Politics & Identity Portrait of a Childhood In Conversation with Alaa Al-Aswany Ginan Rauf July 6, 2020 Share Al-Aswany as a young man. Image courtesy of the al-Aswany family. Ginan Rauf Introduction Alaa al-Aswany is a prominent Egyptian writer with a broad array of interests and accomplishments. He is a dentist by profession, a bestselling novelist, and a political dissident who played a vital role in the Egyptian revolution of 2011. Al-Aswany’s novels have been translated into more than 30 languages and his columns have appeared in international publications including the New York Times, the Guardian, the Financial Times, Le Monde and Deutsche Welle’s Arabic news site. A writer with a passion for reading world literature in the original language, he’s fluent in French, English, Arabic and Spanish. He currently lives in Brooklyn, New York where he remains a vocal critic of Sisi’s authoritarian regime, and a staunch defender of freedom of speech. The Yacoubian Building, a best-selling novel published in 2002, established al-Aswany’s reputation as one of Egypt’s most celebrated and popular novelist. It resonated with the public for interesting reasons, perhaps providing a focused physical setting for Egyptians to look back self-critically and ask themselves who are we, what have we become. The novel sold out in four days and was subsequently made into a hugely popular film starring one of Egypt’s most famous comedians and actors Adel Imam. The Yacoubian Building has been translated into more than 35 languages, including English. Al-Aswany’s most recent novel The Republic or “As if” in Arabic revolves around the events of the Egyptian Revolution in 2011. We eagerly await the English translation. There are compelling reasons to engage with al-Aswany’s life story, political writings and literary works. This piece is an attempt to widen and deepen the receptive space for his work in an American context. Poster for the film version of The Yaghoubian Building. Alaa al-Aswany is a lively man with a penchant for playful conversation. His demeanor is friendly and it invites sociability in others. Stories pour out of him in a seemingly effortless manner. A man is sometimes a book containing a vast repertoire of stories from the past. I sat down with him one spring afternoon in his Brooklyn apartment. Warm sunlight filled the living room. We sipped coffee and chatted. It was easy to be drawn into the world he conjured one small detail at a time. I wanted to bring his childhood into the room. Al-Aswany often spoke of his father with warm affection and enduring reverence. The repetition indicated that something interesting was going on. I wanted to pursue it with an attentive ear. I didn’t want a sensational story that might cause a stir or prove titillating to a western audience. Instead, I wanted to get a glimpse of the child rearing practices that prompt a highly successful man to speak so fondly of his father for making him the man he had become. There was no anxiety of influence, no lingering trace of trauma or resentment. This is a happy story, I thought to myself. What does that even look like? How do things work when they work so well? My objective was to understand that world on its own terms by exploring a textured subjective experience. Those are the questions that propelled me to focus on Alaa’s relationship with his father. What interested me was the becoming, the gradual flowering of a writer and revolutionary voice. Al-Aswany’s deep voice fills the room. It transports me to a different time and place. He puts me at ease with a combination of old world charm and Egyptian hospitality. The coffee keeps coming. I feel like I am in the presence of a worldly man. He’s been places, done things and lived with flair. Alaa speaks of Egypt during the 1960s, a turbulent era in the country’s modern history. Abbas al-Aswany’s commitment to change brought out a troubling contrast for me as a listener. My own father fled the country because he loathed Gamal Abdel Nasser, one of the Free Officers who led the overthrow of the monarchy in 1952. My father was a socially “liberal” man who had no tolerance for revolutionary politics of any kind. He was an immigrant more interested in getting ahead in the world than changing it for others. Thus, he ended up exiling his own children from the country for decades. I only made the return journey to Egypt in the 1980s following President Sadat’s infitah, an economic policy that opened the country to domestic and foreign investments. It signaled a significant departure from Nasser’s socialist program. Al-Aswany was therefore filling me in on an era that I had largely missed. A part of me immediately recognized the liberal man Alaa described in his account. It was a relatively tolerant world that reflected my own. “My father was a very liberal man. He wasn’t religious. He never fasted. But my mother—she was a religious woman. She fasted during Ramadan but she never blamed him for not fasting. He didn’t eat lunch during the day out of respect for my mother. He’d wait for us to break the fast and then we’d eat together. That’s tenderness. Two people who are very different loved each other and allowed each other to be different. Tolerance wasn’t an abstraction. I lived tolerance at home. I was never forced to fast. My mother never blamed me. It was my choice. Sometimes I did and sometimes I didn’t. That’s how I learned tolerance growing up.” This anecdote embodies the Qur’anic principle that there is no coercion in religion just as it demonstrates the diversity of religious views or practices within