Monday, 15 June 2009

Book of the Week and bibliography - Alaa Al Aswany, Friendly Fire

Alaa Al Aswany is a dentist, and also a successful author, an uncommon combination. He trained as a dentist in Egypt and Chicago, and has contributed numerous articles to Egyptian newspapers on literature, politics, and social issues. His second novel, The Yacoubian Building, an ironic depiction of modern Egyptian society, has been widely read in Egypt and throughout the Middle East, and was allegedly the best selling novel in Arabic for several years. It has been translated into English, French and Norwegian, and was adapted into a film (2006) and a television series (2007) of the same name. Friendly fire is his third book in English - the UK editions of all three are available, signed, at relatively modest cost. I thoroughly enjoyed the first two novels and am looking forward to reading these stories, which have been well reviewed.

Friendly Fire is a novella and collection of short stories. Al Aswany dissects modern Egyptian society and reveals with skill and detachment the hypocrisy, violence and abuse of power characteristic of a world in moral crisis. Here, though, the focus has shifted from the broad historical canvas to the minute stitches of pain that hold together an individual, a family, a school classroom, or the relationship between a man and a woman. Can a man so alienated from his society that he regards all its members as no better than microbes wriggling under a microscope survive within it? Can cynical religiosity triumph over human decency? Can a man put the thought of a delicious dish of beans behind him long enough to mourn his father's death? Alongside these wry questions, other, less mordant perspectives also have their place: an ageing cabaret dancer bestows the blessing of a vanished world on her lover's son; a crippled boy wins subjective victory from objective disaster. Friendly Fire also features an introduction by Alaa Al Aswany giving the history of the novella, 'The Isam Abd el-Ati Papers', which was banned in Egypt for a decade.

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