany, exhausted from his exertions, collapsed back in his chair and invited questions from the audience. “Why,” one of them asked, “did Salman Rushdie’s novel” — “The Satanic Verses” — “which insulted Islam, receive so much prominence in the West?”
It was at just at that moment that Al Aswany’s cellphone rang. He glanced at the screen and then briskly excused himself from the room. His listeners, rapt so far, relaxed in his absence, pulling out their own phones. Al Aswany returned to his chair, and beads of sweat broke out on his forehead as he tried to explain, again leaning forward and gesticulating with his hands.
“Rushdie,” he began, “is a good writer. I haven’t read ‘The Satanic Verses,’ but whatever was in the novel did not justify Khomeini’s fatwa against him. Islam doesn’t give anyone the right to kill.” He stressed the importance of compassion in Islam by recounting a story of the prophet. One day his grandsons jumped on his back when he was bent in prayer. Such was the prophet’s kindness to people weaker than him that he extended his prayer so as not to disturb the children. Indeed, he would often cut short his sermon if he heard a baby crying, and he forbade the cutting of trees even during war. “How can anyone,” Al Aswany asked, “use the same prophet’s name to kill? You can see clearly there has been a terrible interpretation of Islam.”
The bearded young men wrote faster in their notebooks. Al Aswany was just warming to his theme. The Islam, he continued, of Egypt and other large metropolitan civilizations like Baghdad and Damascus had been marked by tolerance and pluralism. It couldn’t be more different from the Islam of the desert, such as had developed in Saudi Arabia. Desert nomads did not have much time for art; they hadn’t created any. The tragedy for Egypt was that it now had to deal with the philistine and intolerant versions of Islam coming from places like Saudi Arabia. All the battles won in Egypt after the 1919 and 1952 revolutions — especially the battle for women’s rights — had to be refought.
Looking directly at the bearded young men, he said: “The Muslim Brotherhood says, ‘Islam is the solution.’ So when you oppose them, they say, ‘You are opposing Islam.’ It’s very dangerous. Very dangerous.” He repeated in a louder voice: “In politics, you have to have political solutions. What does it mean to say, ‘Islam is the solution’?”
By the end of this speech, Al Aswany was gesticulating furiously. Later, surrounded by reverent fans in the corridor, patiently signing autographs and receiving unsolicited books, he seemed calmer. But some of his exasperated passion of the previous few minutes returned when he looked up and saw me. As the small crowd around him gaped, he said: “Did you see those confused young men? This is the big problem today in Egypt. You have the dictatorship, and then you have the Muslim Brotherhood. People’s thinking is limited by these two options. Young people in my time were not so confused. My generation, we of the left, knew where we stood. These young men don’t know what is what. So I have to explain everything to them.”
The role of the explainer comes easily to Al Aswany, a gregarious, well-read man in his early 50s. For more than 10 years he has hosted his salon, which is democratically open to all. “I have to keep my connection open with normal people,” he says. “One bad thing that happens when you get famous is that you lose contact with ordinary people. It is very unhealthy.” Since 1993 he has written a monthly column on the political and social issues of the day for Al Arabi, a small Nasserite weekly. He is also a member of Kifaya (literally, “Enough”), an umbrella group of political parties, human rights organizations and other N.G.O.’s that frequently stages street protests in Cairo against Mubarak’s regime.
After years of political and intellectual stasis, a new opposition has begun to rise among Cairo’s middle class in response to an increasingly repressive state. Al Aswany is the most famous member of Cairo’s very small but vibrant civil society, which includes moderate Islamists as well as young bloggers and techies who use Facebook, YouTube and text messaging to report human rights violations and organize political campaigns. “A writer,” he told me, “is never neutral, and he is always more than a writer. He is also a citizen with responsibility toward the society he lives in.” Al Aswany says he believes that his own responsibility has never been greater as Egypt’s largely poor 80 million people confront severe unemployment and inflation and as politicians collude with businessmen to sell off public property. “We are in the worst phase of our history,” he told me. “Inequality has never been so extreme, and the Egyptian government has failed in all fields — health, education, democracy, everything.”
Egyptian journalists with milder views than those that Al Aswany often airs in his newspaper columns and interviews have invited the malevolence of Mubarak’s regime. Last September, three editors were convicted of publishing “false” news about the government and sentenced to a year in prison after writing articles critical of Mubarak and his son and putative heir, Gamal. Al Aswany readily acknowledges that he is now protected by the international fame that he acquired after the publication and phenomenal success of his novel “The Yacoubian Building” in 2002.