families. The practice of home based tolerance, of course, allowed him as a child to act as a free agent in matters of religion. He learns about personal freedom by watching others enact their freedom and by being free himself. Alaa sat back in his chair and proclaimed, “My father was a school.” He repeated the Arabic word madrasa for emphasis. I felt his father’s formidable presence in the room. For a moment I saw the young boy beaming with pride. Madrasa: The word has acquired negative connotations in the West. It is often associated with strict Islamic schools that enforce orthodoxy and indoctrinate children through the rote memorization of sacred texts. Al-Aswany’s use of the word madrasa helps us see beyond the accumulated dust, giving it a surprising twist. It becomes possible to see and recognize a different kind of moral education that occurred beyond the power of religious authorities and within the confines of a private home. I was trying to piece together this pedagogical approach, when Alaa’s voice interrupted my private thoughts. “I was an only child. I was very lucky. My family took great care of me. They gave me the best education. I attended the Lycée Français du Caire. I come from a francophone family. Everybody in my family spoke French. J’étais un petit prince,” he let me know with a gentle smile. A French education was a marker of class privilege. It set him apart as a member of the Egyptian elite. The family spoke Arabic at home, except when his father needed to reprimand him. Then he slipped into French. “My father didn’t want to embarrass me in front of the servants. That’s how my father was. He was very protective of my dignity as a child. He was a very sensitive man.” Al-Aswany told me other stories that highlighted his father’s sensitivity. “My mother wanted the house to be impeccable. She had a passion for cleanliness. We always had servants in the house. One of them happened to be a young girl. She was around my age. That suited me just fine since I was an only child. We became friends. There was a natural camaraderie between us. My mother always bought her expensive clothes, high quality clothes that were practically indistinguishable from what we wore. My mother did this because she was a practicing Muslim and my father approved because he was a committed socialist. Nobody could tell that she worked for us.” I found it fascinating that Alaa’s parents could navigate their differences by arriving at a common commitment to justice, even though I am cognizant of the fact that the young woman’s perspective is missing from the narrative. “I remember we were once invited to a friend’s house for sham al-nasim (a national Egyptian holiday marking the beginning of Spring). It was a day-long affair. I think the spring celebration was being held at a famous friend’s house. He was a close friend of my father’s. Somebody had mistaken the little servant girl for my sister. My mother was about to reveal her true identity. Father quickly intervened. He threw mother a knowing glance, urging her to spare the young child any unnecessary pain or indignity. That day the guests lavished the young girl with delicious chocolates and affectionate kisses. It was like a fleeting dream, a rare moment snatched from her daily chores. Father didn’t want to spoil it for her. Once we got home the little girl glanced at my father with pleading eyes. She wanted to keep the chocolates that had made sham al-nasim a feast. Mother wanted to know why he had played along. “Why not let the poor child indulge her fantasies for one day,” he replied with a broad smile. “She got some chocolate. We lost nothing. What’s the harm in that?” There can be no doubt that this story is problematic since it clearly involves child labor, a practice that was common in Egypt at the time. I remember we had a young girl working in our home named Sabah. My parents brought her to Libya where father worked as a university professor. Mother dressed Sabah in nice clothes, sparing her from the indignity of being identified as a servant girl. One of my father’s students mistook her for his daughter. He asked for Sabah’s hand in marriage, demonstrating that individual acts of kindness hardly lead to full equality. The limitations are made readily apparently and the class structure remains intact. Still, the commitment to preserving a worker’s inherent dignity imparts an important ethical lesson from the perspective of a child. On some level it helps cultivate a particular sensibility, one that privileges mercy (rahma) over false pride and recognizes the inherent worth of all human beings. The young girl’s dream may be “fleeting” but it alerts the boy to the indisputable fact that she has dreams, fantasies, and an interior life that is being acknowledged by a figure of authority. Her feelings matter, a space is made to accommodate her pleasure. It’s a physical space at the celebration and a budding space in the boy’s heart, the seat of understanding and emotional intelligence. The boy sees how power and privilege can be enacted to protect an underprivileged child from the gratuitous cruelty of a classist society. This enactment is not a lesson apart. Rather, it’s imbricated in daily life. We become what we habitually enact. The boy’s education extended beyond the narrow boundaries of his home in Garden City, an affluent residential district in Cairo. In fact, Alaa’s father socialized with the literati and glitterati. The boy moved with ease amongst “Egypt’s giants,” as he put it. “Our house was a meeting place for poets, writers and artists. To me they were simply