Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 1, 2023

The Republic of False Truths (2018), by Alaa Al Aswany, translated by S R Fellowes

The Republic of False Truths is a sprawling novel that comes from a place of deep despair and frustration. Its author, Alaa Al  Aswany (b. 1957), was a founder member of the Kefaya political movement which gave rise to the failed 2011 Revolution in Egypt and in this, his latest novel, hopelessness bleeds through on almost every page. Sympathetic characters are few and far between in this fierce satire where one of the characters expresses a view perhaps held by Aswany himself: Essam is bitterly contemptuous of his fellow Egyptians.

What devil had whispered in the Egyptians’ ear and driven them to behave completely contrary to their nature? Egyptians knew nothing about revolution.  They didn’t understand it and if they got caught up in it, they quickly deserted and came to hate it. When he saw on the television people dancing in the streets out of joy at the toppling of Mubarak, he was possessed by rage.  He was less upset at losing his position than he was at the self-deception of the Egyptians.  He would have liked to write an article in which he’d say, ‘O Egyptians, read the history of your country and the history of revolutions around the world before you begin driving your youth to their deaths to no avail! There are peoples who are revolutionary by nature, but you, O Egyptians, were not created for revolution and it was not created for you.  Not one revolution in your modern history has succeeded.  Every revolt of yours against authority has failed and things have got worse. (p.223)

As you can see from that excerpt, Aswany’s style is declaratory.  This is not the only speech-like explanation in the novel. But Essam has good reason to be cynical: in his youth he was involved in a failed Socialist uprising and suffered terribly for it in the same prison currently being used to torture the dissidents. The author is on a mission to make his readers understand that youngsters — dancing in the street at what they think is the achievement of their aims — have no chance against vested interests in Egypt.  The novel follows the same trajectory as real life: in the wake of Mubarak’s resignation, wealthy and influential Egyptians are called to a meeting where they rig things so that the Muslim Brotherhood win the ensuing election and things are worse than before.

Aswany’s skill is in managing the narrative tension in a novel where the blurb gives away the ending even to those who weren’t paying attention in 2011. He achieves this by humanising a representative array of characters whose roles are revealed in different ways.

The novel begins with General Aswany, a pious Muslim who completes his morning devotions and domestic routines over five pages — and then goes to work where he supervises the torture of a prisoner under interrogation.

(So from the outset, the reader knows that the author is not going to shy away from sickening violence.)

The naïve voices of the idealists challenging this regime are those of two students who overcome their shyness by corresponding through email. Aimaa and Mazen share their excitement about the impact of their peaceful protests, never realising until too late that they do not have majority support behind them.  Corruption, nepotism and religious conservatism are too firmly entrenched for them to bring enough others with them.

Filial duty is another inhibiting factor.  Aimaa’s mother is terrified of the risks, while Mazen is more confident of success so is less concerned about the potential impact on his family.  Danya — the much loved daughter of General Aswany — is coerced, time and again, into abandoning her idealistic principles because of the risk to her father’s status and reputation.

Tahrir Square during 8 February 2011.jpg

Demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on 8 February 2011 (Wikipedia)

The wealthy aristocrat, Ashraf, is more concerned about his affair with his domestic servant Ikram, and he’s usually too stoned to care.  It is only when one of the students pleads for refuge at his door that he begins to take note of the government’s increasingly violent reprisals against the chaos in Tahrir Square,  He uses his money and resources to provide support but his wife Magda holds some trump cards of her own to sabotage his activities.

Cartoonish characters add colour: apart from General Aswany, there is Sheik Shamal, a hypocritical proselytiser for the Godliness TV channel, and Nourhan whose Islamic credentials grow in tandem with her fat salary as a TV presenter.  These two are enlisted by General Aswany to use their substantial fortunes to sway public opinion away from the protesters.

But of course as well as the soft weaponry of a compliant media, there’s also heavy armoury. There are graphic scenes of violence in this novel and the hopelessness of anyone being brought to justice over the government’s betrayal of human rights, is shown in the demoralising trial of Khaled’s killer.

The sex scenes are risible but mercifully few.  (Absurd male fantasies about women enjoying male pleasure when they’re not having a good time themselves. As if.)

Alaa Al Aswany is a literary superstar in Egypt but has been living in the US since being sued by military prosecutors in Egypt for “insulting the president, the armed forces and judicial institutions”.  His other novels — all of them uncompromising in their criticism of Egyptian politics and government — include The Papers of Essam Abdel Aaty (1990); The Yacoubian Building (2002); Chicago (2007); and The Automobile Club of Egypt (2013), which I reviewed here.

A word about the uncredited cover design…

Flag of Egypt.svgThe cover is a clever design, evoking different perspectives and people turning from away from each other. The palette uses the colours of the Egyptian flag, but the images are designed so that even the skin colour of the blushing woman wearing the hijab is pitch perfect, as you will see when you read within the novel about their humiliation under interrogation. But Faber doesn’t credit its designer.  It could have been done by AI for all we know.

It’s not possible to read this book without remembering the current uprising in Iran and the Tik Tok generation’s optimism about achieving change.  Do read this article about the current situation, which has eerie parallels with events in The Republic of False Truths. The Iranian situation seems to have drifted off the pages of our media.  It’s even off the radar at The Guardian which has a dedicated section about the Middle East in its World menu.

See also Janine’s review at The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

Author: Alaa Al Aswany
Title: The Republic of False Truths
Translated from the Arabic by S R Fellowes
Publisher: Faber 2021, first published in Arabic in Lebanon in 2018
Cover design by Faber (whatever that means),
ISBN: 9780571347605, pbk., 452 pages including a glossary
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings

Image credits:

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