Chicago

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(323)

Alaa Al Aswany, AUC Press, £13.50

Alaa Al Aswany's novel Chicago doesn't disappoint although it had a lot to live up to following The Yacoubian Building - bestselling novel in the Arab world in 2002 and 2003. Chicago is about Egyptian immigrant students and professors in Chicago and the Americans they meet and work with at the University of Illinois. And most of all, Chicago is a novel about love: carnal love, love between friends and family, love that breaks cultural boundaries and bridges cultural differences, lost love, nationalistic love and love for an adopted country.

We meet Shaymaa, who is over 30, unmarried and focused on getting an education despite her mother's pleas to find a husband. The cultural shock of US society and customs makes her doubt that quest - especially when a firefighter breaks down her apartment door, and rushes in to hug her although she's dressed only in a flannel gallabiya while preparing a favourite Egyptian dish that set off the fire alarm.

We also meet medical student Nagi who never wastes a chance to voice his dislike for the Egyptian regime and in fact starts organising among the Egyptian immigrant community to give the visiting Egyptian president a welcome he will never forget. But the watchful eye of the Egyptian student union leader - an Egyptian secret service lackey - follows his every move and makes it clear that any Egyptian can be sent back home at the snap of his fingers.

Ra'fat, on the other hand, has worked for decades to become American through and through, including becoming an expert on baseball. But when his teenage daughter moves in with her boyfriend, Ra'fat finds it difficult to actually embrace a "Western" social leniency and let her go.

In Chicago, Aswany's storytelling is as marvellous as in The Yacoubian Building. He effortlessly tackles complex social, cultural and political issues, weaving them together in a language that is both easy to follow, yet poetically rich.

He introduces us to a world where Arabs and Muslims must put up with racism in a post-9/11 society but where friendships between Americans and Egyptians are also easily made. Chicago is one of those books that you can read again, and enjoy as much as you did the first time.