Storytelling a 1940’s Egypt; Nady El Sayarat the latest novel by Dr. Alaa El Aswany describes the hardships Egyptians faced due to the coercion of the British occupation that worked hand in hand with the King. Flipping through the pages of this 644-page novel, you feel that the characters are screaming “Bread, Freedom and Human Dignity” as we did in 2011 and we are still doing today.
With all our political events and the day-to-day Egyptian unrest, you get to wonder why Alaa El Aswany wrote a novel with a plot set in the 40’s, “I’m working on various projects at the same time. The idea of Nady El Sayarat came to me 15 years ago and I was writing it on and off until I decided to get it out. My father was the Legal Consultant of the actual Automobile Club in Egypt and that inspired me a lot. I used to go there with him and heard lots of stories of the place and its people”, he tells.
In the first chapters, the novel talks about Carl Benz, the German inventor of the first car in history. We get to know about his success and failure and the obstacles he faced until he made history. He was fought by his people and was accused of being an atheist working with the devil, replacing the horse that God created for man with an engine. “That was the message! Seeing Germany in the 19th Century and its people who had the same fanatic thinking like what we are witnessing today. Fanatics like to think that everything should not change. They are against any new idea because it disturbs the extremist thinking they believe in. A few years ago I did some Fiqh studies and wrote articles stating that Niqab is not a mandatory in Islam. I was met with hate comments online and nasty words I wouldn’t ever imagine hearing. I wrote another article called “Full Niqab and Empty Religion” describing how fanatics respond. These people weren’t swearing because they are bad people, they are frightened people. They are afraid of us because you can change their thoughts”, he comments.
With many people longing for the times of King Farouk, referring to it as the golden age of Egypt’s prosperity and praising the King’s decision to leave to avoid bloodshed, we are told otherwise in his novel, in which he focused on the negative, irresponsible and immature side of the late King. “The serial that was shown on TV a few years ago made people love King Farouk. He was shown in a great picture which had nothing to do with reality. I think that had something to do with the Saudi production behind this series”, he says. “King Farouk was a weak character with an obsession for women and gambling. He left because he was a coward. It’s a total disaster to know the history of your country from a TV serial! History should be learned from various sources not just one source so you can be able to highlight the truth. He had a full interview on gambling and its tactics. He was very proud of this. He was very fragile and he wasn’t well educated. No King spends his nights in Nady El Sayarat and L’Auberge”, he adds.
One of the major characters in Nady El Sayarat is Mr. Right, the British General Manager, who hated Egyptians and thought that they were lazy and need to be beaten to work properly. Unfortunately, in our current time, a lot of people might agree with him, “Mr. Right is a typical racist and I really loved to introduce this character. From my western experience where I’ve been educated and worked in, such as the USA, I created a storage of characters. Sometimes you treat foreigners in a friendly way and the foreigner who is psychologically balanced will love Egyptians and the foreigner who isn’t will think that he’s better than Egyptians. On the contrary, Mitsy, his daughter was totally different than him, so we don’t have to generalize” he comments
“I used to work in two hospitals, one in Maadi, in which patients were treated well and everything was organized and in the public Health Insurance Hospital, where everything was corrupted. I found myself doing the same job in both hospitals, but I didn’t behave the same. Once I shouted at a patient in the Health Insurance Hospital. I apologized to him then I resigned. I was afraid I won’t be the same person again. I blame the system not the people. Egypt is the richest country in the Arab World when it comes to individual talent. We don’t have oil like other countries in the region we only have talents. We have a problem that the system isn’t only refusing to help these talents to emerge, but it moreover kills these very same talents” He says. “A dictatorship helps only those loyal to it. Dr. Ahmed Zoweil might be awarded a Nobel again, but if he had continued working in Alexandria University he would have never reached the step he has now, and that’s because of the system” he adds.
Throughout the past decades, the Egyptian woman, who was liberated in the 20’s is facing the worst kinds of pressure and sexism in our modern times. “History is witness to Sheikh Mohamed Abdo giving a very liberal read to Islam when it comes to women’s issues, which freed the Egyptian woman back then. The Egyptian woman is the pioneer in every field in the Arab world. She was the first student, first doctor and first minister! When oil emerged in the Gulf in the late 70’s and 80’s, Egyptians who immigrated to the Gulf came back with the dehumanization of women that they saw there. A ‘Wahaby’ won’t see you as a journalist who happens to be a female, he’ll think immediately about your body. He’ll see you as a tool that’ll provide him with sexual pleasure and something that produces children”, he explains. “What happened in the Egyptian revolution is that women created a distortion to their familiar image. The people who wanted to be in power started to act violently against women. They wanted to scare them away. The idea of a woman taking the street dodging bullets scared the men’s conservative mindsets. They were scared that their women would want to be liberated at home as well. That’s why they were denouncing why women would take the streets in the first place”, he tells.
With women being perceived as an object, sexual harassment has been on the rise. We see it in the streets, behind closed doors and in public. “The main idea of harassment is dehumanization. If my cigarettes were empty and someone next to my table had a full pack and I knew that if I took just one cigarette no one would find out, I would do it. That’s how harassment occurs to men’s minds. Some people also see that a girl belongs to her father, brother or husband”, he comments. “Everyone who has sexually harassed women in the first day of Eid as we see on the news has probably prayed the Eid prayers right before. You need to know that when you raise your kids to religious beliefs you need to insert good manners as well”, he points out.
In the novel, good has defeated evil in the end, but is it always fiction or does it happen in real life? “Good beating evil isn’t just fiction, nations are never defeated. We’ve changed and we won’t go back to square one again. People won’t say ‘what we know is better than what we don’t know’, people won’t say ‘it’s not our country it’s their country’ like they used to say. There is another thing; you can’t make a deal or a negotiation with the devil because he’ll kill you. You already revolutionized against him. When the character of El Koo asked for a negotiation with the workers of Nady El Sayarat who broke in to kill him, they refused and killed him. A revolution means that what the people want will take all and not 90% of it”, he says.
Alaa El Aswany always wraps up his articles with the phrase “Democracy is the solution” yet some people think that the call for democracy is what made us witness these tough times we are living in “Democracy is still the solution and will always be. Imagine that I’m doing an operation to save your life, and I gave you an injection first, you can’t say that it’s painful. It’s painful now but will heal later. You need to see the full picture; you could die from the tumor but not from the pain of the injection”, he explains.
Alaa El Aswany is quite sure that he knows what women want. “The female formula is very simple but most men don’t know that. Number one is respect her. Be generous and not with money but with feelings and she’ll give you her all. Men never stop measuring and calculating and their own benefit is number one unlike women”, he sums up.