Tag-Archive for ◊ humiliation ◊

Author:
• Saturday, October 29th, 2011

Alaa El Aswany was born in Egypt in 1957, the only child of an ex aristocratic mother and a well known father from Aswan, in Upper Egypt. His father, Abbas, who received the Egyptian state award for literature in 1972, was a lawyer before becoming a novelist.

Alaa Al Aswany studied in a French private school in Cairo, Le Lycée Français du Caire, which was followed by a Cairo University dentistry degree in 1980 and a Masters degree in 1985 from the University of Illinois in Chicago, where he spent 17 years before returning to live in Egypt. Today he still lives in Cairo with his second wife and three children.

Alaa El Aswany is one of the founding members of the political democratic opposition movement, Kefaya (Enough), meaning enough of president Mubarak’s undemocratic, oppressive regime and its corruption. The movement was founded in 2004.

In 2010 El Aswany was named one of the 500 most influential Muslims for arts and culture. He was also nominated for the prestigious 2010 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for his novel Chicago, published in 2007.

Born Muslim, El Aswany is a secular and free thinker. He has written many articles for Egyptian newspapers on political issues, social matters and literature.

Alaa El Aswany had his dental clinic in the Yacoubian building, in the centre of Cairo, but departed 15 years before writing his fictitious novel about the building. He still practises dentistry twice a week in his clinic in the Garden City district of Cairo, in order to stay in touch with people and have discussions with them, which, he says, is very important to him and helps in his writing since he treats patients as a professional dentist but writes about them as a novelist.

The Yacoubian building was first published by a small, private publisher in Cairo in 2002, after being rejected three times by the Egyptian Book Organisation, the omnipotent state-run publishers controlled by president Mubarak’s regime, because of its perceived controversial content.

The novel was translated into 27 languages and became a best seller in the Arab world. In 2006 it was made into a film with the biggest budget ever for an Egyptian film and in 2007 was made into a television series.

The Yacoubian building, constructed in 1934 in downtown Cairo by the Armenian millionaire Hagop Yacoubian, was an architectural paragon of its time. Unfortunately, after years of neglect and lack of renovation, the condition of the building declined.

It is early 1990 when the story begins. The author describes the everyday life of the people who live in the building. Whether these tenants are wealthy, nouveau-riche or poor, they all share the same struggle to survive and the suffering and hardship they are enduring at the hands of the current Egyptian regime.

Most of them have in common the same obsession for sex and decadence, just like the deteriorating building they live or work in, the corrupted leader they have and the iniquitous government that governs them. The run-down building is a metaphor for the state of the country.

There is the well-to-do, 65-year old, retired Francophile engineer, Zaki Bey Dessouki, the self confessed, “scientist of women” who belongs to the aristocracy of a bygone era, the good old days which his sister Dawlat feels very dissatisfied and angry to have lost and consequently gone with it her two children who emigrated. She becomes bitter and takes it all out on her only brother.

Then there is the rich, middle aged, homosexual, successful newspaper editor, Hatim Rasheed, who couldn’t control his sexual urges for the young, illiterate, Abd Rabo, an upper Egyptian peasant, and police recruit, who will prove to be fatal for him.

And there’s another character, the ambitious nouveau-riche countryman, the old Hagg Mohamed Azzam, who wants to be part of the Egyptian parliament in order to gain power and prestige, even if he has to pay a huge bribe. He discovers that he has uncontrollable sexual needs that his old wife could no longer satisfy and has to marry a second wife, the young Soad who becomes his victim.

Also not forgetting the dirty old, chain of boutiques owner, the rich, Talal Chanane and his young lady workers and sex sufferers, Fifi and Boussaïna, nor the corrupted Malak, who earns his living not only as a shirtmaker but also in the commerce of currencies, alcohol, contraband and anything that brings in money, including blackmail.

There is also the young, Taha El Shazli, the son of the building’s caretaker. He is a bright student who’s dream is to join the police academy and marry his childhood girlfriend and neighbour, Boussaïna. His dream is shattered when he is refused entrance to the police academy because of his father’s profession. Saddened and dismayed after realising that money and contacts in the right place count for more than good grades and perseverance, he becomes bitter and cynical and consequently loses Boussaïna for good. He enrolls at Cairo university and, through one of the students, joins a militant Islamic group and dies a martyr in an organised assault on a senior prison officer who was behind his torture and humiliation while he was jailed. With nothing to live for, and therefore nothing to lose, he died more out of revenge, deceit and loss of hope in the whole Egyptian system than for his Islamic belief.

A contrasting array of characters from dissimilar backgrounds, each one with a different life-style and morals, but all of them seeking a better life. They all inhabit the same building without ever encountering one another, each living in his own world, preoccupied with his own problems.

The characters and the seedy building, which is undoubtedly the main focus of the story, as the main title implies and which still exists in the centre of Cairo, are well developed and quite realistic.

