Friendly Fire: Stories, by Alaa al-Aswany. Harper Perennial, September 2009. $13.99 paper
In his decade-long attempts to get Friendly Fire published, Egyptian author Alaa al-Aswany faced spiteful critics, more than a few corrupt bureaucrats, and at least one suspicious patient (he makes his living as a dentist). Even though his successful first novel The Yacoubian Building became an even more successful movie, a potential publisher told him “I like [Friendly Fire] very much, but frankly . . . it could get me put in jail.” In revealing the publishing history of his new short story collection, al-Aswany gives the reader some insight into the byzantine world of Egyptian publishing, while at the same time setting the tone for the book. With a healthy dose of cynicism and a touch of the absurd, Friendly Fire takes us inside the lives of characters trying to get by in a world filled with poverty, duplicity, and petty despotism. Al-Aswany has garnered many comparisons to the late great Egyptian novelist and Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz—both are subtle observers of humanity and write primarily about Cairo. But comparisons to the ultra-serious and somewhat turgid Mahfouz overlook al-Aswany’s playfulness and his brave willingness to challenge the core taboos of Egyptian society.
The cornerstone of Friendly Fire—and the source of the controversy surrounding it—is a novella called “The Isam Abd al-Ati Papers.” The story of a highly-educated man beaten down by the “tyranny, corruption, and hypocrisy in Egyptian society,” the novella begins with a incendiary rant against nationalist leader Mustafa Kamil’s famous quote: “If I weren’t an Egyptian, I would want to be Egyptian.” Calling the quote “the sort of stupid tribal loyalty that makes my blood boil every time I think of it,” the narrator goes on to describe what he sees as the true nature of Egyptians: “Cowardice and hypocrisy, underhandedness and cunning, laziness and spite—these are our characteristics as Egyptians. And because we know the truth about ourselves, we cover it over with a lot of shouting and lies—empty, ringing slogans that we repeat day in day out about our ‘great’ Egyptian people.”
Once he has eviscerated the foundations of Egyptian nationalism, Isam starts in on his own life. A low-ranking civil servant from a middle-class Cairo family, he guides us through the drudgery of his life with bitter sarcasm and sharp-edged insight. Like Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man, Isam is obsessed with his own inactivity in the face of what he sees as an unjust and morally corrupt society. It is difficult to agree with Isam’s assessment of himself as “a tragic hero accepting the blows of fate with a noble, courageous heart.” (One of his major triumphs is defying his boss’s prohibition against eating or drinking during Ramadan.) But whether or not Isam is a hero, his struggle against Egyptian society is certainly tragic.
On the smaller canvas of the short story, al-Aswany presents heroes of a different ilk. From the surgical resident reckoning with a tyrannical supervisor to the schoolboy with one leg who learns to ride a bike, al-Aswany’s characters do what needs to be done to make it in an unfriendly world. His protagonists often succeed in overcoming adversity, but in Friendly Fire, success is never without a sacrifice of some sort. At times al-Aswany’s stories are heartbreaking, at times they are uncomfortable, at times hilarious, but no matter what the mood, his work is always steeped in the greywater of humanity. Never one to shy away from uncomfortable truths, al-Aswany reveals in his stories a picture of Egypt much grittier than most Westerners would have imagined. But in the grit, in the small devastations, the embarrassments, and the triumphs that make up daily life, al-Aswany has created a portrait of Cairo that helps us understand why the city is known in Arabic as “the mother of the world.”