People in Egypt Are Talking About: Alaa Al-Aswany vs. Gaber Asfour

All right, perhaps more Egyptians are talking about our recent sandstorm or some football match or another. But those who like a good literary scuffle are talking about this.

Literary critic Dr. Gaber Asfour has recently had some—well, criticism—of The Yacoubian Building and its author, Dr. Alaa Al-Aswany. The criticism has stirred up quite a tempest in a teacup: Is Asfour criticizing Al-Aswany (a valiant critic of the Mubarak regime! an el-Baradei supporter!) because Asfour is a government toady? Is Asfour jealous of Al-Aswany’s literary success? Doesn’t he know how many (foreign, Western!) awards Al-Aswany has won? And isn’t this the guy who accepted a prize from Moammar Gaddafi? (Yes, he is.)

For all the tempest, I was expecting that Asfour had done a Michiko Kakutani on The Yacoubian Building, or perhaps that he’d carved up the less popular Chicago.

But, as far as I can tell, Asfour’s remarks were quite mild. He said—according to Al-Youm Al-Saba’a—that he’s pleased to see how El-Aswany is honored around the world, and that such recognition of an Egyptian is “beautiful.” But, Asfour said, when he enters the realm of literary criticism, his duty is tell readers the truth. And: “I tell you that the novel The Yacoubian Building is good, but it’s not very good or excellent.”

I think Kakutani would blush at Asfour’s moderation.

To set off the tempest, Asfour apparently stated that Al-Aswany is celebrated in the West above Naguib Mahfouz, Youssef Idris, and Bahaa Taher, and that this is evidence of the non-superiority of the West. (I’m not sure my beloved Egypt can really claim the high ground here, since Dan Brown and Eat Pray Love seems to sell better than Toni Morrison and Jamaica Kincaid and Junot Diaz, but, you know.)

Asfour also apparently argued that Al-Aswany is a Western literary star for “neo-Orientalist” reasons, citing the greater popularity of sexy, “under the veil” books like Proof of Honey and The Girls of Riyadh and the lesser popularity of literary novels like Zeini Barakat and Children of the Alley. Asfour talked about being irritated by Westerners who assume The Yacoubian Building must be banned in Egypt, which—I will attest, as will Al-Aswany—it’s not.

According to Al Ketaba, Asfour states:

It was my opinion and still he was the author the average value, it is not at the level of [Gamal el] Ghitani or Bahaa Taher, for example.

Al-Aswany has posted an interview he gave with Sherouk News on his blog, in which he responds to the criticism. Al-Aswany has also, in English, flayed Asfour for accepting the big-euro Gaddafi literary prize (while somehow also flaying him for standing up for Arabian Nights and freedom of speech). Apparently, Asfour also made a few pokes at Al-Aswany’s political essays, but these are outside my scope. (Surely Al Aswany’s democracy credentials are higher than Gaber’s, yes.)

I’ll just roughly quote Al-Aswany’s response about Yacoubian in the Sherouk News interview:

For example, my work is translated into 28 languages in a hundred countries around the world, and [it] won prestigious awards, some of the most important literary prizes in the world….

Yes, it’s true that many Westerners have loved Yacoubian. It’s been pushed forward by The New Yorker and other cultural gate-keepers as the great Egyptian novel of some new era. And Al-Aswany has won a number of awards; they’re listed at the bottom of the Sherouk News interview. Some of them sound prestigious, but perhaps, for the strength of one’s argument, it’s better to leave this one off:

Achievement Award from the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she studied and will be handed over the award in October 2010.

At the moment, I have no desire to get into the argument of Yacoubian’s quality, nor about the state of literary criticism in Egypt, which is surely not as sharp-tongued as Kakutani would wish it.  Anyhow, we have more important things to tackle! The Summer Reading Challenge awaits. See the lists here…