The novel conveys a bleak picture of a contemporary Egypt that lost its bearings, but the ending gives a shy ray of hope for the future. A very interesting, good novel if it was not for the several explicit sex passages which belittle the novel’s many serious themes.

Author:
• Saturday, March 03rd, 2007

Amélie Nothomb is the daughter of the Belgian writer and former ambassador to Japan, Patrick Nothomb. She was born in Kobe in 1967. By the time she was five years old, she was perfectly bilingual.

After leaving Japan, Amélie spends her childhood in China, Burma and New York. Living as an expatriate combined with the feeling of loneliness, made her withdraw into her own shell. Especially after returning to Belgium at the age of seventeen and having the shock of finding herself a foreigner amongst her own people. The shock was brutal and this triggered in her the need to write as an escapade.

“Hygiéne de l’assassin”, her first book was published in 1992 and was an immediate success, with a French literary prize. In 1993 she published “Le sabotage amoureux”, then in 1994 “Les combustibles”, in 1995 “Les catilinaires”, in 1996 “Péplum”, in 1997 “Attentat”, in 1998 “Mercure”, in 2000 “Métaphysique des tubes”, in 2001 “Cosmétique de l’ennemi” etc…

Amélie Nothomb writes about three books per year, but decides each time to publish only one per year and every time it’s a commercial success.

Her eighth book “Fear and Trembling” was published in 1999 and was a winner of the Grand Prix de l’Académie Française and Prix Internet du livre. The book was translated into 14 languages and sold half a million copies. A big success. Two of her books have been made into films: “Hygiéne de l’assassin” and “Fear and Trembling”.

The main theme of “Fear and Trembling” is the clash of cultures between East and West. It was told in the ancient Japanese tradition that if anyone wanted to address the Japanese emperor, it had to be with “Fear and Trembling”, the emperor being the highest figure of authority. This belief is followed on all levels in Japan, as the author reveals the very rigid hierarchy in the typical headquarters of a Japanese international conglomerate in Tokyo called Yumimoto.

Amélie-San is reprimanded for not taking the right steps by going through the correct channels, despite the fact that her deed was very useful to the company.

What the author wants the westerner to understand, is that in the oriental mentality, it’s not the successful results that count, since achieving them the ‘untraditional’ way can cause more harm than good.

Consequently one has to follow the system blindly and not be an ‘individualist’, which is the worst betrayal to the traditional system: “Mister Tenshi didn’t want to sabotage the company. I begged him to let me work on the report. I alone am responsible.”… “Mister Omochi stood open-mouthed for a moment before coming up to me and bellowing right into my face.” Do you dare defend yourself?” “No, I’m blaming myself. I’m claiming all the wrong for myself. I alone should be punished.” “You dare to defend this snake!”

Then follows the arguments with Miss Mori Fubuki: “I’m twenty-nine years old. You are twenty-two. I’ve been in this position since last year. I fought for it for years. Did you think that you were going to get a comparable job within a matter of weeks?”

Due to not following the ‘correct’ system, Amélie-san has to endure the most degrading retrogression. Starting as an interpreter and ending in the humiliating job of a toilet attendant.

Like most of Amélie Nothomb’s books, “Fear and Trembling” includes some personal, real life experiences. A kind of an autobiography. The style of her writing is indicative of her own character; subtle, humouristic and extravagant. I recall her telling Bernard Pivot in the French TV programme “Apostrophe”, that she takes delight in eating rotten fruit.

Amélie Nothomb’s style is uncomplicated which makes the book easy to read despite the issue involved, being the relationships and methods of Japanese white-collars, and their entrapment in their uncompromising system.

Amélie Nothomb shows us very clearly her compassion for those people, but at the same time expresses her frustration at being unable to change anything, or even to reason with them:
“Le plus insupportable, c’était de voir mon bienfaiteur humilié par ma faute. Monsieur Tenshi était un homme intelligent et cosciencieux: il avait pris un gros risque pour moi, en pleine connaissance de cause. Aucun intérêt personnel n’avait guidé sa démarche: il avait agi par simple altruisme. En récompense de sa bonté, on le traînait dans la boue.”
She makes us aware of her concern with human relationships throughout her book.

Amélie Nothomb’s humouristic tone can be hilarious at times or even like a caricature, but nevertheless carries behind it more than what it suggests.

Unlike other books we read, in “Fear and Trembling”, the author doesn’t take us anywhere in Tokyo, apart from the restricted view from her office window. The year Amélie spends at the Yumimoto company is all devoted to a description of the Japanese headquarters, the people working for it, their devotion to their work and the hierarchical system. Not forgetting to describe at length, the uncompromising Japanese mentality.

At the end of her one year contract with Yumimoto, Amélie-San returns to Europe. And like a phoenix, after all the humiliation endured, emerges from the ashes, glorious and successful with her prize winning book “Hygiéne de l’assassin”.

She then receives a congratulatory letter from her former superior, Mori Fubuki acknowledging her success. The letter was written in Japanese as a sign of friendship which seems to have been accepted at last.