There are no reliable sales figures in Arab publishing, where print runs are kept secret and writers rarely receive royalties. Humphrey Davies, the translator of Al Aswany’s novel, who lives in Cairo, says that “The Yacoubian Building” sold hundreds of thousands of copies — a breakthrough in a country with 50 percent illiteracy. Published in more than a dozen foreign languages, it was even, according to Al Aswany, printed in a pirated Hebrew edition in Israel, which is officially boycotted by the Arab Writers Union. Adapted in 2006 into a box-office hit starring Arab cinema’s most famous actors, it is still selling and has been joined on the charts by Al Aswany’s second novel, “Chicago,” which is doing well even though it was serialized in Al Dustour.
Al Aswany’s obsessive urge to understand and explain the physical and moral rot of contemporary Egypt is what drives “The Yacoubian Building,” which was translated into English in 2006. Few Arab novelists published abroad can avoid comparisons to Naguib Mahfouz, and “The Yacoubian Building” brings to mind not so much the pre-1952 city of “The Cairo Trilogy” as the Egyptian master’s portrait of Nasser’s Egypt in the novel “Miramar,” which is set in a diversely populated pensione in Alexandria. But Al Aswany has none of Mahfouz’s carefully oblique manner. Written in a blunt expository style, “The Yacoubian Building” depicts a society in which the unequal distribution of wealth and power cruelly distorts all human relations. The novel’s most sympathetic character is a young woman who is forced to endure much sexual indignity at work in order to keep her job and feed her family. The son of the building’s doorkeeper, who is deeply disadvantaged by his lowly birth and lack of connections, turns to radical Islam after being tortured in police custody. Meanwhile, the gay, half-French editor of a Cairo newspaper seduces a married and desperately poor soldier, only to be murdered by him in one of the novel’s more lurid scenes.
Al Aswany expends his greatest scorn on the corruption and hypocrisy of the powerful, like the pious businessman-politician with a sideline in drug trafficking, who recites the Fatiha, the opening verses of the Koran, before striking the most corrupt deals and who kidnaps his second wife and has her drugged in order to abort their child. Presiding over the tableau of oppression and misery is the Big Man, the invisible dictator, and here Al Aswany makes his sole concession to Egypt’s censors — and to symbolism — by representing him as a disembodied voice echoing in a monstrously large palace.
Remarkably, there is no Big Man in the movie version, which is otherwise faithful to the novel. When I saw Al Aswany in London last fall, he told me that he had not been invited to the movie’s premiere in Cairo. Speaking freely one late night, he confirmed Cairo gossip that people involved in the production were close to Gamal Mubarak, who is being groomed to inherit power. He suspected that the authorities backed the film, which is the most expensive Egyptian production ever, because they saw its unflinching depiction of corruption as something that could prepare the public for the emergence of the next Big Man — who will sweep away everything, including the corrupt old guard. “I don’t know if this is true,” Al Aswany added, “but anyway, I kept my distance from the film.”
We were standing outside a posh restaurant in Soho, Al Aswany chain-smoking with one hand and holding a glass of red wine with another. Fluent in English, French and Spanish (which he says he learned in order to properly savor Latin American writers), Al Aswany initially comes across as a charming and witty cosmopolite. But the urbane manner masks passionately held political opinions. At a literary festival in Toulouse, France, last year, he challenged the Israeli writer Amos Oz on a point of Palestinian history. “I was the only Arab writer there,” he recalled. “It was my duty to speak up and correct him. He was sitting next to me. He was very respectful. We shook hands afterwards. But I had to speak the truth.”
Earlier in the evening, I saw him at a bookstore in Central London, coolly questioning the assumptions of the predominantly white British audience. Asked about Islamic notions of jihad and martyrdom, he said, “Personally, I prefer sleeping with a woman in this world than going to heaven.” Courteously but firmly he dismissed a questioner who asked if he had a read a recent book that discussed “the Arab malaise.” “You can’t make generalizations like that about Arabs,” he said. “Egypt, for instance, is a very different place from Saudi Arabia.” And he seemed unwilling to let his novel carry the burden of representation that fiction from non-Western countries is often entrusted with in the West. Pressed to make connections between his novel and contemporary Egypt, he said: “My fiction doesn’t represent all of Egypt. I am not a sociologist.”
