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Alaa Al Aswany 

When: Mon., Oct. 20, 6 p.m. 2008
Phone: 312-747-4050
Aswany, a UIC-educated Egyptian dentist, had an international best seller with his 2002 novel The Yacoubian Building, a fascinating portrait of his home country under 27-year president Hosni Mubarak. Like Egypt as a whole, the building at the center of the novel has a storied past but has deteriorated over time; it’s now shabby, crowded, and full of people with frustrated ambitions. One young resident drifts into fundamentalist Islam when his hopes of joining the elite Egyptian police force are thwarted; oppressive social mores force a prominent gay journalist and a beautiful young woman into demeaning secret lives; a wealthy businessman pays the price for dabbling in a corrupt political system. While the characters are all stand-ins for Egyptian social groups, Aswany tells their intertwined stories with such humor and nuance that they come to life. But I can’t say the same about his latest book. Set at and around UIC not long after 9/11, Chicago (Harper) is a modern fable showing how the victims of racism, sexism, religious intolerance, and cultural ignorance are in other instances the perpetrators, but it too often relies on wooden dialogue and implausible plot twists to hammer the point home. The novel includes plenty of accurate snapshots of Chicago, though almost everything that happens in it could have been transplanted to another American city; I have to admit that as a local I was a little bummed that someone who’d so artfully described Cairo as not just a place but a great character in its own right wasn’t able to do the same for our own colorful town. Aswany’s appearance is part of the series Writers on the Record With Victoria Lautman, so it’ll also be broadcast the following Sunday at noon on WFMT (98.7 FM). --Mick Dumke

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