The Yacoubian Building

Alaa Al Aswany

translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies
The American University in Cairo Press 2004
A book review by Danny Yee © 2005 http://dannyreviews.com/
Cairo's Yacoubian building is past its prime: the main apartments are no longer lived in by the cream of society and the small rooms on the roof that were originally attached to them are now separately owned by poor families. Notionally set during the 1991 Gulf War but about contemporary Egypt, Alaa Al Aswany's novel The Yacoubian Building follows the lives of several of the building's inhabitants.

Taha el Shazli, the son of the doorman, has his heart set on becoming a policeman, but though he does brilliantly at school and meets all the requirements, he is rejected because of his background. Embittered, he becomes involved with an Islamist student movement, and then is picked up by the security forces. Meanwhile his ex-girlfriend has to sell herself to make ends meet.

Hatim Rasheed is an intellectual, the editor of a leading newspaper, and a homosexual. He installs his young conscript lover Abduh in one of the rooms on the roof for convenience, and for a short while this gives him stability in his love life.

Rags-to-riches millionaire Hagg Azzam has installed his secret second wife Souad in one of the apartments. He buys himself a seat in the People's Assembly and takes advantage of the business openings that brings, but baulks at paying 25% of the proceeds from his import deals as protection.

Zaki Bey el Dessouki is an aging womaniser who looks back with nostalgia at the good old days; he shares an apartment with his sister until she throws him out and attempts to have him declared incompetent. Meanwhile, the tailor Malak Khilla and his brother Abaskharon manoeuvre and conspire to take over first a rooftop room and then an apartment.

These strands are only loosely connected, but they are all dominated by violence. Through them Al Aswany explores the abuses of power and the corruption that permeate Egypt, from the highest levels of government and business down to the employment of the police as paid thugs in domestic disputes. He uncovers hypocrisies of power, religion, and love, but he refrains from judgement, leaving the reader to make their own evaluations. The Yacoubian Building is not heavy going: the mood is never gloomy and there are occasional flashes of joy, most notably associated with sex, of which Al Aswany takes a positive view.

The Yacoubian Building is fast-moving and action-packed, with drama in every scene and shifts between the different strands used to provide tension. Though this is sometimes strained, it holds up well enough, and though the characters represent different classes and backgrounds, they are also individuals. The bestselling Arabic novel of 2002 and 2003, in translation The Yacoubian Building offers outsiders a lop-sided but revealing view of Egyptian society.

November 2005

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Related reviews:
- more Arabic literature
- books about Egypt + North Africa
%T The Yacoubian Building
%A Aswany, Alaa Al
%M Arabic
%F Davies, Humphrey
%I The American University in Cairo Press
%D 2004
%O hardcover
%G ISBN 9774248627
%P 253pp