The Yacoubian Building (Review)

August 29, 2010

Book cover for "The Yacoubian Building" by Alaa Al Aswany.Title: The Yacoubian Building

Author: Alaa Al Aswany

Publication Year: 2006 (published in original Arabic: 2002)

Pages: 255

Genre: Fiction

Source: Gift from Zaid a few years ago

From the cover:

This controversial bestselling novel in the Arab world reveals the political corruption, sexual repression, religious extremism, and modern hopes of Egypt today.

All manner of flawed and fragile humanity reside in the Yacoubian Building, a once-elegant temple of Art Deco splendor now slowly decaying in the smog and bustle of downtown Cairo: a fading aristocrat and self-proclaimed “scientist of women”; a sultry, voluptuous siren; a devout young student, feeling the irresistible pull toward fundamentalism; a newspaper editor helplessly in love with a policeman; a corrupt and corpulent politician, twisting the Koran to justify his desires.

These disparate lives careen toward an explosive conclusion in Alaa Al Aswany’s remarkable international bestseller. Teeming with frank sexuality and heartfelt compassion, this book is an important window on to the experience of loss and love in the Arab world.

This book was the first Arabic novel that I ever read, a few years ago, immediately after I watched the film version with my partner. I loved it then, and now that I know more about the culture and some of the issues that come up in the story, I loved it even more the second time around.

The Yacoubian Building explores brief glimpses in the lives of a variety of different characters, all of whom have some kind of a connection to the building mentioned in the title, in downtown Cairo. Some of these characters live in or on the building itself, including Busayna and Taha – whose families live in poverty on the roof – and Hatim Rasheed, the homosexual editor-in-chief of a French language newspaper. Others are connected to the building through their businesses, such as Zaki Bey el Dessouki – an aging playboy who keeps his “office” in the building – and Hagg Muhammad Azzam, an aspiring politician whose business (and apartment of his secret second wife) is located in the building.

So much goes on in this novel that I can’t even begin to give an accurate picture of it. The characters mentioned above are merely the tip of the iceberg; the other characters in the story, even those with no direct connection to the Yacoubian Building, have lives that are all intertwined with each others’ in some way or another. Nobody is left completely outside of the web of this mini-community.

Even in comparison to a lot of the “serious” Western literature that I’ve read, Al Aswany really tackles the hard issues brought up in his book head on. Polygamy, homosexuality, government corruption and bribery, abortion, fundamentalism – all are approached very frankly in The Yacoubian Building. This novel really is an interesting look into the problems that Egyptians face regularly, not just the simpler, sanitized issues that are usually discussed by outsiders.

I definitely recommend this book, but with a caveat or two. For sure, you need to have some background on Middle Eastern society before reading this book – there are just so many nuances that you will miss entirely if you don’t know some of what to look for, even with the glossary of terms in the back of the book. You should also know that the Yacoubian Building really does exist, and isn’t just a fictional metaphor for Egyptian life.

Finally, you need to throw away any pre-conceived notions you might have about what “really happens” in Egypt; you need an open mind to really get into The Yacoubian Building. Everyone is flawed in some way: there are no “perfect” or “heroic” characters, no one who is left beyond any kind of reproach. Just like in real life.

Rating:


This book is a part of the Ramadan Reading event happening here this month.

You can find other posts in the series by clicking on the image to the right, or by taking a look at the schedule of posts and reviews.

7 Comments

  • Helen Murdoch August 30, 2010 at 8:21 am

    This book sounds really interesting! I am loving your Ramadan month, thank you so much for exposing us all to books that cover countries and issues that many are afraid of and unsure of!

    • Carina September 1, 2010 at 3:59 am

      Thanks so much! That’s all I could really hope for, is that it opens up some other options for people. 🙂

  • zibilee August 30, 2010 at 11:19 am

    Though I don’t really know a lot about Middle Eastern society, I think this book sounds really fascinating, and had not ever heard of it before. I really liked your review and am going to have to take a closer look at it. It sounds very unique!

    • Carina September 1, 2010 at 3:58 am

      Definitely! You just might need a bit of research as you’re going along to figure out what certain things mean or how they’re important.

  • Amy August 30, 2010 at 10:24 pm

    So… this is a great book. I just need to finish it! I got about half way through and then got distracted by something. I can’t remember what now. I will have to finish it soon!

    • Carina August 30, 2010 at 10:26 pm

      Yes, you should! It’s really great, and it just keeps going like that.

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