father’s friends. Salah Jaheen was uncle Salah Jaheen.” It would be difficult to exaggerate Salah Jaheen’s popularity and celebrity status in Nasser’s Egypt. Jaheen was an extremely talented cartoonist, playwright and poet who wrote patriotic songs that marked Nasser’s revolutionary era. One might want to think of him as the bard of the 1952 revolution. He worked as a cartoonist in the weekly state-owned magazine Rose al-Youssef and subsequently became the editor-in-chief of a prominent leftist publication called Sabah al-khair. Alaa remembers uncle Jaheen as a playful character who gave each person his due. “He never embarrassed anyone.” I thought of the word madrasa and quickly realized that the boy had had many teachers in his expansive world. One particular incident made a vivid impression on al-Aswany as a child. “I went to Salah’s office at Sabah al-khair with my father. An aspiring young poet, this obscure man that nobody knew literally came off the street and asked to meet with Salah Jaheen. He wanted to get the poet’s opinion of his work. There were other people present. The room grew silent and the poet began to recite. Everybody’s face fell. I was too young to fully appreciate the poetry but I was like a radar observing all the facial expressions in the room. I took in all the adult reactions. When the poet finally stopped reciting, Salah Jaheen politely advised him to read the poetry of the tenth century poet al-Mutanabbi. “Read him, memorize his poetry until you get a better feel for the Arabic language. Then come back to me. I’ll gladly lend you the books of other Arab poets but only on one condition. You have to bring them back to me,” he added playfully. Salah Jaheen got up and walked the young man to an elevator at the end of a long corridor. This just wasn’t done at the time. As soon as he came back into the room, he was greeted by a loud chorus of disapproval. Why would you waste your time on somebody who has absolutely no talent? The guy’s hopeless. Why insist on offering him a drink? To them the failed poet was nothing, a non-entity with no future. Only my father held his tongue. I noticed that. Uncle Salah finally spoke. “He’s a human being first and foremost. He has dignity. We have to preserve it,” he continued. Alaa looked at me and said, “You see what a wonderful man Salah Jaheen was? Nobody humiliated the man or crushed his spirit for being an awful poet. Nobody humiliated him for daring to show up. Nobody mocked him for putting himself in the company of the company of successful men. On that day I learned how important it is for an artist to be a human being first. See what a sensitive man Salah Jaheen was? A true artist.” “Madrasa,” I repeated and we both laughed. I thought about the myriad ways in which petty men consumed with personal ambition can sometimes rob others of the opportunity to grow, the courage to experiment or even falter. “Try again. Fail again. Fail better,’’ as Samuel Beckett put it. I heard the men’s merciless laughter echoing down through the ages. It spoke to me of moral cowardice, a tendency to punch down rather than up. What is privilege for? To prop up the bigness of big men and cultivate a culture of disdain that consolidates authoritarian rule by reproducing docile men who are eager to please and bask in the glory of bigness? Salah Jaheen’s gentle approach provides the boy with an alternative. It serves as a counterpoint to the indignities that are woven into the fabric of daily life. He learns experientially that it’s possible to diverge from the crowd. Two adults with whom he has bonds of warm affection dissent from the crowd. They both enact a form of moral courage that’s activated in the intersubjective space between different social actors. Virtues such as courage are internalized through human interactions. Life itself becomes a school. The boy observes that privilege can be used in different ways to produce different effects in the world. Most crucially, in this incident the semi-official bard of the revolution used his power to maintain a human connection with an ordinary Egyptian citizen who had just come off the street. Still, for a pampered boy who was an only child the temptations were many. Conflicts were bound to arise. Al-Aswany recalled a “famous’’ story that had become a part of family lore. This particular story reveals another dimension of his father’s approach to parenting, particularly the internal struggle against the pride associated with belonging to a privileged class. In Egypt it’s common for members of the upper class to have a doorman or bawwab who carries bags of food or vegetables for the residents. It’s a visible marker of social status. Alaa’s face lit up. “It’s an unforgettable story,” he said excitedly. “My father had a Buick in those days. It was a big American car. We had a driver but sometimes my father would drive the car himself. One day I was sitting next to him in the passenger seat. He stopped to buy two lettuce heads from a street vendor. I was watching all this from the car window. I felt pretty grand sitting in that big car. My father was a shrewd man. He picked up on my attitude and acted decisively. We drove to Garden city. My father parked the car right in front of our building. Everybody could see us. He started giving me instructions: Father: Yallah, I want you to take the lettuce up to the apartment. Me: Why don’t we call the bawwab? That’s Amm Abdou’s job. Father: I said you’re the one who’s going to carry the lettuce up to the apartment. Me: But Amm Abdou’s here and we don’t even have a bag to put in. Father: I think