Monday, January 5, 2009


"Although the novel's setting is ostensibly Chicago -- where the author studied in the 1980s -- sometime after 9/11, it could be any American city, blandly debauched and riven by class and racial differences."

Ligaya Mishan, "Out of Egypt," New York Times Book Review, January 4, 2009. Review of Chicago by Alaa Al Aswany.

I started with a different question: Why Chicago? Alaa Al Aswany chose Chicago to be the paradigmatic place of racial mistrust, misundersanding, violence. It certainly has that history. And the recent Blagojevich tragicomedy surely supports this profile.

But the Barack Obama side of the Chicago story is absent in this novel. Alaa Al Aswany's sweeping account of Chicago's racial past and present omits Chicago's founding by Jean Baptiste DuSable, Harold Washington's mayoralty, and everything in-between that spoke of struggle and hope.

I got a kick out of small details like the reference to Dr. Gregory Squires as the expert on Chicago's racism. And then there's the white professor with the frothy past as a "revolutionary terrorist" who has girlfriend problems and social blindness. Sound familiar?

"[T]he American urban landscape,with inhabitants sealed off from one another in private lives, seems to have defeated him: there is non of Egypt's noise, color, and seethe of life in close quarters to be found here."

That's also the story of immigration and exile.

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