“Religion should be a personal, private issue. The state should not have any religion. This is the only way to achieve democracy.” Watch the world-renowned Egyptian novelist Alaa al-Aswany speak straightforwardly about contemporary Egypt and why a great societal change is imminent.
“Your country is your mother, so you will always describe your love for your mother and not your mother herself, because you’re not able to evaluate your mother in an objective way.” Al-Aswany – who no longer resides in Egypt – talks about his country and compares it to a mother who, in spite of problems and faults, will always be the best. Growing up in Egypt, he was the only child in an upper-middle-class family. His father was a writer, and though he told the young al-Aswany that he was talented, he also emphasised that talent is just the beginning, and hard work and discipline the way forward. It was also his father who encouraged him to have another profession so that he could write freely and be financially independent. Hence, al-Aswany became a dentist.
Al-Aswany feels that Egyptian society today is torn between two opposing sides: “Accordingly we have been losing as Egyptians. Losing our identity, our civilised vision of the world, our cosmopolitan vision of the world, our history – the arts…” This, he continues, is because The Wahhabi (Muslim group opposed to all practices not sanctioned by the Koran) believe that everything in the arts is against God: “… and of course, no wonder, because they never produced any art whatsoever. When it comes to Egypt and Iraq and Syria … all those old civilisations produced art. So, we have this problem, and it’s one struggle – it’s not two struggles – against Wahhabis, against military dictators.” For democracy to thrive, religion should be a personal issue, and when you “go out of your house, you become a citizen.” Egypt used to be like this, he continues, and political Islam presents a fake history. To al-Aswany, politics and religion in combination equal fascism. He does, however, feel that the young people in Egypt promise change, as they won’t stand for the oppression and current state of things, which the Arab Spring (2010-2011) was evident of: “I believe that all the Arab regimes are expired. They will fall one after another. Today, tomorrow, the next week … they are done.” Finally, al-Aswany – who himself was part of the demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011 – argues that literature teaches us that “we are all human beings and that we don’t have to make barriers. Literature is overcoming the barriers.”
Alaa al-Aswany (b. 1957) is an award-winning Egyptian writer, who is considered one of the Middle East’s foremost novelists. His second novel ‘The Yacoubian Building’ was published in 2002 and quickly gained national as well as international recognition, selling over a million copies. In 2011, he was ranked by the Foreign Policy magazine as one of the world’s most influential thinkers. Al-Aswany published his third novel ‘The Automobile Club of Egypt’ in 2013, and in 2018 he published ‘I Ran to the Nile’. He lives in New York City (2019).
Alaa al-Aswany was interviewed by Marc-Christoph Wagner at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebæk, Denmark in November 2019.
Camera: Klaus Elmer
Edited by Klaus Elmer
Produced by Marc-Christoph Wagner
Copyright: Louisiana Channel, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2019
Supported by Nordea-fonden
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