you misunderstood me. I’m not going in with you. You’re the one who’s going to carry the lettuce by yourself. Me: But Amm Abdou’s here and I don’t have a bag … Father: Yallah. Don’t waste my time. What’s the problem here? Is the lettuce too heavy for you to carry? Is it shameful to the lettuce? “I dreaded walking down that long corridor with the lettuce in my hands. I knew that my father was being serious from the tone of his voice. He was starting to lose his patience with me. So I decided to make the best of a bad situation and tried to hide the lettuce. Father immediately noticed. “Hands to the side,” he shouted from the car. He wanted me to overcome my feelings of shame. “Now Bub, was that so hard?” he asked me once we got into the house. My father was never angry with me for very long. He quickly grew soft and became pleasant again. That’s when I’d make my move and try to get something out of him. You know how children are. They can be so manipulative. I wasn’t afraid of my father. I was just afraid of upsetting him. We were very close. I didn’t want to disappoint him. My children are the same way. That’s how I raised them. He had a great influence on me.” Alaa enjoyed telling me this story. I could see it in his bright smile. It left him feeling satisfied. He asked for a small break and stepped into the bathroom to smoke a cigarette, giving me time to reflect on the significance of this “famous’’ story. I want to dig deeper and get inside his father’s head. What was he grooming his son for? Abbas al-Aswany was a complex man living in the midst of contradictory currents that flowed through their multilingual privileged lives. After all, the man was a committed socialist and an Egyptian who liked to live like an aristocrat, with style and flair. He had a taste for fine living, even if we didn’t always have the money for it. “I don’t want anybody to dazzle my son,” he once told his wife. “It’ll make him stronger,” he explained. “Give him the self-confidence he needs to make his way in the world.” My mind drifted back to Bub’s “famous’’ story. I realized it was part of a delicate balancing act. I began to feel the flow, the currents of in a father’s discerning intelligence. He was leading the boy through various paths, teaching him to master the contradictory demands that invariably confront him. Sometimes the boy needed to feel proud and stand tall. Alaa once told me, “I had lunch with the Prince of Monaco. What does he have that I haven’t seen? I am not intimidated by money or fame.”’ At other times the boy had to learn how to go small to become a greater human being. Carrying those two heads of lettuce down the long corridor in full view of the neighbors entailed a loss of sorts for the boy. He had to forgo the pleasure of being le petit prince and lording it over others. The boy was cruising around the city but he wasn’t exactly of the city. His father knocked him off the grand automobile as it were. One might think of it as a descent: the boy surrenders his vertical position in a hierarchical structure to establish a horizontal human connection with his countrymen. This is no small matter for an Egyptian patriot like Abbas al-Aswany who didn’t want his son to become a foreigner in his own country, a man estranged from the collective fate of his people. Perhaps this parallel track served to mitigate the potentially alienating aspects of a French education. This is also no small matter for a socialist who wanted his son to learn from direct experience that there is no shame in identifying with Amm Abdou, a member of the Egyptian working class. Let’s think further about how shame operates to limits the boy’s expansive spirit, trapping him in banal conventions and internalized inhibitions. Shame is a crippling emotion. It dampens the spirit and demands conformity to prevailing social norms. It fetters the ability to break out daringly and act independently. Shame focuses obsessively and sometimes with crippling self-consciousness on the public personae, the self as spectacle. It’s less about growth than self-aggrandizement. The father is essentially trying to free the boy from the petty tyrants without and guarding against the potential tyrant within. The walk in the bawwab’s shoes is about educating the whole person. It’s an attempt to sharpen the boy’s critical consciousness and to carve out a more capacious space in his heart for Amm Abdou’s dignity. Still, one can only imagine the daily indignities suffered by someone like Amm Abdou. He is, after all, a grown man catering to the whims of haughty boys, an adult serving little masters in the making. That’s the stuff from which class structures are reproduced from one generation to the next. I don’t know much about Amm Abdou’s perspective. His voice is wholly missing from the test and this text acknowledges its own gaps. The stories continue to unfold. It’s no coincidence that this is one of the slogans of the Egyptian Revolution in 2011: Bread, Freedom, Social Justice and Human Dignity! Overcoming the shackles of shame situated the boy squarely in a family history that stretched back to his paternal grandmother. Resistance was a family tradition: When her son Abbas al-Aswany was sent to prison by the British colonizers, for instance, she became friendly with the guards, as Alaa informed me, “She became friendly with the Egyptian guards, providing them with home cooked meals so her son could eat well. Shame didn’t break her. Prison didn’t intimidate her. It brought out the clever in her. My grandmother was a resourceful woman. ‘My son’s not a petty thief or a criminal. Why