“The Yacoubian Building” by Alaa Al Aswany
Translated by Humphrey Davies
A building is not just about bricks and mortar (or wood, or sheets of drywall). It is the people who built it, and the people (and other creatures) who inhabit it, make use of it. And it becomes its surroundings, a product of its environment, urban or rural, organic.
In the case of the illustrious Yacoubian Building, built in 1934 by an Armenian millionaire of the same name, we are talking about an edifice that in fact exists at the address given in the novel. However, the author uses some literary license in the description of it and the street it stands on. His father (who won Egypt’s State Prize for Literature in 1974) maintained an office there. And the author himself opened his first dental clinic in the same building, in Suleiman Basha Street, in the huge, exuberant city of Cairo.
Thus grounded in reality, this novel springs to life effortlessly. The reader immediately meets Zaki Bey el Dessouki, an elegant, elderly gentleman with a weakness for women, alcohol and opium (in that order), a fear of death and a touching naïveté that almost brings personal disaster. “Will God torture him after his death?” Zaki Bey asks himself in a moment of despair. Does he survive the vicissitudes of modern Cairo? Well, dear reader, the novel begins and ends with Zaki Bey, and you will have to wait and see.
The building has steadily changed, as Egyptian society has, since the 1940s when Zaki Bey first moved in. A slow decay is probably the best way to describe it. The once prosperous small bars and clubs in the area almost went into hiding with growing Islamist sentiment. A low-income community has grown up on the roof of the building. Its inhabitants are caught up in a “bitter and wearisome struggle” through life, in which their only pleasures are good food, smoking hashish and sex.
All the inhabitants of the building, rich and poor, young and old are described with a great humanity and sympathy. But the author also gently and skillfully exposes their weaknesses, their obsessions, their fears and, very often, a kind of ingrained corruption of thought. None of them are innocent; all are entangled in a complicated web of relationships – often bitter, sometimes almost unbearably sweet – flavored with the heavy spice of corruption. And the rich scent of corruption, of the powerful and the powerless, grows stronger with every turn of the page.
A young woman allows herself to be exploited by her employer for money and spurns her devoted boyfriend; bar owners and other establishments pay regular bribes to plainclothes police officers and government officials in order to stay in business; a hard-working, well qualified young man is denied a good job because of his poor background, (he turns towards fundamentalist Islam and suffers torture at the hands of the state); a hypocritical politician blackmails his rivals while covering up his own dirty deeds through lies and bribery; an initially loving homosexual relationship is riven with inequalities and class divisions.
These are just some of the stories (but how do they end? Wait and see, my dear reader). It is certainly not difficult to see that this book of fiction caused a tremendous stir in the conservative Egyptian society when it was first published in Arabic in 2002. It hits much too close to home; the characters are too real, the details of the tightly interwoven relationships too familiar. The author continually places the human stories of lust and love, disappointments and small victories into a political, historical and social context that fits like a glove.
All these sordid entanglements – some of which would surely make Jerry Springer blush – are wrapped in the most elegant descriptive prose. The book is a delight to read and almost impossible to put down. Not only does the reader want to know what is next in store for Zaki Bey, Hagg Azzam, Busayna el Sayed, Christine, Souad, Hatim Rasheed and his lover Abduh, Taha el Shazli and all the other fascinating characters. One is also beguiled by the language that weaves the richly embroidered backdrop of Suleiman Basha Street, Cairo, Egypt. In particular, the descriptions of the characters, their appearance, dress and manner, are vivid and detailed.
The aristocratic newspaper editor Hatim sharply rebukes a lazy journalist thus: “My dear educated gentleman, Egypt has not fallen behind because of homosexuality, but because of corruption, dictatorship and social injustice.” And among several Qur’anic verses, there is this one: “Had the peoples of the cities believed and been god-fearing, we would have opened upon them blessings from heaven and earth.”
But surely, the inhabitants of the Yacoubian Building – up on the roof and in the spacious apartments and offices below – surely they deserve some blessings.
However, as it turns out, there are precious few blessings to go around.
Author Note: Alaa Al Aswany was born in Cairo in 1957, the only child of well-known novelist and author Abbas Al Aswany. He had a traditional French education at Cairo’s Lycée Française and then trained in dentistry at Cairo University. He traveled to the United States in 1984, where he earned a Masters degree from the University of Illinois in Chicago. He lived there for seventeen years before returning to Egypt. He has written widely in Egyptian newspapers, magazines and literary journals. His second novel, “The Yacoubian Building,” was set in the early 1990s at the time of the first Gulf War, and created a sensation when it was published in 2002. It remains the most widely read novel in the Arabic language. It has been translated into 23 languages, and was adapted into a film in 2006 and a television series in 2007. Al Aswany’s novel “Chicago,” was published in 2007. A short story collection, “Friendly Fire,” and his controversial novella, “The Isam Abd el-Ati Papers,” (banned in Egypt for ten years and considered “insulting” to his native country) were published in the UK in 2009. Al Aswany still practices dentistry two days a week. He is a well-known opponent of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and is a member of the small Kifaya (Enough) civil society movement. He told the Guardian newspaper in 2009: “I cannot compare what has happened to me with what has happened to some of my friends and comrades who have been tortured and beaten. What has happened to me – banning me from attending the premiere of The Yacoubian Building – is negligible in comparison. But, in any case, writing and fear are absolutely contradictory. Writing is an expression against fear.” He lives in Cairo with his second wife and three children. Al Aswany comments on the current situation in his country in a “Los Angeles Times” article on February 5, 2011. Read more at http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/babylonbeyond/2011/02/egypt-alaa-aswany.html
- The Yacoubian Building – in Hebrew (guardian.co.uk)
- Beyond the Pyramids: Egypt for the Kindle Reader (kindlereader.blogspot.com)
- Analysis: Cairo attack shows fear of change if Mubarak goes (reuters.com)