Mary Beth Writes

1/19/2024

I set a goal for this year to read one translated modern novel every month. I’ve been following ‘Librarian of Burgos’ on Instagram and this woman keeps hyping and explaining books I’ve never heard of, which intrigues me mightily. I think she might be a reader’s reader. Anyways, she is European, has transcendently luminous skin plus several master’s degrees and a doctorate in history. Sometimes she even recommends books that are not, sadly she says, not yet translated into English. Cracks me up.

She recommended The Republic of False Truths by Alaa Alaswany (my library notifies via a cover sticker that in the US his name is spelled Ala Aswani). It took me a month to read; it’s not an easy story. There were a few pages I had to skim/skip because they described assault and torture.

Alaswany is a well-known and highly regarded Egyptian writer. He now lives outside Egypt because he is not safe there.

The book is set in the Arab Spring Revolution of 2011. There are a number of characters who, you will discover after a while, are connected to each other. There are heartfelt, brilliant, earnest young adults who, at great risk, join the protests in Tahrir Square and elsewhere. There are powerful men and women who do not want to revolution to succeed. There are victims, heroes, perpetrators of utter evil. And then there is the general population of Egyptians who have to decide how they are going to think and believe, what they are going to do, and how much, if anything, they are willing to sacrifice to support the revolution that is for them.

This book scared me. It rings bells we are hearing in our western societies. It's a story of a modern Egypt trying to free itself from the manipulative power and corruption of the ultra-rich and ultra powerful. This is not unknown to us.

Here are some of the notes and points I made for myself as I was reading it:

Egypt, as portrayed by Alaswany, is dominated by conservative Islam religion. Women are second tier citizens expected to be submissive and modest. Good partnerships built on love and respect exist, but it isn’t common nor is it a life goal of most typical couples. It’s fine for men to regard wives and daughters as property, accessories, or servants. Humans can transcend these limitations but the accepted practice of religion doesn’t challenge these attitudes. When young women decide to live their lives as champions of fairness and justice, not only is this hard, it’s almost impossible. Fathers and bosses feel entitled to limit the options and freedom of their daughters or wives.

Shutting down the free movement and adult choices for half the population means every time you see a woman trying hard to do her job in a way that respects the poor and unpowerful, you are seeing a woman who had to figure out how to live within or leave her own family first. Young men have to go through one layer of themselves to join the revolution. Women have to go through two.

As one young woman says, “I believe in my opinions. I love my family. Both of these are true.” But she cannot live out both of these truths; she has to pick one and walk away from the other.

Powerful people don’t have to explain or defend themselves. They just act. People who oppose corrupt power have to talk all the time; among themselves, to the public, to the powerful people. They have to learn how to use media. Powerful people just use their ‘same ole, same ole” lies, threats, and violence.

When creating and sustaining a revolution to fight corruption and bring justice, one needs the support of the “ordinary people” of that society. The thing is, most ordinary citizens are passionate about their own rights but not about the rights of others. The ongoing work of any movement towards “justice for all” is to figure out how to educate people to care about more than just themselves and their own community.

Tell me about it.

We see a loving relationship between two people who are both married to other people. There is a backstory here that I won’t tell you, but our respect and sympathy lay with these two. She asks him at one point what their future can possibly be. He says, “In our situation it’s wrong to think of the future.”

To love in a revolution is to give up the busyness and satisfaction of arranging our personal future? This is so close to so many of the enigmatic sayings of Jesus.

The powerful call up their very rich and powerful imam when they have questions of how to act. The imam tells them “Necessity permits the prohibited.” When the TV news anchor puts on the head covering, that’s when she becomes evilly duplicitous. Her religious leader does not ask her to seek justice. He says, in veiled terms, that it’s okay to lie in order to preserve the status quo of yore.

Religion brought to us by rich, publically pious, and powerful religious leaders is always suspect.

A shivering line as authorities quash and quell the revoluti0on. “In Egypt the authorities are capable of failing at everything except the subjugation of the Egyptians.”

One man says, “Am I drinking to forget or to remember?”

The only characters who can continue past the timeline of the book are those few people who are not waiting for resolution. The ones who endure until they are imprisoned are the ones who accept getting up every morning to continue to live in and fight against conflict and craziness.

This moved me. We need to stop looking for “when it will get sane again.” We need to remember that it was never sane, that the calmness we fondly remember was built on the exploitation of others.

Weirdly, I find this comforting. It’s wasted energy to long for the past. Peace and love can only survive where there is respect and justice.

 

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As a white male gay citizen of the US, I live in a mostly privileged world on safety built on an empire of global economic domination based upon predatory capitalism. It preys and feeds upon the corrupt places in the world that oppress their own people for financial gain. Oppressed people rise up. Sometimes they prevail. But mostly do not. I imagine The Republic of False Truths tells the Egyptian story of this reality with compelling imagery. Syria, Ukraine, Gaza, El Salvador, Guatemala, Belgian Congo, South Africa, Russia, the 400 years in the American South. Over and over again. throughout history. Thanks for sharing your personal thoughts in your journey through this intriguing lens of the Egyptian experience.
Mary Beth's picture

What caught my respect and attention was his critique. respect, criticism of the masses of ordinary Egyptian citizens. There are two (in love) characters who, over the period of the revolution and it's later dissolution, who will take different stances against the entrenched determination of the majority of exploited people to get back to the "status quo." Ashwani writes both sides. Its so infuriating and sad.

So often your writing comes at a time when I am thinking precisely about the very topic: "most ordinary citizens are passionate about their own rights, but not about the rights of others." I will add this book to my ever growing list of must reads. Thank you always. Patricia
Mary Beth's picture

Thank you, too. Empathy is, apparently, an extravagant and hard to win virtue.

I am reading a translated book right now. The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe, translated by Lilit Zekulin Thwaites. It based on the true story of an Auschwitz prisoner. It is also a hard story to read.
Mary Beth's picture

Translated literature catches my respect in that it wasn't written "for me." I'm outside of who the writer was addressing. It's traveling without packing a suitcase.

Thank you to you and Mary Beth for the recommendations. I'm doing a reading challenge this year and one of the monthly challenges is to read a book written by someone outside of the United States. Both of the books you mentioned sound intriguing.

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