should I be embarrassed,’ she asked defiantly. ‘He’s fighting for a cause.'” The grandmother loomed large. She seemed familiar from women I had read about in novels and encountered in my own life. There she was. I saw a dedicated mother and skilled cook who knew how to use food to get things done in the world. I imagined a wily woman who knew how to soften the hearts of hungry men with a delicious meal. She’d do everything in her power for Abbas and the cause, a real patriot in her own right. A woman doing her part with imaginative hospitality. I would imagine that such worldly wisdom and practical intelligence warrants the title madrasa. With time the ancestors grow in stature and become mythic figures, reminding us where we came from. The memories give us the strength and confidence plough ahead during the darkest hours. Still, I felt a gap in the text. There was so much I didn’t know about the grandmother as a person. The pedestal worried me. I wanted to know the woman in the flesh and blood. Questions brewed in my mind. Did she grow sick with worry at night? Collapse from the sheer effort of maintaining her poise during the day? How did she feel about the British soldiers? Did she resent cooking for them? Did she have to swallow her pride? What toll did all this take on her health? If she were here in the room with us, what untold worlds of pain would she reveal? The mundane details escaped me. How many hours a day did she spend cooking? How did Alaa’s grandmother experience history before the 1952 revolution? Where, I wondered, are the stories about the women who hold the world together while the men go to jail or into exile? Yes, it’s clear that this lineage situates Alaa al-Aswany in a long-standing tradition of resistance that helped shaped his identity as a writer and political dissident. This legacy informed Abbas al-Aswany’s relationship to his own son. “My father was focused on me. He didn’t want me to be haif or superficial.” The term haif can be used to describe someone who is frivolous and doesn’t have a serious purpose in life. The word had a very specific meaning for Abbas al-Aswany. It didn’t necessarily refer to someone who lacked personal ambition or was uninterested in getting ahead in life. The boy excelled academically. That wasn’t the issue. Instead, haif meant someone who was cut off from his surroundings or had little knowledge of Egypt. A man could achieve worldly success and still be haif and live like a khawaga or foreigner in his own country. He often told his son, “Egypt isn’t just Garden City. It isn’t the Gezira Club.” In other words, the freedom to roam is linked to a seriousness of purpose and worldly knowledge, specifically the world that he inhabits. It extends beyond the walls of the lycée. Alienation from the local environment, then, is not a matter of “progress” or upward mobility. It’s miseducation disguised as cultural sophistication. “My father had quite a few friends on the left. Many of them lived in the more popular neighborhoods. He’d often take me along when he visited them. Of course my father’s friends had kids. We’d go outside and play soccer in the street with the kids in the neighborhood. I felt very comfortable in their world. I had no trouble connecting to them.” The boy was being groomed to take on commitments larger than himself, to assume a leadership role in modern Egyptian history. The commitment to civic engagement marks him as not haif in his father’s eyes. It’s furthering the family’s legacy. The continuities are remarkable. The boy dreamt of being a writer just like his father Abbas al-Aswany who became a recipient of a literary award from the state in 1972. This shared interest in literature deepened the relationship between father and son. It provided more opportunities for the father to act to mentor the budding writer as the following anecdote illustrates. “I was around ten years old. I wrote a small piece about my paternal uncles and I didn’t change their names. It was something like a character sketch but it wasn’t very flattering. When I showed the piece to my father, he was furious but he immediately seized the moment and turned into a life lesson. His voice grew softer and he started talking. ‘First, when you write about real life characters make sure you change their names. You should never use their real names. That’s a given. Secondly, you should always express your own point of view. I want to know what you think.’ My father realized I was adopting my mother’s perspective. He wanted me to find my own voice. That’s what he was trying to teach me.” Literature became an integral part of the boy’s life. He became an avid reader. His father gave him a lot of advice on what to read but when it came time to go to college Alaa al-Aswany joined the school of dentistry. Men of his class who did well academically were expected to become doctors, lawyers or engineers. The family figured it’d be a shame to throw away the opportunity to become a dentist. He’d gotten high marks in high school. Class played a definitive role in his decision. His mother came from an aristocratic family and she wanted her son to join the professional class comme il faut. The young man was conflicted. “Literature was my passion. I decided that dental school just wasn’t for me. I didn’t enjoy dissecting cockroaches during final exams. At the end of my freshmen year I walked into my father’s office and announced that I was quitting. During that time my father was practicing law. He worked from home. His professional life as a lawyer didn’t interfere with his work as a writer. He