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Monday, June 01, 2009

Rachel Cooke Interviews Alaa al Aswany

Alaa al Aswany, the Arab world's bestselling novelist, swallows the last of his morning coffee, and throws back his boulder-like head in a gesture that comes close to, but is not quite, contentment. He is longing for a cigarette, too, only today he is not at home in Cairo, where he can happily smoke himself to death if he so chooses (the Egyptians puff their way through 19 million cigarettes every day) but in the quiet confines of the Gore hotel, Kensington; it will be a while longer before he can scoot out to the pavement and light up.

Still, he is not complaining. As cities go, London is not bad. "I have feelings about cities," he says in his wonderful, solemn English. "The kind of feelings a man has towards ladies. Some I love, and some ... not." London is one of those Aswany loves, though it cannot, in his view, touch Cairo or even Alexandria. "Ah! I cannot be objective about Egypt. It is only in Egypt that I feel myself. When I'm abroad, I'm someone who has much in common with myself, but it's not really me. I am always homesick!"

He grins, delighted at the mention of Chekhov. "The short story is a moment of enlightenment," he says. "A moment of vision. The story is going to fall on my head like an apple. But the novel ... there is a school of thought, and I agree with it, that we do not invent novels; we discover them. The novel exists in my heart and in my mind and I must concentrate to get it out. This is not the case with the story. I could get an idea for a story now, while I am looking at your face."


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