Like an intricately woven Persian carpet, Chicago offers a rich tapestry of immigrant life even though the individual stories of the characters are often more compelling than the whole. The people
who pepper Alaa Al Aswany’s story are cocooned in their new city, either as newly arrived students or those who consider themselves to be completely American, even though they cannot help but be tied to the delicate cultural tendrils
of their homeland.
on the campus of the University of Illinois Medical Center, we meet Ra'fat, who came to the United States in the 1960s
and now spurns his birth country. Ra’fat is currently in the grip of a deathly jealously towards Jeff, who has been dating his daughter, Sarah. He just can’t stand the idea
that Sarah is in love with another man and is having a relationship outside marriage. Jeff snorts drugs and seems to be holding Sarah in a vice-like psychedelic grip.
Ra’fat fanatically pours his heart out to John Graham, an old leftist hippie who marched in the civil rights movement and has his own problems to contend with. Yet while Ra’fat harangues in defense of Western culture, even after all these years he still seems to have the mentality of the Eastern men he attacks and mocks.
Three young Egyptian students - Nagi, Shaymaa and Tariq - arrive in Chicago and give this novel its core. Nagi writes a journal that no else will read; an aspiring poet,
he writes so he can move from his old world, the only world he’s known, to a new and exciting world filled with possibilities and probabilities.
Likewise, beautiful Shaymaa is determined leave behind the 35 years of life in Egypt.
As she lands at O’Hare Airport, she battles dejection as she faces waves of Americans, men and women “streaming forth from all directions” and shying away from her because “I am Arab and because I am veiled.”
Destiny and fate brings Shaymaa together with Taraq. Taraq respects Shaymaa and wants to embrace her, but he seems at war with the material he must study and the sexual desires that consume him.
Various other characters weave in and out of the drama, all coming together
to act out their various bi-cultural dysfunctions with unpredictably and gentle pathos. When the novel isn’t descending into
colorful and kaleidoscopic melodrama, many of the characters either rage against the evils and decadence of America or wax poetic about the systematic corruption back in their homeland.
Although Aswany weighs his story down with a bit too much didactic political diatribe, the rampant sexual and erotic passages provide welcome relief, and also some of the best laughs.
Much of this book is filled with vibrant energy, particularly that of the city of Chicago, which acts as a dramatic and poignant backdrop to the action. This is often a seductive tale of various characters as they try to cope with their lot in life, torn between the old as they search for meaning in the new.