managed to do both. On that particular day he was working on an important case for a court appearance the following morning. ‘Baba, I want to transfer to the Faculty of Humanities,’ I continued with growing confidence. He looked up from his papers and said, ‘I’ll call the dean immediately and let him know. He’s a friend of mine. You can see him first thing Monday morning. Now run along. I’m working on an important case,’ he added impatiently.” His father’s reaction was remarkably calm. There was no melodrama, no objection to the crazy decision taken in the heat of the moment. Nobody complained about the young man’s recklessness. “I was caught off guard. It threw me off. I was expecting a lot of resistance so the whole encounter felt anti-climactic. ‘So you don’t agree with my decision,’ I asked my father nervously. I hesitated. He looked up from his papers once more and took off his glasses. Then he started talking. ‘Son, did you come here to inform me of your decision or to ask for my advice? I was under the impression that you had already made up your mind,’ he added more gently. I noticed that his voice had started to soften. I didn’t take me long to ask my father for his opinion. We started talking. It proved to be a productive give and talk. ‘Think of ten literary writers whose work you know and admire. Go do some research. Then tell me how many of them actually studied literature,’ he said.” It proved to be a useful exercise. The young man was well-read and had no trouble coming up with a list of ten writers whose work he admired. There was Naguib Mahfouz, an Egyptian novelist who continued working as a civil servant. He was a close friend of father’s. The list he eventually came up with didn’t include a single writer who had studied literature formally in college. The list became something of a revelation for the young man. He felt as if he had discovered something for himself and it led to more discussions with his father. ‘Bub if you study literature formally, it won’t turn you into a writer. It will just make you a professor of literature. Remember having an independent income will give you greater freedom. You will be able to express your views without being afraid of losing your livelihood. That will make you a better writer.’ Al-Aswany as a young professional. Image courtesy of the al-Aswany family. There wasn’t much in the way of career counseling at the time. His father assumed the role of a mentor, contributing in significant ways to the young man’s intellectual development. Abbas al-Aswany, like Virginia Woolf in her groundbreaking book, A Room of One’s Own, understood the deep connection between material conditions and intellectual freedom. Economic independence from an authoritarian government is of the essence. One might think of it as tenure for an intellectual dissident absent formal institutional support. Alaa himself spoke of his autonomy with evident pride, “I never received an award from the state or a penny from the Ministry of Culture.” His father’s advice served him well, spared him the indignity of having his dissident voice coopted by the state. “My father was fortunate. He was never sent to prison after the Egyptian Revolution in 1952. I think it’s because he never belonged to a political party or organizations. Others weren’t so lucky. A close friend of my father’s, Fathi al-Ramly was arrested after the revolution. By that time the military intelligence had taken over and conditions deteriorated considerably. The man was a respectable lawyer. They started slapping him, stripped him of his clothes, took him into the cell and hung him upside down.” The advice revealed natural confidence in the son; his father assumed that he could succeed in two demeaning professions. The continuity is sticking. Abbas al-Aswany embodied the same commitment in his own life, maintaining a critical distance from power. He was a long-time opponent of the British in Egypt and remained critical of Nasser’s regime throughout his life. The assault on human dignity, the brutality was hard to ignore and impossible to forgive. Nasser’s regime cracked down hard on dissenting voices. Socialists were divided about Nasser’s regime during that time as Alaa described it to me. One group believed that the military regime was patriotic and did good work for the county. The other group felt that it was a fascist military regime. “My father belonged to the second group. He often said, ‘I cannot trust this regime.’ He never listened to Gamal Abdel Nasser’s speeches.” Perhaps the cult of the leader made him nervous. There was a lot to be wary of, including the long-term normalization of authoritarian tendencies. There was, however, one occasion on which Abbas al-Aswany got behind Egypt’s charismatic leader. It was during the 1967 War with Israel. The country was facing one of the biggest crises in its modern history. “For my father it was no longer about Nasser or his authoritarian regime. It wasn’t difficult for him to maintain a crucial distinction between the country and a dictatorial regime. Being a dissident was the height of patriotism. ‘Who do you think is going to fight for Egypt,’ he asked me. ‘Why Egyptians of course. Egypt is fighting today. We are on Egypt’s side. I want you to know that.’” That was the kind of talk he heard from his father on that fateful day. On June 5th, Alaa went to the club with his father. The men talked about the war. It was everywhere. “I lived through it all with my father.” Then the young boy went home and the war talk continued, only this time it was with an old Italian neighbor with whom