Title: The Yacoubian Building
Author: Alaa Al Aswany
Publication Year: 2006 (published in original Arabic: 2002)
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.
- 9/24 for the Bottoms Up Reading Challenge
- 19/? for the World Religions Challenge
- 17/? for the Summer Slimdown Challenge
- 14/? for the Middle East Reading Challenge
- 20/? for the Ultimate Reviewers Challenge
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.