August 6, 2021 12:41 p.m. ET
Alaa Al Aswany, one of the most renowned novelists in the Arab world, almost gave up writing. After the Egyptian state publisher rejected his first two novels in the 1990s, he published them himself, winning critical acclaim but few readers. When the state, which monopolizes the distribution of books, rejected it a third time in 1998, Mr. Al Aswany felt “humiliated,” he says. He decided to release one last novel with a small private publisher in his hometown of Cairo, then give up his literary aspirations and move to New Zealand, because it was “very far away,” he says.
Yet a few weeks after its publication in 2002, the book was out of print. It was an “incredible phenomenon,” said Mr. Al Aswany, 64, of “The Yacoubian Building”, which was an instant bestseller in Arabic and has since sold over a million dollars. exemplary in the world. “This novel changed my life.
Serial portrait of the different tenants of a building in downtown Cairo, “The Yacoubian Building” dramatizes the corruption and hypocrisy of Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt. During the Arab Spring of 2011, when Mr. Al Aswany joined hundreds of thousands of his compatriots in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to demand the end of Mubarak’s 30-year rule, many other protesters told him they were there because of what he wrote he said, “I believe that’s the greatest honor a writer can get.”
A decade later, Egypt is no less corrupt and only more repressive, says Al Aswany. Under President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, a general who seized power in a coup in 2013, poverty is on the rise and the government has thrown thousands of dissidents in prison. Mr. Al Aswany now lives in Brooklyn, NY, after the government banned him from appearing on television, holding his literary salons, writing his weekly column in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm, or publishing more books. “The dictatorship prevents you from staying,” he says over the phone from his apartment he shares with his wife and one of their daughters (his son is still in Egypt and his other daughter works in San Francisco).
This distance, Mr. Al Aswany says, helped him write his latest novel, “The Republic of False Truths”, released Aug. 10 from Knopf in a translation by SR Fellowes. Set in the run-up to the 2011 Egyptian Revolution and its bloody aftermath, the book uses an array of characters to chronicle the daily injustices of Egyptian life and the intoxicating ambitions of those who have taken to the streets to demand the change.