he had struck an unlikely friendship. Her balcony looked onto his bedroom window. They spoke to each other in French. Little did he know at the time that he was an integral part of a cosmopolitan world that was coming under increasing pressure in Nasser’s Egypt. Alaa’s Italian friend was a grandmother, a member of a multi-generational household that proved to be too loud and vulgar for his mother’s aristocratic taste. She valued tranquility, too proud in her impeccable household. The boy overheard his parents discussing the boisterous Italian neighbors. His father often came to their defense, “Ya Zou Zou they are Italians. We cannot teach them how to behave. It’s not our place,” he reminded her gently. It wasn’t really about being Italians. “Yes, they were loud and it annoyed my mother but the real issue was class.” These were common Italians living in Garden City. “The father worked as a foreman. He must have done well because they lived in a spacious apartment. My mother had reservations about them but sent food from time to times. Our relationship with them was amiable and neighborly. The grandmother was quite pleasant.” Well, as it turned out the Italian grandmother had lived through World War II and knew a thing to two about the subject. She was no ignoramus. On that fateful day she followed the 1967 war closely with the rest of Egypt. They boy worked as her translator. He’d listen to the news and then translate it into French. She constantly assured him that she loved Egypt and wanted the Egyptians to win. They heard people cheering in the background. “We shot down twenty-two planes,” the boy reported. More cheering from the assembled crowds. “Eighty something planes,” he continued excitedly. The old woman started to look worried. The boy noticed that her expression had changed but he continued to update her in French. One hundred and sixty Israeli airplanes have been destroyed. At two-hundred planes the Italian grandmother interrupted him, her voice the cheering crowds. She spoke simply to set the record straight. “Listen Alaa you know how much I love Egypt but your government is lying to you. It’s impossible to shoot down a hundred and sixty planes in a single day. The entire fleet can have up to two-hundred airplanes. This cannot be true. It just doesn’t add up,” she insisted. The boy became visibly upset. He didn’t believe her? How could he? To believe her was to see an elaborate edifice of lies come crashing down. “Okay, thank you madame,” the boy said, excusing himself politely. He became defensive, shuttered the window and withdrew into his room. In the afternoon his father came home and took him by the hand, “Bub did you see what happened? Did you see Egypt’s Greatness?” he continued as he tapped his son on the shoulder. Everybody believed, even poor uncle Salah Jaheen believed. The bard who glorified the 1952 revolution with his dazzling talent fell into a deep depression. It’s not clear whether he ever recovered from the disillusionment, the role he unwittingly played in propping up the delusions of an authoritarian regime. Some people believe the disillusionment finally did him in. On June 6th, 1967 the truth finally came out. It landed like a heavy brick, shattering the tranquility and leading Egypt to the brink of disaster. The truth invariably comes out. News from the outside world couldn’t be shut out indefinitely. Abbas al-Aswany was a writer, he had many contacts in the press. Alaa remembers the atmosphere at home, it felt like a mass funeral. “That evening my father’s friends started arriving to our house. I don’t even remember their names. They just kept coming. It was very confusing. I saw grown men weeping like children. They were bewildered and asked, ‘How could this be happening to us?’ I remember there was a journalist present. He commented bitterly, ‘I cannot bear to look at those tickers. People don’t know what the hell’s going on.’ He lamented the public’s ignorance. ‘People don’t know what the hell’s going on. How can they keep lying to the Egyptian people like this?’” The lies stung like death itself, a visceral hurt that was deeply personal and catastrophically communal all at once. The boy didn’t pause to think about the neighbor’s warning at the time. He didn’t have a moment to step back and focus on his own feelings. He was in the thick of things, the action took hold of him. “Things were moving so fast. I just wanted to keep up. I wanted to know what was going to happen next.” In the aftermath of Egypt’s humiliating defeat Gamal Abed Al Nasser went on television to address the Egyptian people. The hugely popular leader announced his resignation. Alaa has vivid memories of his father’s furious reaction to Nasser’s speech. “He sat in the living room and turned on the television. My father was a real patriot. Remember he was sent to jail many times for his country. Like many other men of his generation there was no distinction between the private and the public. Egypt’s humiliating defeat felt like a personal tragedy to him. It was as if his own son had gotten into a really bad accident. My father who was always a very reasonable man started shouting at the television set. ‘You can go straight to hell. What are you saying? What good is all this talk going to do us now,’ as he asked in a fury as he prepared to leave the house.” Abbas al-Aswany’s wife became visibly worried, she feared for her husband’s safety. Emotions were raw. The country was on edge. Millions of Egyptians had poured into the streets, demanding that their beloved leader rescind his resignation and remain in power. Zeynab