In post-9/11 Chicago, several Egyptian exchange students study histology at the University of Illinois Medical School. Nagi, who would much rather be a poet, is involved with a Jewish-American girl. Shymaa, a veiled PhD candidate from rural Egypt, has just arrived and finds her traditional upbringing challenged by American society. Tariq, the son of a general, finds himself inexplicably drawn to Shymaa, who he believes socially beneath him. Watching and reporting on their movements is Danana, head of the Egyptian Students' Union but also a spy for his government's secret police. As the students prepare for a visit by the Egyptian President, little do they realize how their lives, and those of their professors, will be affected.
Like the famous Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz, Alaa Al Aswany writes social realism and believes "the role of literature is its human message." He writes about subjects taboo in Arabic literature – homosexuality, female sexuality, and abortion. His book Chicago is fiction, although it draws upon the two years Al Aswany spent there while earning his dentistry degree from the University of Illinois. Al Aswany's impressions of American life are presented to readers through the eyes of Arabic students. Rather than using a mirror to show America and Egypt their ills, Al Aswany allows his story to unfold slowly, presenting his social commentary through the actions and behaviour of his characters rather than by pontificating.
Chicago is undoubtedly a political novel, tackling issues of dictatorship, Islamic extremism, human dignity, and corruption and no where is that more evident than in the officious president of the Egyptian Student Union in America. Danana is a loud, obnoxious bully and, in a book crammed full of characters, has a presence that stands out from the rest. Whether it is his mercurial nature or his delight in exposing students' secrets, Danana fascinates and repels. Chicago is a fascinating novel that falls flat only in Al Aswany's Americans, which are stereotypical and one-dimensional caricatures.
Whether newly arrived like Shymaa or deeply emeshed in America like Dr. Ra'fat Thabit, everyone maintains a conflicted relationship with their homeland making Chicago, in the end, a novel about identity.
Publication Date: October 7, 2008
Translated from Arabic by Farouk Abdel Wahab
tags: books fiction social realism literature in translation Alaa Al Aswany Farouk Abdel Wahab