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Religion and Society

Arabs in Chicago: Open-Minded and Troubled

 

 

Author: ‘Alâ’ al-Aswânî,

 

Title: Chicago

 

Publisher: Feltrinelli, Milan 2008

 

 

 

 

The production of Arab essays, above all when it intersects with the plane of questions connected with religion (which means in practice always... given the pervasiveness of the Islamic tradition in every aspect of existence), suffers from strong limitations and heavy forms of self-censorship which local intellectuals also condemn without a mincing of words: ‘everything that the author writes, despite the neutrality that he attempts to maintain, will be perceived as a choice in the religious, ideological, ethnic or political field. However much he attempts to disassociate himself, society will continue to assess him according to his own criteria and will deny him all neutrality. He knows this and he knows that in committing himself to his research he will be condemned to losing his innocence, because he knows that in the end he will be able to be condemned. It is thus totally natural, given that each intellectual is not necessarily a hero, that in such conditions not everything is said and that the analysis of an intellectual of religion, law and politics is diplomatic, made up of silences, prudence and cunning, and is in definitive terms a corrupt analysis’ (Yadh Ben Achour).

 

 

Fortunately, in the specifically literary field there remains, instead, space to address subjects that are of a burning and controversial topicality. Although there do not fail to be difficulties as regards publishing and disseminating works of this kind, the modality of narration often offers happy and unexpected spirals. The writer imagines a fictional world to which he transports us as though it were a personal and unrepeatable adventure.

 

 

The son of an open family who received his education in the multi-confessional Egypt of the epoch of Nasser, after studies abroad and although he continued with his profession as a dentist, the author became the interpreter of his own country and the destinies of his people with an extraordinary immediacy. In this second novel of his he transfers the action to the community of emigrants who left the banks of the Nile to settle in the capital of Illinois (as he himself did during his youth) in order to complete their studies. Many of the themes already present in his first book are proposed again here – poverty, corruption, the disordered sexual behaviour of the protagonists – yet always without a moral assessment or an explicit intention to condemn.

 

 

The goal of the author is to observe and to provide the reader with a mirror in which he can seen a reflection of an image of reality, which is painful and contradictory, as the other great Arab narrators (beginning with the Nobel Prize winner Naghib Mahfuz) did before him. The setting of his novel in America, however, offers him an opportunity to address with even more open-mindedness certain very sensitive questions. The absolute freedom and the extreme competitiveness that characterise American society, whose possible involutions are not underplayed, seem to serve only as a magnifying glass of the forms of human greatness and misery that are described in it. In particular, those of the expats who have to face up to the severe trial of a potentially alienating cultural displacement but one which is also able to place them in front of themselves without half measures.

 

 

Disappointments, ambitions, hypocrisies and prejudices are mixed with nostalgias, affections, ideals and generosity, breaking down each kind of barrier which seeks to separate good from evil in the various kinds of figures in the book and within itself. This does not mean forgoing addressing taboo subjects, such as in the case of a relationship between a young Egyptian and an American girl who in the end discovers that he has a Jewish background, or even in the case (based on an event that really took place) of a Copt heart surgeon who was forced to leave Egypt because his religious confession hindered him from advancing in his career and who then had to operate on his own Muslim superior who had obstructed him in his homeland, and who found himself divided between the instinct to take revenge and the moral imperative not to repay wrong with wrong. An alive society that cannot prosper if it refuses to address its own contradictions, hiding behind a curtain of reticence rooted in an intricate mixture of fears, interests and removals.

 

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