Ehling: Doctor al-Aswani – the dentist as writer: How does this go together?

Aswani: Well, it is a kind of a phenomenon in literature. We have all the time had doctors who write literature, and I was really astonished when I knew by reading that it has been there all the time, this kind of double profession. Medicine has given to literature many more writers than any other profession. I thought about that – because you have Anton Cechov in Russian Literature, you have Emile Zola, Gottfried Benn, and many more.

I believe this is because medicine and literature have the same subject: man, the human being. So, they are not separate worlds, and I do not think that a doctor feels he is going through another profession while he is writing, because he has just been very close to man in his clinic, and it is the same man he is writing about in his works. I am no exception from this. Writing has always been a dream of life for me, because my father used to be a writer, as well. I was an only child, so I was very attached to him, and we had writing in the air in our house. He was a lawyer, as well, and he advised me to take up a profession, because you cannot make a living from writing in Egypt, or in the Arab World.

The Yacoubian Building

The Yacoubian Building

Dentistry has been very useful to me. First, because it enabled me to be an independent writer,  which is something in Egypt. I do not have any pressure, because I make my living not from the government. And second, it was very useful because you have human contact with different people every day. It is very interesting and very useful for a writer to have this exposure to human feelings and human characters with different backgrounds. So, even now that my texts are being translated in the west and that for the last two years I have been making good money from literature, for the first time in my life, I have no intention to stop dentistry.

Ehling: Is it the analytical element of the two professions the binds them together? The stripping away of layer after layer of surface to come to the root causes of behaviour, to find out what make people do what they do?

Aswani: I must thank you for this question, because it is very interesting and very intelligent as well. There are critics who analyse the works of the great writers who have also been doctors, and they say the same thing. That as a doctor you have the analytical eye from the very beginning. In medicine we have been taught from the very beginning that it is essential to diagnose to see where the disease is, and to make the distinction between the disease and the complications. Because: if you treat the complication as if it was a disease, you will kill the patient. And I believe that this is very useful. I was educated at the University of Illinois in Chicago, and got a Master’s Degree in dentistry. My thesis was in histology, the science of the human tissue. And somebody told me that even the way you write the scenes and try to analyse the inside of your characters it has something to do with histology. In histology we have something called the power of vision, stratified, with many layers. If you use a light microscope you are going to have an image 10,000 times bigger, but when you go to an electronic microscope, you have a vision a million times bigger. Every time you magnify the power of vision, you have another world. And I used this in my first novella, the idea of a drop of water being a real world that you do not see and it depends on your power of vision. For us, it is just a drop of water, but when you get it under your microscope, you find another world.

Ehling: So, when one looks at your novel The Yacoubian Building, you are talking about symptoms in the Egyptian and Arab societies that are being very much talked about in the west as well: Islamic fundamentalism, the role of women, the abuse of power, corruption and greed. For us in the west, knowledge about what really lies behind these symptoms is very difficult to get hold of. When you look at Lebanon, it is easy to say that on the one side you have the bad fundamentalists of Hizbollah who want to oust the good western-oriented government of Mr. Siniora. But it is much more complicated, isn’t it.

Aswani: Yes, it is much more complicated and I believe this is one of the great lessons of literature: it teaches us that human beings are the same everywhere and that good literature presents the human being as a human being and nothing more. That is why literature is one of the most beautiful creations in history, this art of producing life on the pages. For example, I adore Russia, although I have never been there. I know many things about the daily life of Russia, because of Dostojewski and Cechov. I am an expert on Dostojewski, I can give lectures on him. Everybody is presented as a human being, literature teaches us to be more understanding to be more tolerant. Try to understand others rather than judging them.

Literature gives us the Other View of daily life. A wife who cheats on her husband is very bad in daily life, but it is only good literature that can explain why she did so, and why you might forgive her or understand her situation. So literature makes us more human and better human beings. We have been in need of this throughout history.

I believe that at the moment we do need literature more than at any time before, with all these stereotypes on both sides and this horrible, unscientific concept of the “Clash of Civilisations,” with imperialism and dictatorships. Imperialism and the dictatorships in the Arab world and the fanaticism have a lot in common – and we are the victims. When I say “we” I am talking about human beings in the West AND in the Arab World. I believe the real classification of the struggle, on which side you are standing – on the human beings side, the human rights side or on the multinational corporation’s side which is the same side as that of the dictators and the fanatics.

This interview was conducted in Cairo, on January 26, 2007.

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