In my plea for globalizing the study of American Literature, I cited the recent novel, “The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears” by the Ethiopian Dinaw Mengestu (born 1978) which dealt with the intermingling of Africans and Americans in Washington, D.C. I’m equally eager to recommend the Egyptian dentist/novelist, (born 1957) Alaa Al Aswany’s “Chicago” (London, Fourth Estate, 2008), a lively fiction about how Americans and Egyptians mingled scholastically in Chicago after World War II at the dental school of the University of Illinois/Chicago.
It was an early look at what has recently emerged as “the Arab Spring”. It begins beguilingly with a short history of what became the Second City in America. We learn that the indigenous natives lived for centuries on the shores of Lake Michigan, growing onions and herding cattle. Until 1673 , when a French traveler and mapmaker Louis Joliet, accompanied by a Jesuit named Jacques Marquette ,“discovered” what would come in 1837 to be known as Chicago ( the city’s name is a native allusion to the distinct smell of those onions).
“During the hundred ensuing years they conducted all day long,” Aswany notes,” the white colonists waged horrific genocidal wars, in the course of which anywhere from five to twelve million Native Americans perished throughout North America. Anyone reading American history must pause at this paradox: the white colonists who killed millions of Indians and stole their land and other possessions were, at the same time, extremely religious Christians. But this paradox is resolved once we learn about the prevalent views in that era. Many white colonists believed that “American Indians” even though they were, somehow, God’s creatures, were not created in the spirit of Christ but rather in another imperfect and evil spirit. Others confidently asserted that they were like animals, creatures without a soul or conscience, hence they did not have the same value as white men.
Thanks to those convenient theories, the colonists were able to kill as many Native Americans as they liked without any shadow of regret or feelings of guilt. No matter how horrific were the massacres they conducted all day long, it did not detract from the purity of their bedtime prayers every evening. The genocidal wars ended with a crushing victory for our founding fathers.”(pp.1-2.) It kind of puts a different twist on 9/11, doesn’t it?
The narrative involves all the variants of the Egyptians studying dentistry in Chicago. Pure Islamists, contentious Copts, emerging seculars, aspiring “Americans”—trying to cope with the complexities of their schooling as well as the complications of conflicting religious commitments.
It’s no day at their beach. And unless your memory is much better than mine, jot down the names of the main characters and their evident moral commitments. (Remember how hard it was for the native Chicagoans to follow what was going on in the often befuddled heads of very diverse Egyptians) .It may be your first vicarious introduction to the complexities of globalization.
After Aswany describes the Chicago fire, he cleared the deck for the creation of the great metropolis, the complicated interactions between the visitors and the locals ensue, culminating with a visit of the President of Egypt, with all the secret finagling involved in such a dangerous transaction. Interestingly enough, Aswany’s lawyer father was arrested for involvement in a 1952 politically motivated fire in Cairo. This prehistory of “our” Arab Spring is utterly fascinating as we see these doctors to be (Egypt eventually had 180,000!)try to dispel Murbarak in spirit first and ultimately in reality.
By the way, a 21st century doctorate in International English must have a prelim in a modern language. Imagine how productive a scholar would become for US readers if he knew Mandarin or Arabic or whatever contemporary is under-translated! Backward looking humanism demanded that everyone mastered Latin and Greek. Present-oriented demanded “civilized”French and German.
A future-oriented globalized humanist would have a prelim in a science and a useful contemporary language, useful that is to make its literary achievements accessible to US and our students. (The science prelim is necessary to make us more intellectually humble, able finally to overcome our false secular theology of the Great Books Syndrome: a “great” book is anyone that makes us develop our Reason as fast and broadly as possible. No book is A Bible, even when intellectual lazyness prompts us to “think” so.)