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Alaa Al Aswany on Going from Dentist to Novelist

al Aswany:  My name is Alaa al Aswany.  I am a novelist.  Well, I’m from Egypt and I was raised in the house of my father who was as well a very known novelist in Egypt, and I was his only child, so I was very attached to him and we had literature everywhere in the house.  So, that was my only dream, to be a novelist.  But, in the Arab world, it is almost impossible to make your living from literature.  You must have another profession, including Naguib Mahfouz who is a Nobel Price winner.  He used to work as a civil servant for the government ‘til the age of retirement.  So, I had to have another profession, and that’s why I became a dentist.  What is happening with me now is very exceptional.  Now, I have been a best selling novelist in the West, and now, since 2002, I earn money and I can quit dentistry, you see?  But this is very exceptional.  And also, I insist on keeping my dental clinic, and I see my patients twice, only twice a week now, and I have colleagues who are taking care of the clinic when I’m abroad.

Question: Why was getting published in Egypt so difficult?

al Aswany:    Well, it was a really very tough time because I was refused to be published by the government three times, in 1990, 1994, 1998, for three different books.  And then, 1998, I was, as you say, I was really very desperate, so I said to my wife that it’s enough for literature.  I gave literature all that I can give and [lit] has [given] me only troubles, you see, and I decided with my wife to immigrate to New Zealand, as you say, but I told my wife that I’m going, I have began just another novel and I’m going to finish this novel and this is going to be the end with literature for me.  And this novel was “The Yacoubian Building,” which is, it’s now, we’re going to celebrate 1 million copies the coming months, in 22 languages, 100 countries all over the world.  And even my previous works now are going to appear in different languages and I’m very proud to say that “The Yacoubian Building” was a best selling novel in the Arab world from 2002 ‘til 2007.  Now, “The Yacoubian Building” is number 2 on the best selling list because “Chicago” is number 1, my new novel, so I am number 1 and number 2.  I’m very happy.

Alaa Al Aswany talks about the impossibility of making a living as a writer in Egypt.

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