knew that her husband’s call for accountability would be unpopular in the streets but there was nothing she could do to contain his rage or keep him at home. “My mother was an affectionate woman. She was always full of womanly concern. I went to her for comfort and affection. That was her role in my life. That’s how I remember her. I think that’s why I am so comfortable with women. But we won’t talk about that now. Sometimes it gets me in trouble.” Abbas al-Aswany spoke directly to his wife. “Nothing can stop me from going,” he insisted. “Alaa would you like to come along?” he added. The boy jumped at the opportunity. He didn’t want to miss any of the action. They drove around in his father’s big Buick. His father was impeccably dressed as usual. He looked like a bey aboard a large ship making its way slowly through a sea of expectant crowds. “My father heard a man shouting near our car. He called him over and started asking questions. ‘Why do you want him to stay in power? Don’t you know we’ve been defeated,’ he asked in exasperation. ‘Our country is now occupied by the Israelis. Who’s responsible for that? You tell me that!’ he continued. The man didn’t hesitate for a single moment before responding. ‘Ya bey, if he goes, who will keep us under control? Who will hold the country together? We need him to hold the country together,’ he insisted. My father who’s normally calm went crazy and started screaming at the poor guy. ‘Hold the country together? Cannot you see he’s brought ruin upon us. Keep us under control? We are citizens not children! Why don’t you control yourself? What are we? Men or children?’” The questions posed by Abbas al-Aswany go to the heart of his critique of the military dictatorship that has been ruling Egypt since 1952. It took his son a long time to come around and adopt his father’s perspective. “My father was right all along in his assessment of Egypt’s woes. Look, my father and I are both professional men. He was a lawyer and I am a doctor. We diagnose problems. We try to get to the root of the problem. And the problem in Egypt is dictatorship. It isn’t a matter of Sadat being better than Nasser and Mubarak being the worst of all. It’s not about individuals. The problem is structural, the whole system is rotten to the core. Living under a dictatorship does terrible things to people. The result is the infantilization of people. The system breeds this mentality of dependence.” Alaa al-Aswany’s father passed away after a long illness when he was only nineteen years old. “By then I had already been fully formed. My father set the foundations and made me into the man I am today,” he tells me. His voice is animated with pride and affection. There is something truly heartbreaking, tragic even, about the fact that a man who has such a deep connection to Egypt and its long suffering people now finds himself exiled in New York City. He’s not alone. There are other prominent Egyptian academics and artists like Khaled Fahmy, Bassem Youseff and Rami Essam who find themselves in a similar situation. It is no longer possible for Alaa al-Aswany to return to the country that shaped his identity and informed his literary works. There was a period of time when his wife and youngest daughter remained behind. During this time he continued to critique the authoritarian regime via social media and through his writings. It astonished me. “Aren’t you worried about your family,” I once asked him. I am not sure many people have that kind of courage. It didn’t take him long to reply. “In Tahrir Square I saw poor Egyptians putting their bodies on the frontline to protect us. They said, ‘Dr. Alaa there are many of us. If we die, there are many others who can replace us. There aren’t many of you.’ How can I forget that? I carried wounded men in the square,” he said stoically. Alaa al-Aswany is a fiercely proud man. He takes his exile in stride. His entire world has been turned topsy-turvy. It’s not easy to leave everything behind and start over at this stage of life. There’s a big difference between emigrating voluntarily in search of a better life and enforced exile. One can only imagine the toll that has taken on his equally stoic wife. That too is a story that needs to be told. It’s part of a recurring pattern in this family’s history, women holding the fracturing world together with dignity and courage. Al-Aswany in Chicago. Image courtesy of the al-Aswany family. This is not simply a matter of stoicism, though that is definitely a factor. I believe that there are long-standing intergenerational traditions of resistance. This kind of familiar solidarity and resilience doesn’t just arise from nowhere. It’s deeply rooted in family history and larger collective struggles. As such there is an awareness that risk and personal sacrifice come with the territory. That is not to say, there is an embrace of martyrdom. Rather, there is a seasoned understanding of possible consequences and a stoic acceptance of civic responsibility. This family has a thing or two to teach us about how to use our privilege at a critical moment in American history. Those of us who are privileged need to openly acknowledge it, own the messy ways in which we have benefited from white supremacy and figure out how to dismantle the structural arrangements from which we have benefited and continue to benefit. What sacrifices are we willing to make to dismantle the power structures that are not simply making us sick, to echo al-Aswany, but that are threatening human civilization as a whole. The time for performative solidarity and noblesse oblige has passed.