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.