I first saw Alaa Al Aswany's On the State of Egypt sitting in a bookstore in the U.S. in July 2011. The ‘revolution,' as we were still calling it—‘uprisings' is the more popular term now —was only six months old. The American University in Cairo Press and Random House, I assumed, had cobbled together a quick, dated collection in order to capitalize on hunger for the triumphant narrative of the Arab spring. I have now lived in Egypt for six months, and reading Al Aswany's writings while following the spins and falls of the country's political situation has proved educational in a way far more disturbing than I would have imagined back then.
Al Aswany, a dentist who still practices, became internationally known for his debut novel The Yacoubian Building in 2002. The 2006 film version was one of the highest budgeted and grossing film in Egyptian history. Its account of intersecting characters in Mubarak's Egypt attempted a handful of political critiques, but buried them in a tapestry of more newsworthy cultural taboos like homosexuality, Islamic fundamentalism, and prostitution. One character, for example, is unjustly denied entrance to the police academy, turns to Islamic activism, is tortured by state security, and avenges his humiliation through violent Islamism. The regime's injustice is evident, but softened in its tragic dance with radicalism.
On the State of Egypt is a collection of Al Aswany's columns from 2005 to 2010 in two newspapers, the once-fiercely oppositional al-Dustur (whose editor Ibrahim Eissa Mubarak threw in jail numerous times before having fired) and the less severe al-Shorouk . In these columns, Aswany does not bury his criticisms in the life trajectories of fictional characters, but charges head first into the Mubarak regime's litany of injustices.
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