Saturday 29 april 2006

Teething pains of democracy

True democracy is the only cure for all the ailments of today's Egypt, insists Alaa al-Aswany, a Cairo-based dentist and bestselling writer. "Democracy is the only medicine for treating the diseases from which today's Egypt suffers," Aswany, whose smash hit "The Yacoubian Building" diagnoses the social diseases of the nation, tells Ashraf Sadek of the Mail.
He said that writing was part of his battle for democracy because "the current situation in Egypt is very dangerous and the regime should pay more attention to it".
Aswany, whose Arabic novel tells the story of a group of Muslims and Christians who all live or work in one building in central Cairo and who struggle with the political and social corruption, says Egypt has no good future without a true democracy.
Egypt and the Arab countries have applied a variety of political theories after they won their independence, recalled Aswany, who is the son of a well-known novelist.
"But, these distorted theories have failed to solve Egypt's socio-economic and political problems, which have become more chronic over the years. Therefore, I believe, a real democracy is the only cure for the present ailments of the nation," Aswany said.
"Besides writing a monthly article in a leftist newspaper," Aswany continued, "I am a member of many political groups like the Kefaya (Enough) and the Doctors for Change movements, whose members have held many pro-democracy demonstrations.
"People are made to wrongly believe and understand that democracy is a mere political issue. No, democracy is a political, economic, social, and family issue that affects and improves man's behaviour and relations with others in the society," says Aswany, whose Emaret Yacoubian has been translated into English, French and Italian.
"Democracy also means that all the people have equal job and life opportunities and that posts are taken by the most competent persons and not by those who are close allies to the Government," he adds.
One of the novel's best characters is Taha el-
Shazli, an ideal and romantic top student, who fails to join the Police Academy because of his poor background. Therefore, an embittered Taha becomes a member of an extremist group and ends up as a terrorist to avenge being arrested and tortured by the police. Meanwhile, his ex-girlfriend, another resident of The Yacoubian Building, has to sell herself to feed her family and keep her job as a shop assistant.
Aswany, whose novel openly airs the many criticisms he has of today's Egypt, believes that the current political reforms are a mere attempt to delay introducing genuine reforms.
Although Aswany's book has political overtones, he is careful not to show his own political beliefs.
"I let the characters of the novel express themselves and explain their political views in accordance with what they have won or lost in life," said Aswany, who is a great admirer of late president Gamal Abdul Naser and the 1952 Revolution.
Despite the success of his book at home and abroad, Aswany laments that novelists in Egypt and the Arab world can't make a decent living from their writing.
"Because I love writing, I have turned down many offers to write for the cinema or work as a dentist in the Gulf, where the salaries are high," Aswany says.
"My day job as a dentist was one of the best sources of drawing the characters for my novel The Yacoubian Building, a real-life apartment block that once housed the stylish elite of Cairo," he explains.
Notionally set during the 1991 Gulf War but very much about contemporary Egypt, The Yacoubian Building follows the lives of several of the building's inhabitants.
"Each imaginary character in the novel embodies a facet of modern Egypt such as political corruption, ill-gotten wealth, religious hypocrisy, exploitation of the poor, homosexuality and extremism, Aswany says."
He said that the unexpected great success of his novel created many problems for him especially after it was turned into a film whose budget exceeded 5 million dollars.
"Some of the present residents of The Yacoubian Buil
ding have been instigated by a top-shot politician to file a joint court suit against me on the pretext that the novel has defamed them or their first-class relatives, who used to live there," Aswany says.
This case, which the claimants have lost, has been like the first salvo shot in a long war against the success of the novel, which talks about a politician, Kamal el-Fouli, "who represents in the minds of the Egyptians the very essence of corruption and hypocrisy", Aswany argues.
Aswany, who claims that the top politician is still creating problems for him and the film to be shown next month, believes that it is unacceptable to be a successful person in a country, where disappointment and frustration prevail.
"On April 14, I was invited to a live TV interview to celebrate winning an Arab literary award. But, the presenter, Gamal el-Sahaar, brought another guest speaker, who had been ordered to lash out at the novel while we were on the air without my knowledge. I left the studio angrily. Later on, I heard that man alleging that the novel instigated the knife attacks on two churches in Alexandria because it gives bad image about the Copts," he said.
Aswany added that he chose The Yacoubian Building, built by the doyen of the Armenian community in the early 1930s, as a title for his book to demonstrate that Egypt knew tolerance 75 years ago.
"Egypt used to be much more tolerant than now," he says, adding that he never had any bad feelings towards Egypt's Copts.
"The Yacoubian Building" portrays two Christian brothers, a servant and a shirt-maker, as greedy and evil residents, who manoeuvre and conspire to make their living.
"If Abaskharon and Malak lived long ago, they would not have done this. But, today they feel insecure because they are poor and Christians. That is why, they are convinced that money is the only solution to their problems," Aswany quoted Dr. Lamees Gabr, a Christian critic, as defending the novel in a weekly magazine.
Aswany said that the novel underlined his own sense that Egypt was once a
different country, with a different sense of religious and social tolerance.
Some critics have attacked Aswany as he presents one of his characters as a gay man, an issue that is still not accepted or tolerated in Egypt.
"I did not bring homosexuals to this world. All that I have done is I tried to portray the gay man as a human being, who lives in a true ordeal because he is torn between physical pleasure and the norms of the society where he lives," Aswany says.
Through the residents of "The Yacoubian Building", Aswany said that he blew the whistle on the abuses of power and the corruption that permeate the society.
"I have tried to uncover hypocrisies of power, religion, and love, but I refrain from judgment, leaving the readers to make their own evaluations," Aswany says.
"I've tried to analyse Egypt's problems in this novel and I think democracy is the only solution to these problems."
The Yacoubian Building is fast-moving and action-packed novel with drama in every scene and shifts between the different strands used to provide tension, Itedal Hafez, a Cairo retired employee, said.