Nevertheless, few Egyptians who read “The Yacoubian Building” would fail to recognize their world in it — torture, for instance, which Al Aswany describes in graphic detail, is routinely used by security forces against suspected Islamists, labor activists and even middle-class bloggers and journalists. In the novel, much of Cairo’s 20th-century history is summed up by the vicissitudes of the building itself, the Art Deco original of which stands in Cairo’s faded downtown. A colonial bourgeoisie of pashas, cotton millionaires and foreigners live there while the British dominate Egypt. During the revolution of 1952 their apartments are appropriated by military officers, who are, like Nasser, of lower-middle-class or peasant background. In the 1970s, as Anwar Sadat pursues his so-called Open Door economic policies, they depart to gated communities in the suburbs while impoverished migrants from the countryside move into tiny storerooms on the roof.
The Lebanese novelist and critic Elias Khoury has credited Al Aswany’s importance to the fact “that he reinvented the popular Egyptian novel, which had died. Literature cannot live without different levels of literary work.” The praise seems somewhat pointed. Cairo, I found, has many readers who doubt the literary quality of Al Aswany’s work but who, because they share his politics, would not go on record with their criticism. Al Aswany shows a prickly awareness of these discerning critics. “I am writing for ordinary people,” he told me. “I want everyone to be able to read my books. The problem with Arab literature has been that it forgot to tell stories and lost its way in experimentation. Too many novels that start with lines like ‘I came home to find my wife having sex with a cockroach.’ ” He names Ernest Hemingway as his main inspiration: “The prose is so cold, but there is so much going on beneath the surface. People think it is easy to write simply. It is not. It is much easier to write in a way no one can understand.”
Success may have made Al Aswany only more assured in his populist aesthetic. But much of Al Aswany’s confidence and pungency as a writer and cultural critic seem to derive from his belief in Egyptian exceptionalism — the idea that Egypt, which has such rich cosmopolitan layers of civilization (Pharaonic, Roman, Islamic, Mamluk, Ottoman) and which had begun to modernize as early as the 19th century, has been held back by successive dictatorships from realizing its destiny as one of the world’s great nations.
Sitting in his dentistry clinic one afternoon in Cairo, he said: “This country has so much talent. We deserve to be so much better. And I am optimistic that we will be. But, you know, the biggest problem with dictatorship is that a dictator doesn’t respect his own citizens. If you seize power and you know that the people can’t resist you, there is no way you can respect the people. Our prime minister once said that the Egyptian people are not prepared for democracy, and they need 100 more years. I wrote in my column that we have a P.M. who doesn’t know the history of his own country. We had the first Parliament in the Arab world, maybe in the third world. In the ’20s we had an election in which the P.M. lost his own seat because the elections were so clean.”
Some of Al Aswany’s passion about Egypt’s unfulfilled promise may have been passed down to him by his father, Abbas Al Aswany, a well-known writer in post-1952 Cairo who was part of the cultural ferment that made the city the virtual capital of the Arab world. “My father,” he says, “belonged to the educated generation from the 1940s that had struggled against the British. So there were painters, writers, movie directors in our home, discussing everything about Egypt very passionately, as though they were private problems. And we were all liberals. Whoever wanted to pray, prayed; whoever wanted to drink, drank; whoever wanted to fast, fasted.”
Al Aswany’s vision of a secular and democratic Egypt seems firmly rooted in his memories of a liberal Muslim upbringing. Born in 1957, a year after Israel briefly occupied the Sinai Peninsula during the Suez conflict, Al Aswany was schooled at the Lycée Français, which had, he remembers, Jewish students and supervisors. “You have to remember that our struggle for independence was led by a totally secular party, the Wafd,” he says. “For them there were no Muslims or Jews, only citizens.” But Nasser’s regime expelled many non-Muslim Egyptians, confiscating their property; Egypt barely has a Jewish community today. Al Aswany’s nostalgia for Egypt’s fleeting moment of cultural glory in the ’50s and ’60s makes him overestimate not only the liberal atmosphere of the country under Nasser but also the strength of non-Islamist opposition today. If free and fair elections were held now, he told me, the liberal-left parties would get the same amount of seats as the Muslim Brotherhood. This is optimistic at best.
Al Aswany claims that the “dynamic” postcolonial culture created by the secular left in Egypt survived until the mid-70s, when Anwar Sadat, overturning Nasser’s pro-Soviet socialist policies, began to liberalize the economy and move closer to the United States. “When I went to Cairo University in 1976, the left was very powerful,” he told me. “That’s why Sadat encouraged the Muslim Brotherhood against us. He banned all the political groups, except the M.B. at the university. This is something that people in America don’t understand — the way the dictatorships use the Islamists against liberals and social democrats. Today we have Mr. Mubarak using the fear of the Muslim Brotherhood to fool the Americans and liberals and maintain himself in power.”
