the yacoubian building

Title :: The Yacoubian Building
Author :: Alaa Al Aswany
Completed :: Feb 24 2008
Rating :: 5/5

The distance between Baehler Passage, where Zaki Bey el Dessouki lives, and his office in the Yacoubian Building is not more than a hundred meters, but it takes him an hour to cover it each morning as he is obliged to greet his friends on the street.

Aswany's The Yacoubian Building is raw, it is a true roman à clef. When it was first published in Arabic in 2002 it caused scandal because Aswany throws caution to the wind and is completely open on the topics of political corruption, sexual repression, religious extremism and alludes to the modern hopes of Egypt today. Although the story takes places in the early 1990s around the time of the Gulf War, I have a feeling that the author views these as major concerns among Egyptians today.

The reader is introduced to a myriad of characters most living or working in the Yacoubian Building, a building which really exists in downtown Cairo. In fact Aswany worked in this building at one time (not sure if he still does) as a dentist. The characters are vibrant and are expressed vividly. You really get a sense of who they are and even if you hate them or love them you are certainly interested in what happens to them. The main characters are :

  • Zaki Bey el Dessouki: a man in his 50s who owns office space in the building using it to have various appointments with women. He is the local expert when it comes to women and their ways. But when he is drugged and robbed by one of these women his life seems to spiral out of control but there may be one woman who can redeem him. His character personifies life before the Revolution, culture, a western outlook, not particularly observant of Islam.

  • Taha el Shazli: son to the doorman, Taha has high hopes and the grades to pursue a career in the police force, only his position in life seems to be holding him back. Angry about the situation Taha is convinced to attend university instead to further his studies, it is here that he falls in with a militant Islamist group. Suddenly a sense of anger and injustice take over and guide him on his path through life.

  • Buthayna el Sayed: originally intending to marry Taha, her father dies, life changes and she is forced to seek employment to help care for her mother and siblings. Only Buthayna has trouble keeping a post, it isn't too long before she is forced to quit or fired because she won't give extra services to the boss. With pressure from her mother to do whatever is necessary to keep a job she finds work in a clothing store where she is once again invited into the back room. This time however, a co-worker has told her how to work the system and demand extra money or even clothes for these extra services. Buthayna becomes so disgusted with the way life has worked out and with Taha's changing attitude that the two no longer plan on getting married and she turns her sights to another person in the building.

  • Hatim Rasheed: perhaps one of the more controversial characters in the book is the son of an Egyptian father and a French mother. Hatim is homosexual and unlike other homosexuals he is rather open about it, something which in Egypt, well in the Middle East actually is considered very taboo and in some places illegal. As editor of Le Caire, a French language daily newspaper Hatim is portrayed as very intellectual, cultured but above all human. My favorite quote from Hatim: "There are lots of people who pray and fast, but they steal and harm others. God will punish people like them. As for us, I’m sure God will pardon us because we are not hurting anyone. We just love each other.”

  • Hagg Muhammad Azzam: a migrant to Cairo who began life as a shoeshiner is now among the wealthiest men in Egypt. When his aging libido is given a second wind the Hagg seeks a second wife who he keeps hidden in the Yacoubian Building. It is understood that she is to sever ties with her son from her previous marriage and is under no circumstances to get pregnant in this second marriage. Hoping to serve in the People's Assembly, the Hagg is elected and learns first hand the corruption of politics and may actually lose more than he bargained for.

    I'm telling you this is the BEST book I've read so far this year. Why? Because it made me so angry! Aswany's portrayal of cruelty and injustice is so (hate to repeat myself) raw, this is not a sugar coated story with happy endings, well not for most anyway. It makes you realize that life can be a lot more miserable than you ever thought it could be. Having discussed this book with a friend of mine who happens to be gay I was kind of shocked on his feelings of the book. He thought it was a bit homophobic. But I think that's the point, Aswany is not saying "this is how I feel on the subject" he's showing the reader how it really is, right now, today. Besides homosexuality in Egypt is not the main focus of the book, it's only a small part of several social and political issues that Aswany brings to light. It would be like me getting upset that in the case of Buthayna, Aswany must be saying it's ok for male bosses to sexually harass their female employees, no he's not saying that he's just telling you how it is.

    Like so many other books this one has been made into a movie and on its debut in 2006 grossed over £E6,000,000, the biggest debut in Egyptian theatrical history. I'd be curious to see how the directors brought this wonderful "scandalous" book to the big screen and whether certain things were edited or toned down. If you've read the book I'd like to here from you (frankly I'd like to hear from anyone not many people post on my blog... hmmmm... hello? any readers out there?)

    Other Thoughts ::
    : you're next - reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link!

    . listening . rose-colored times . lisa loeb . tails .


    posted by Ashleigh @ 21:19,


    At 6 March 2008 at 21:16, Blogger Danielle said...

    I can see I'll have to find this book now and read it. I know I've seen it at the library, but I've not picked it up and read the inside flap. I'm always wondering what I miss (luckily I find out about these books from other bloggers!).


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