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Alaa Al Aswany: On The State of Egypt
Always well-known for his outspoken political opinions and daring literature, Alaa El Aswany is, paradoxically, more controversial than ever after Egypt’s January 25th revolution.
It is fitting, then, that his first collection of columns in English translation, On the State of Egypt, was published just before the onset of political unrest. The volume was re-launched post-revolution with an introduction written from Tahrir Square.
A collection of columns published by El Aswany in El Shorouk and El Dostour newspapers between 2005 and 2010, On the State of Egypt provides an insightful look at some of Egypt’s political and social problems, some of which remain relevant even after February 11th as Egypt moves into a new era of rapid change.
Although intended for an international audience, the columns in this collection contain insights valuable to everyone’s understanding of Egypt’s political life under Mubarak, and in retrospect, shed a considerable amount of light on the factors that underpinned the January 25th revolution.
In his columns expertly translated by Jonathan Wright, El Aswany covers current events and issues which he sees as crucial for Egypt’s progress. At the end of each article, whether the subject was the poor state of government healthcare, the negative influence of Wahabi Islam or Islamophobia in Europe; El Aswany’s conclusion is the same: 'Democracy is the solution.'
In his discussions of religion in particular, El Aswany comes to logical conclusions providing much needed clarity to common conceptions about the dynamics of faith in Egypt, particularly for international readers. His writing style is heavy on entertaining anecdotes and straight to the point, making each article an easy read and an explosion of insight.
El Aswany’s forceful, clear and highly logical arguments are a political education in and of themselves, and for this reason alone, On the State of Egypt is worth reading. El Aswany manages to put forth his perspective on contentious issues in a way that leaves the reader convinced and enlightened on the topic at hand, however much they thought they knew before.
The publication of El Aswany’s political writings in English translation is a landmark event, and one that clearly reveals how much non-Arabic readers interested in Egyptian politics were missing out on all these years. Readers without a taste for politics could still benefit from Aswany’s insightful commentary on Egypt’s social problems and western perceptions of the Arab world.Even those who have enjoyed Aswany’s writings in Arabic have something to gain from On the State of Egypt – this book is hopefully just the beginning of a new era of unrestricted political writing, which will promote a more nuanced understanding of Egypt’s past, present and ongoing challenges as it faces the difficult transition to democracy.
The structure of the book is difficult to map out. While the story is chronological in the bigger sense, events tend to jump back and forth, where each child slave’s full story is only revealed the further you read. We do not know exactly how either of them came to be until to the end.
Other distractions from the story line are religious references. Using Biblical references, verses from the Quran and the history of Moses and Adam, Thompson uses mythical tales to reflect on the characters at hand and the trials they face. He even has a character and element that bears an uncanny representation of Noah and his arc.
Apart from his use of history and religious fables, Thompson also tells a very aggressive, and often times, dark story. Dodola is married off as a child and upon turning to prostitution is subjected to rape and mistreatment. Zam is a slave who sacrifices his manhood out of a loss of a better life. They are both abused time and time again and having their misfortunes sketched out for the eye to witness adds a shocking element to the novel.
This brings us to what makes the novel so wonderful at the same time; the illustrations. The detailing of the sketches and the exemplary hand-work at play is extremely commendable. Action scenes have your eyes rushing through the pages as frantically as one seen on a TV screen. The beauty in the details is endless; the graphics are looming and grand but also sensual and precise. There is a lot of calligraphy incorporated, which makes for an interesting experience for those who can read Arabic.
Another interesting aspect is his combination of the new and the old. Though the story takes place in today’s world, a lot of the prevalent ideologies are from nomadic times; primitive and beastly.
There is indeed something quite poetic about the story he tells – and the manner in which it is told – regardless of the gruesome, harsh aspects; on the contrary, it is these parts that make the novel that much more meaningful.
Behind every successful man stands a great woman – or so the saying goes. Too bad we rarely get to see or hear anything about those women. Lily Koppel’s The Astronaut Wives Club aims to change that by telling the story of the wives of active NASA between 1959 and 1972.
With all eyes on the man going into space, one can’t help but wonder what it must be like for his significant other waiting for his safe return home. “If not for the wives.” Koppel notes in the first chapter, “man might never have walked on the moon.”
While this statement is true, the writer still paints a pretty sad and one-dimensional portrait of the majority of these women. They come across as airheads; quibbling about smoking in cars, concerned with what colour lipstick to wear when photographed for the cover of Time magazine, and wondering whether or not they will get to meet Jacky Kennedy.
The emphasis is on them being good housewives; setting everything aside in honour of their husband’s career and working jobs to get him through university, whilst foregoing their own education. Whatever emotional insight one hopes to find in the lives of these women is limited to whatever they told the press at the time. Judging from the epilogue, Koppel interviewed many of them personally and must have accumulated a treasure trove of insightful quotes. Curiously, almost none of that material made it into the book.
Without taking a feminist stance, this book is nothing short of ridiculous. It is understood that this is how women were viewed in 50s and 60s America, but that is no reason to keep that stereotype intact fifty years later. If the goal of this book is to make readers feel sorry for these ‘astrowives’, then that mission has been accomplished with honours.
To be fair though, the astronauts themselves aren’t portrayed too favourably either; they are mostly characterised as reprehensible men that cheat on their wives and compete with each other in testosterone-filled petty contests.
Aside from the misogyny, the book has several other issues. Initially, there are seven astrowives, later followed by another nine, and then fourteen more, making it rather difficult to keep up with who is who.
On top of that, Koppel is curiously brief about the most important one of them all – Neil Armstrong – and completely ignores his significant other. The first man on the moon is barely mentioned and his wife is not even named, even though the Apollo 11 mission is discussed in the book. To make it all that much stranger, Janet Armstrong does pop up in a few shots in the picture section of the book.
There is a website to go with the book, www.astronautwivesclub.com, but unsurprisingly, it is also remarkably shallow, providing little-to-no extra information on either the book or its characters.