In 1981, when Sadat was assassinated by Islamists angered by his peace treaty with Israel, Al Aswany was a resident in the oral surgery department of Cairo University. In Egypt it is a grand job, and when Al Aswany resigned from it, he was considered “crazy” by everyone, he says, including his wife at the time, also a dentistry student. (The marriage broke up in 1987; Al Aswany maintains an old-fashioned reserve about his second marriage to an accountant in 1993.) “I wanted to be a writer, that was my first priority, and I couldn’t do it while I was working,” he told me. “But people couldn’t understand this in Egypt where writing didn’t pay and even Naguib Mahfouz worked as a civil servant all his life.”
In 1984, Al Aswany traveled to the University of Illinois in Chicago on a fellowship. He says that his three years studying for a master’s degree in dentistry in the United States was the most important period in his life. He admits that he had a caricature vision of America, but his travels and discoveries — of, among other things, a gay church and a black-pride organization — convinced him that there was more to the United States than what he calls its “imperialism” in the Arab world.
“Most ordinary Arabs see Americans as invaders and occupiers, who are coming here to steal the oil,” he says. “For liberals like us in Egypt, who hate these pro-American dictatorships and want democracy, America is a bigger problem. It is the place where democracy as well as imperialism comes from. So how do we take what we want from the West? For me, George Bush is not the West; it is Hemingway and Shakespeare. But I was very lucky. I had the opportunity to study in America, to have American friends, girlfriends. You must have an American experience to know how decent and kind-hearted the people are and also how they don’t know much about their government’s foreign policy.”
One of Al Aswany’s most crucial friendships in Chicago was with a professor of dentistry, who had embraced radical politics in the ’60s. “Through him,” he recalls, “I learned how much American politics was moving to the right in the ’80s.” The professor appears, mostly undisguised, in “Chicago,” a campus novel that, though set in the post-9/11 period, seems largely drawn from Al Aswany’s own experience as one of the few politically independent Egyptian students in the city in the mid-80s.
The novel, which was featured on the front page of Le Monde last year before becoming an instant best seller in France, will be published by HarperCollins in the United States this fall. “I am very curious to see how an Arab novelist writing about America is received by Americans,” Al Aswany told me. He may be disappointed. “Chicago” has the same soap-opera-like structure, deliberate cross section of characters and embedded denunciation of dictatorship as “The Yacoubian Building.” Al Aswany drenches some of his Egyptian characters in the visceral hatred he feels for the Egyptian regime and its enforcers, like the intelligence agent at the Egyptian Embassy in Washington who bullies Egyptian students into affirming their loyalty to their supreme leader. His depictions of America promise the bracing perspective of an outsider; he knows well, for instance, the hard-working foreign student’s natural bitterness toward his seemingly privileged American peers. But many of the main American characters in “Chicago” more explicitly advertise their author’s sociopolitical concerns — like Carol, the black single mother who is driven by poverty and racial discrimination into having sex with her employer. Sexual sensationalism also enters the novel in the character of Chris, the wife of a liberal Egyptian professor who finally achieves fulfillment with a vibrator.
Al Aswany is refreshingly indifferent, however, to the prospect of fame or fortune in America. Literary agents in New York City plied him with offers after the international success of “The Yacoubian Building,” but he remains loyal to the American University of Cairo Press, which serves as his representative outside Egypt. When I met him at his home in Garden City, where the doorbell plays “Jingle Bells” and where he works for three hours every morning on a laptop near a large leather dentist’s chair, he appeared to be preoccupied by a deep and abiding anxiety about his country. “I could have gone,” he told me, “to any country in the gulf after an American degree and made a lot of money. But I was very clear in my mind when I returned from America. You have to live within your society in order to write about it.”
