The tragedy of Arab life haunts many hearts but has remained, apparently, insoluble. For those counted wise in the West the state of the Arab world now is like the existence of the Soviet Union in the Eighties — a durable fact that one has to learn to accept. The idea that democracy, or anything like it, can take root in the arid soil of the Middle East is a mirage — and pursuing it will end only in misery, as Iraq’s tragedy is proving.In other news, white man discovers social critique in Arab literature. Wait until he finds out about Sonallah Ibrahim!
But now new voices are challenging that assumption. A work has recently been produced that lays bare the ugliness of contemporary Egyptian society — the staggering level of business corruption, the ruthlessness with which political power is manipulated by the elites to consolidate their own position, the sexual hypocrisy which stifles genuine freedom and deprives women of basic rights, the crushing of individual initiative and ambition by cronyism and the rise in extremism fuelled directly by the regime’s own flagrant defiance of the common good.
The work is not a polemic for a neo-con think-tank but a novel, The Yacoubian Building, by the Egyptian writer Alaa al-Aswany. What makes it remarkable as a work of fiction is the manner in which al-Aswany combines his devastating hatchet job on the current Egyptian regime with a touching and humane narrative that engages the reader as charmingly as Armistead Maupin or Alexander McCall Smith.