How Literature Inspires Empathy

The Egyptian writer and activist Alaa Al Aswany explains how one word in Dostoyevsky’s novel The House of the Dead showed him how literature can help us understand one another.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Karl Ove Knausgaard, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

Alaa Al Aswany, the author of The Automobile Club of Egypt, is no stranger to activism. One of Egypt’s most recognizable literary celebrities, he was a high-profile fixture of the 2011 Tahrir Square demonstrations. A New Yorker profile established Aswany’s political clout with a dramatic opening anecdote: His onscreen confrontation with Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik led, in the morning, to Shafik’s resignation. But despite his role as a pro-democracy figurehead and cultural arbiter, Aswany seems to feel his main work takes place at the writing desk. In our conversation for this series, he explained how a favorite line from Dostoyevsky dramatizes literature’s ability to inspire empathy and affect positive social change by changing the way we live and see.

The Automobile Club of Egypt is set in 1940s Cairo, during the last days of British colonial rule. The titular club is a kind of DMV for elite European colonizers, in a country where most Egyptians aren’t allowed to drive. The book subverts the opulent setting by casting its narrative lot with the underclass, the servants and sycophants who serve oppressive masters but mock them behind their backs. With an ensemble performance that recalls his most famous book, The Yacoubian Building, Aswany shows a society at the boiling point, as tensions mount and a nation prepares to fight for a better, freer future.

The New Yorker has called Aswany “the most popular writer in Egypt and the most prominent Egyptian writer in the world.” The Yacoubian Building, which became a movie and then a TV series, has been translated into 23 languages and has sold over a million copies worldwide. Aswany, who is a practicing dentist, is also the author of the novels Chicago and The Papers of Essam Abdel Aaty. He spoke to me by phone from Cairo.

Alaa Al Aswany: My father, a writer as well, advised me not to read Dostoyevsky before university. “This is the greatest novelist,” he told me, “and you'll be too young to understand.” So I read didn’t Dostoevsky until I was 20 years old. I was a student at Cairo University, in the school of dentistry—and by that time my father had passed away. But I remember the experience well. The writing made such a strong impression, I read all his novels in a row. It was a discovery of another life, of a new world.

Dostoyevsky was born in 1821, and in 1849 he was arrested because he participated in some revolutionary circles. He was sentenced to death. At the last minute, the sentence was changed by the Emperor to four years in Siberia. But we are lucky he had this terrible experience, because he wrote one of the masterpieces of literature about it—it's called The House of the Dead.

This novel was about Dostoyevsky’s experience living in a Siberian labor camp for four years. It was torture, and since he came from a noble family, the other prisoners never felt comfortable with him. At that time it was legal in Russia to physically punish prisoners by lashing them, which Dostoyevsky describes with great feeling. Ultimately, because of the book, the Emperor stopped the punishment of lashing—so this novel played a very important role in Russian society.

There is a scene in the novel where one criminal, a young man, is dying. As he dies, another criminal stands watch before his bed, and he begins to cry. We must not forget that these are people who committed terrible crimes. The narrator describes how a soldier was looking at him because he was crying for another prisoner. And the prisoner says:

He, also, had a mother.

“Also” is the important word in the sentence. This man committed crimes. He was not useful to the society. He did terrible things. But he is also a human being. He also had a mother like we have. To me, the role of literature is in this “also.” It means we're going to understand, we're going to forgive, we're not going to judge. We should understand that people are not bad, but they can do bad things under particular circumstances.

For example: An unfaithful spouse is, usually, in our daily lives, seen as a bad thing. But you have two novels, masterpieces, which refuse to condemn that behavior: Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary. In those two novels, the novelists try to explain to us why the wife became unfaithful. We do not judge them, but to try to understand their weaknesses and their mistakes. Literature is not a tool of judgment—it’s a tool for human understanding.

Accordingly, if you are a fanatic, you will never appreciate literature. And if you appreciate literature you will never be a fanatic. Fanaticism is about black and white: People are either good or bad. People are either with us or against us. On the other side, literature is absolutely the contrary. Literature gives us a broad spectrum of human possibilities. It teaches us how to feel other people suffering. When you read a good novel, you forget about the nationality of the character. You forget about his or her religion. You forget about his skin color or her skin color. You only understand the human. You understand that this is a human being, the same way we are. And so reading great novels absolutely can remake us as much better human beings.

