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Saturday, April 26, 2008

Where Alaa Al Aswany Is Writing From

One evening last fall I joined a small crowd in a dusty room off busy Qasr-Al-Nil street in Cairo, facing a banner that read, “Welcome to the Cultural Salon of Dr. Alaa Al Aswany.” Many of those seated around me seemed to be simple celebrity spotters, there to see in the flesh the biggest-selling novelist in Arabic, Al Aswany, who is also an increasingly bold critic of President Hosni Mubarak’s regime, which in Egypt has held power uninterruptedly for 27 years. The rest appeared to be aspiring writers or students eager for literary and political instruction. Austerely furnished with a single fluorescent light, half-broken chairs and a solitary table scarred with overlapping teacup rings, the room defused all expectations of literary glamour. Nevertheless, it offered a frisson of political danger. When the salon was held the previous year, Egyptian intelligence agents so intimidated the owner of the cafe where the meeting was taking place that he screamed at Al Aswany and his audience to go away. He later apologized, explaining that he had done it for the sake of the government spies who were watching him. Where Alaa Al Aswany Is Writing From -Pankaj Mishra


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