‘To look at, a drop of water is as pure and transparent as crystal, but if you magnify it under a lens, a thousand impurities appear. The moon is beautiful and unsullied as long as it’s far away, but if you get close, it looks like a filthy, deserted beach … Our love of beauty is merely a trick produced by the way we look,’ argues the protagonist of Alaa Al Aswany’s novella, ‘The Isam Abd el-Ati Papers’, which occupies nearly half this collection. Applying this logic to his examination of his own life and that of his family, he comments, ‘We were a tight-knit family in the old style, but I drew close and saw.’ These last words actually quote the title of the novella in Arabic: ‘The One Who Drew Close and Saw’. Al Aswany, a practising dentist, sprang to worldwide fame with the success of his first published novel, The Yacoubian Building, which was published in Arabic in 2002, translated into English in 2004, and turned into a hugely successful film in 2006. The discovery of ugliness on ‘drawing close and seeing’ is, perhaps, a professionally inspired metaphor. For what beauty remains in the view of a dentist, on drawing close and seeing wide open what seem from a distance the most immaculately formed lips and pearl-like teeth?
In his introduction to the collection, Al Aswany describes his apprenticeship as a novelist; how the daytime dentist would become a student of human types by night: ‘I worked at forming my own group of amazing characters. I made friends with poor people and rich, retired politicians and