Omar Effendi causes
more controversy

Hassan Saadallah
Special to the Mail

A decision taken by the Permanent Committee for Islamic Antiquities affiliated to the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) related to register the famous branch of Omar Effendi in Abdel-Aziz Street, Ataba, as a building of historical and architectural significance has met with controversy.
Some people think it's simply a matter of listing a beautiful old building, while others complain the decision has been made too quickly and that it may cost the SCA several million Egyptian pounds in compensation to the owner of the Omar Effendi chain of department stores.
Abdullah Kamel, head of the Islamic Antiquities Sector, describes the building as enjoying the wonderful Italian architectural style of the late 19th and earliest 20th centuries.
From a legal point of view, Azza el-Mahgoub, Director-General of Legal Affairs for the SCA, stresses that this b
ranch of Omar Effendi cannot be sold by the owner, because, now it has been registered, it has become public property like the Giza Pyramids or the Egyptian Museum, according to Articles 1 and 2 of the Antiquities Protection Law 117/1983.
Kamel says that the registering of the branch of Omar Effendi in Abdel-Aziz Street comes as part of the SCA's plan to list buildings of historical importance.
SCA Chancellor Abdullah Al-Attar is happy with the decision, because this downtown edifice is one of the most distinguished in Cairo Governorate.

Standardising call to prayer in Cairo

The Government has agreed to buy 4,000 wireless receivers for a project to synchronise the call to prayer from all state-run mosques in the Cairo area.
The government first floated the project in 2004, provoking some opposition from traditionalists. The news that it will sign a contract for the equipment tomorrow indicated that it is serious about putting the idea into practice.
When the project starts, a single muezzin chosen for the quality of his voice will make the call to prayer from a central location and the call will be transmitted directly to loudspeakers at the top of the city's thousands of minarets.
Under the current arrangements, the muezzin in one mosque might finish his call to prayer before the one in the nearest mosque has even started his version.
Since most of the muezzins use loudspeakers and are audible for hundreds of metres (yards), the result is a discordant mix stretched out over 10 to 15 minutes, five times a day.
Proponents of the project have also complained that some of the existing muezzins do not have pleasant voices.
Egypt's Grand Mufti, the country's highest authority on Islamic law, has approved the project.
But some religious scholars are worried it could eventually lead to standardisation of the Friday sermon and the abolition of the pre-dawn call to prayer, which the less religious can find disturbing, especially if the muezzin's loudspeaker is outside their bedroom window.
Religious Endowments
Minister Mahmoud Hamdi Zaqzouq will announce at a ceremony tomorrow how the project will work, when it will start and who the new muezzins will be, according to the Middle East News Agency (MENA).
In 2004 Zaqzouq said there was no threat to the jobs of some 45,000 muezzins as they could be retrained as imams or prayer leaders of mosques, of which there is a shortage.
The project will start in the Greater Cairo area and could be expanded. But each area would need its own system as the times of prayer differ from place to place.