Novelist Alaa Al Aswany on Surprising Changes in the Egyptian People



bjbjLULU GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, an Egyptian
novelist's perspective on his country's revolution. Margaret Warner talked with Alaa Al Aswany
on her recent reporting trip to Cairo, before this weekend's sectarian clashes. MARGARET WARNER: In a quiet corner of Cairo,
Dr. Alaa Al Aswany still maintains a part-time dental practice, scaled way back as the demands
of his other pursuit, writing, have increased. In 2002, he published his first novel, "The
Yacoubian Building," charting the lives of people in one Cairo apartment house during
Hosni Mubarak's dictatorship. Aswany quickly became the Arab world's bestselling
writer and a social conscience in his homeland. Foreign translations, a movie and other books
followed. Aswany spent much of the Egyptian uprising
in Tahrir Square, making common cause with his countrymen. We spoke recently in his office just south
of the iconic square. Alaa Al Aswany, thanks for joining us. ALAA AL ASWANY, "The Yacoubian Building":
Thank you. MARGARET WARNER: I want to start by asking
about your novel, "The Yacoubian Building," and its connection to today. It's set in this once-gorgeous building, now
dilapidated, all these characters sort of scheming, gaming the system to get by. How much are the conditions in that novel
and the way people related to one another, do you think, portray some of the conditions
that led to the uprising? ALAA AL ASWANY: Absolutely. I think we usually write fiction when the
difference between what happens and what should happen is very big. And that's why I was motivated and inspired
to write, because I felt that many people, millions of Egyptians, are suffering. And they just try to be treated in a fair
way, and that was never the case. And then, at some point, they must do something. So, I was — I felt that there will be a revolution. MARGARET WARNER: Because there was such desperation
in their lives, wasn't there? ALAA AL ASWANY: Yes, because I'm a novelist. I'm not a politician and I'm not a political
analyst. So, as a novelist, I try to feel the people
much more than trying to make a kind of theoretical analysis. So I felt all the time that these were never
lost, that the people are very close to what we call a revolutionary moment, a moment when
the country is absolutely ready for the change, and it just waits for the spark. MARGARET WARNER: Yet a character in the novel
— he's sort of a political fixer — he says: "Egyptians are the easiest people in the world
to rule. The moment you take power, they submit to
you, they grovel to you, and you can do what you want with them." Now, did you feel you were describing an ingredient
in Egyptian character? And, if so, why did they finally rise up? ALAA AL ASWANY: The novelist is, in a way,
an actor. So… MARGARET WARNER: An actor? ALAA AL ASWANY: Yes, because I don't say my
real opinion in the novel. So, this is the logic of somebody who is a
corrupt politician related to Mubarak regime. They must justify the dictatorship, the oppression
and the crimes they're committing against the Egyptian people. So I try all the time to use their own logic,
not mine. This is absolutely — what he said, this guy,
is absolutely nonsense, and the evidence is this revolution, you see, so this is not true. But they were trying all the time to convince
themselves and other people there this is the case. MARGARET WARNER: Now, the novel is setting
actually in the very early '90s. I think there's reference to the Gulf War,
the first Gulf War. ALAA AL ASWANY: Yes. Yes. MARGARET WARNER: Mubarak had only been in
power eight or nine years. So the conditions you're describing predate
even Mubarak, don't they? ALAA AL ASWANY: Yes, but I think, in the 1990s,
it was the moment of truth for the Egyptian people. For the first time, they saw what kind of
— clearly what kind of regime is empowering Egypt. MARGARET WARNER: You're talking about the
repression, the torture? ALAA AL ASWANY: Yes, oppression, torture,
corruption, political corruption, everything. So, from 1990 to 2011, there was always a
kind of accumulation of the problems, but there were no new problems. So when I described the society in 1990, it
is the same — they had — the society had the same elements which led to the revolution. MARGARET WARNER: You were in Tahrir Square
during the uprising. What do you think the Egyptian people learned
about themselves during those days, and is it lasting? ALAA AL ASWANY: Yes, of course. I was really inspired. I — sometimes, during the revolution, I had
my doubts that that was real, or I am living a dream? Are people — the Egyptians with whom I lived
this revolution are very different from the Egyptians I used to live with before. They have this — they have only the same
faces. MARGARET WARNER: What you saw were the Egyptian
people — a different Egyptian people than you see now? ALAA AL ASWANY: Absolutely. Absolutely. They were not frustrated. That was before the resignation of Mubarak. So we're not even sure that we could make
it, you see? But everybody said that, I got back my dignity
or I feel I have my dignity back. MARGARET WARNER: Do you think, though, that
all those years of living in this system, in which, really, corruption of every kind,
not just bribery and nepotism, but even in relationships between people, did something
to warp the Egyptian soul or character? ALAA AL ASWANY: You see, we have a — I am
a dentist. I am a writer and dentist. It's very essential for you as a doctor to
know what is a disease. And if you try to cure the complications without
knowing the disease, you could do — you could kill the patient. The disease in Egypt is a dictatorship. And all the negative aspects in Egypt were
symptoms and complications of the disease. MARGARET WARNER: And, finally, as a writer,
as a novelist, what role do you see for yourself going forward in this transformation or the
creation of the new Egypt? ALAA AL ASWANY: I don't think that literature
is a tool to change the situation. Literature is art to change the people, not
the situation, to change us. We learn through literature to be less judgmental
and more understanding towards us. Accordingly, through literature, we definitely
become much better human beings, who are able after that to change the situation. MARGARET WARNER: Alaa Al Aswany, thank you
so much. ALAA AL ASWANY: Thank you. hZD3 hZD3 urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags
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