A dictator can never be comfortable with literature, for many reasons. First, the novelist feels absolutely free to write whatever he wants. Second, fiction has a very strong influence over the people, much more than political speeches, because it requires us to use our imagination. Finally, dictators never feel comfortable with novelists because they don't feel secure. They believe that even if you aren’t talking directly about them, you mean to portray them indirectly. Under Mubarak, I wrote some animal stories, like the fables of Jean de la Fontaine. One of them featured a very old elephant who is no longer capable to rule the forest, and is trying to push his son to become king. But the young elephant is clearly stupid, unable to do anything but play with the water. The generals of security were very, very angry about these articles—you cannot imagine. They believed I meant old elephant is Mubarak, and the young elephant is his son—which was true. They put severe pressure on the owner of the newspaper to stop the articles. This is just one example.

It’s very hard when you write, and you try and try to do your best, and you cannot reach your readers because of censorship. It's a terrible experience. In Egypt, I was refused [the opportunity] to be published by the government, which was the only way to get published at that time. During the 1990s, I was refused three times: 1990, 1994, and 1998. And in ’98, I was refused in a very impolite way: not only refused, but refused and humiliated. I got so frustrated, I decided to quit. I was working on a new novel, and I decided to finish that novel and that would be it. I said to my wife, “I gave literature ten years of my life, and she gave me nothing but very bad moments.” I said I wanted to emigrate, and she accepted. But when I finished the novel, The Yacoubian Building, it became a phenomenon. And that changed everything.

I write to help people understand how terrible it is to live without freedom. I don’t write about “politics.” We don't have political lives in Egypt because we don't have a democracy. We have a one-man show. We have, always, a dictator who decides for everybody. But we do have a struggle for democracy. We have a struggle against torture, against dictatorship, against oppression and repression. And to reflect this is part of my duty as a writer. I cannot write about flowers while the people are killed in the streets. I cannot, because I always write what I feel—and I'm living in Egypt, and I see how people suffer, and I belong to these people. So I try to find the literary, the artistic, inside their suffering, or through their suffering. I write about human beings—and part of the suffering of the human being is living under a dictator who is willing to kill anybody, and torture everybody, to keep power. I write about how being free and keeping our dignity is a very important thing. And if people can be convinced by novels about that, they are going to revolt.

I don't think literature is the right tool to change the situation right now. If you would like to change the situation now, go out into the street. Literature, to me, is about a more important change: It changes our vision, our understanding, the way we see. And people who are changed by literature, in turn, will be more capable to change the situation.

I define fiction this way: It’s life on the page, similar to our daily life, but more significant, deeper, and more beautiful. What is significant in our daily lives should be visible in the novel, and deeper because we live many moments which are superficial—not deep, not profound. The novel should be more significant, more profound, and more beautiful, than real life. If you get to make a novel more significant and more profound, it will become beautiful.

I remember a quote by a great man, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, who was a Greek intellectual in Italy, and the founder of my Italian publishing house, Feltrinelli. He said, “I only know two kinds of novels: dead novels and living novels.” My job is to publish living novels. The most important thing is for the text to be living. To convince the reader that there are real people in the text, real characters. Anybody, after a course in creative writing, could write a novel. It’s not difficult. But what is really very difficult is to be able to induce life in the novel: to feel I know these people, see them on the screen of my imagination. To feel them, and believe they do exist. This is a living novel. The dead, theoretical novel, anyone could write.

But every writer has to find a unique path to the living novel—there is not one single formula. It's very hard at the beginning because you can’t rely on the experience of other people: You have to discover how it works for you. I found my way through years of struggle. This is how it works for me: I begin the sketches of several novels, feed them with the days. And, at some point, there is a click. I feel I'm going to write this novel, and not the others.

The click happens when I feel that the characters are visible to me. I try at the beginning to imagine the characters. I imagine details. If you're talking about a lady, I must see on the screen on my imagination how she looks and how she talks. And if she smokes or not. And if she smokes, what kind of cigarette. And then, at some point, I feel her. And when I feel the character, I feel they do exist—at this point, the click happens. At this point, I know I have the novel in my head, and I know it's just a matter of time: I will get this novel done.