When Alaa Al Aswani first released Chicago as a series of stories in the weekly Al Destour, he started getting letters warning him from letting the veiled protagonist, Shaimaa, fall into the trappings of illicit relationships – premarital sex to be exact.
And as Shaimaa s relationship with Tarek, one of the characters, became more intimate the tone of the letters got stronger. Eventually they were pure insults.
But Al Aswani didn t give this sort of criticism much attention. What got him concerned was the mounting criticism about what some called excessive and unneeded sex scenes.
So he decided to conduct a random poll, calling some of the people who had contacted him about the novel: 20 women and 20 men.
He asked them all one simple question: is the sex too much?
The answers, however, revealed more about the nature of Egyptian society than it did about opinion of the novel, he said.
The 20 women saw no problem with the sex or how it was portrayed. The men were a different story.
While some saw no problem, others heavily criticized the sexual depictions and others said they would read the novel but would not allow their female relatives (sisters or wives) to read it.
Al Aswani explained that the difference in how the women and men perceived the sexual scenes indicates something about the relationships that bind the two sexes. Among other issues, he noted the paternal protectiveness that dominates marital relationships.
Breaking what some consider taboos, Al Aswani believes critics may be deluding themselves by thinking that long-age concepts and traditions are unaffected by time and social changes. But they are subject to change.
Literature shakes such concepts, he added.
I m proud of Arab culture, but it is a stagnant culture, he said. When Tarek and Shaimaa faced a different society while abroad, they went through a cultural shock.
They are the victims of an unchanging culture . You can only deal with a certain amount of contradictions.
For economist Galal Amin, who wrote Chicago s foreword, the criticism about the sex scenes propelled him to conduct a different type of research.
I went through the novel again, he said.
He reached the conclusion that those who criticized the sex have taken issues out of context. For regular readers, Amin explained, they perceive any scene through the eyes of the characters seeing or describing it.
There is the enraged who accidentally sees his daughter in bed with another man.
There is the woman who goes to lengths for sexual pleasure reflecting a society that prioritizes self satisfaction at any cost, Amin explained. And there is the young woman who goes through sexual humiliation to make a living, he added.
The graphic description of each, Amin said, was necessary to magnify the characters feelings and ordeals and the subsequent and relevant reflections on the society they live in.