Wednesday, 13 August 2008

TITLE: CHICAGO AUTHOR: Alaa Al Aswany DATE PUBLISHED: 2008 DATE READ: August 2008 NOTES: Chicago takes us into the world of the University of Illinois Medical Centre where we meet a range of staff, students and their partners. Many of the students are Egyptians as are two of the professors. The characters quickly come to life: Rafat Thabit claims he has shaken off his Arab past and is now a fully fledged flag-waving US citizen. Muhammad Salah is a generous, kindly man who has never got over leaving his first love behind in Egypt. John Graham is a professor with a left-wing political past who still claims to hold liberal credentials. Shaymaa tries to be a good student and a devout Muslim but wants a loving relationship. Tariq is handsome and hard-working but very egocentric. Ahmed Danana is greedy, corrupt and manipulative. Into this mix comes a new student Nagi who is idealistic and strongly opposes the Egyptian regime. The characters collide and interact and the narrative moves towards a climax of a visit by the Egyptian president. This is supported by some people, opposed by others. But nothing in Chicago is quite what it seems. There are no heroes – all the main characters are flawed. The two “baddies” Danana and security officer Safwat Shakir are unremittingly corrupt, cruel and unpleasant – almost like cartoon characters. Unfortunately, they were both all too believable! And throughout the book is the pervading presence of modern Egypt which none of the characters is able to escape from. Although there is much affection for the country Al Aswany doesn’t flinch from describing the torture, the corruption and the stultifying religious attitudes. A great read. You know you are in the hands of a natural storyteller.

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