Yet there was a time when Al Aswany considered abandoning Egypt. The state publishing house, which alone makes possible proper distribution and extensive reviews of literary fiction in Egypt, rejected all three books of fiction he wrote after his return from Chicago. They had to be printed privately, in such small quantities that they were more or less invisible to the ordinary reader. In 1997, Al Aswany received a fourth rejection letter. Remembering what he calls “the worst day of my life,” he recounted with some lingering bitterness the farce, worthy of a Milan Kundera novel, of state-controlled publishing: “I called the head of the publishing house. I won’t name him; he is a well-known writer in Egypt. He told me: ‘We are not going to publish your book. The committee has refused.’ I asked, ‘Who is the committee?’ He said, ‘It is a secret committee.’ I said, ‘I would like to have the committee’s report.’ He said, ‘No report; it is secret.’ I said: ‘It is a government publishing house. You are paid by the taxpayer. You have the right to say no, but I have the right to know why.’ He was really terrible. He said: ‘We are not going to publish you ever. You do what you want to do.’ ”
Crushed by this rejection, Al Aswany conceived a desperate scheme to emigrate to New Zealand. Why New Zealand? “Because it was the farthest place from Egypt on the map. You see, I was very frustrated and angry. I had given up so many things in order to write, but I was getting nowhere. I told my wife that I am beginning another novel — this was ‘The Yacoubian Building.’ I will finish it, and then we must go away.”
“The Yacoubian Building” was published in 2002 by a private publisher in Cairo. “As usual,” Al Aswany recalled, “I expected nothing to happen. Then, the publisher called me after two weeks. ‘I have never seen this,’ he said. ‘It is a phenomenon: we have sold out.’ Of course, I changed my mind about immigration.” Al Aswany recently ran into the literary commissar who had rejected his book: “I have forgiven him. I was struggling then to publish 2,000 copies. I sold 160,000 in France alone in one year.”
A fly entered the room as we spoke. Al Aswany reached for a plastic fly swatter he keeps beside his laptop and then, leaping out of his chair, pranced about the room for a while until with one decisive whack he got his prey. He returned, grinning, to his chair. He was again beaming when I saw him later that day at the Garden City Club, a private member’s establishment in an Art Deco building near the Nile. He had some good news. His friend Ibrahim, who had printed reports about the president’s health, was no longer under pressure from security agents. (A few months later, in March, Ibrahim was sentenced to six months in prison.)
Drinking Johnnie Walker Red and moving swiftly between Arabic, English and French, Al Aswany became more expansive than usual. He recounted a scene from the Egyptian hit movie “The Embassy Is in the Building,” set in the building that housed the Israeli Embassy. The lead actor is making love to one of his mistresses in the missionary position when terrorists fire a missile at the embassy. “Ah, that was a missile,” he says. His partner retorts, “Don’t exaggerate!”
Repeating the words, Al Aswany began to laugh uproariously. But he soon returned to talking about his friend Ibrahim. “Really, Americans need to keep more of an eye on what their government is doing in their name in places like Egypt,” he said, “where it talks about democracy but supports dictatorships. The West is obsessed with terrorism, but if it supported democracy here, there would be no terrorism. They say, ‘We want democracy in the Middle East,’ and then get scared when Hamas or the Muslim Brotherhood wins. They don’t understand that even if people in a democracy vote for the Muslim Brotherhood, they have the chance to see that these people in power are no good and then can vote them out. But if you have only dictatorship, there will be more terrorism.”
I reminded him that this was the justification the Bush administration used for the invasion of Iraq. “Ah, no,” he retorted, “that was what we call ‘moral cover.’ In 1882 the British never said, ‘We are going to occupy Egypt and take its resources.’ They said, ‘We are here to protect the minorities.’ You must cover your imperialism with something beautiful. No, what we want is to be left alone to build our own democracy. It is American support that maintains people like Mubarak in power.”
Al Aswany was joined by the English translator of “Chicago,” Farouk Mustafa, a professor of Arabic literature at the University of Chicago, and two female friends, one a film producer and the other Egypt’s leading documentary filmmaker. It didn’t take long for Al Aswany and his friends, who live outside Egypt, to start a passionate debate about the state of the nation. They lamented the high number of veiled women on the streets and the political passivity of ordinary Egyptians. They argued about Nasser: was he a self-serving dictator or a dedicated nation builder?
The expatriates could see nothing going right in Egypt. Briefly, Al Aswany shared their gloom. He said: “Sometimes I wonder what I’ll write. I have written everything, and nothing changes. In Egypt we have freedom to talk but no freedom of speech, and you can do nothing by writing.” For a poignant moment in that club, where handsome Nubian waiters moved discreetly through the elegant rooms decorated in a ’50s modernist style, Al Aswany appeared, together with his friends, part of a secular nationalist elite overtaken by history. A few minutes and a couple of whiskeys later, he had regained the pedagogical vitality he had shown in his salon a few days earlier. Workers across Egypt, he said, had recently erupted in strikes and demonstrations. Egyptian history was full of instances of public anger erupting spontaneously to create revolutions. “And things are so bad now,” he said, pausing for dramatic effect, “that they cannot go on like this. They have to change. I think we are in for a big surprise.”