Rating: 3.5 / 5

342 pages; Harper Collins; 2007

Chicago offers an illuminating portrait of America—a complex, often contradictory land in which triumph and failure, opportunity and oppression, licentiousness and tender love, small dramas and big dreams, coexist.

You may have never heard of Alaa Aswany or you may have heard of him through his previous novel The Yacoubian Building or his political activities.

At first glance, Chicago offers a glimpse into the complexities of Egyptian society, especially for those who leave to see opportunities in the USA. Arab readers may alternate with feeling kinship with some of the characters to familiarity with some elements of Egyptian culture that seem universal for the Middle East to frustration and even fury at the charicature style Aswany uses throughout his story.

This is especially true for the many unnecessary and violent depictions of sex littered throughout Chicago that, along with awkward attempts at writing about women’s bodies, feel like a juvenile attempt at a writing style meant to conjure impressions of a sophisticated style when in fact, it does the complete opposite. Women readers will be struck by a sense that there’s a hidden, or maybe not so hidden, disdain for women that’s thinly veiled as creative writing.

That’s not to say that the characters of Chicago aren’t well-rounded. The Egyptians depicated seem to fleshed out for the most part while their American counterparts are stilted, two-dimensional, stereotypes. Readers will also be struck by the universal feelings of fighting against fear to do something that’s hard to nostalgia of years gone by.

This is a flawed book about flawed people, which somehow makes it endearing. Arab readers, whether based in the Middle East or outside the region, may find themselves torn between seeing themselves, their communities, and cultures, in one way or another through various points within the novel. Non-Arab readers, especially those who have never lived in the Middle East, will be given a quick glance into the complexities of Arab culture that isn’t easily erased, even if those who immigrated try their best to discard the life they left behind for imagined fresh starts.

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