Alaa Al Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building

Alaa Al Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building comes to us sheathed in the kind of hype usually reserved for Da Vinci clones: it is the bestselling novel in the Arab world for two years running; the screen adaptation is the highest-budget Arabic-language movie ever made; and the real-life residents of the Yacoubian have threatened lawsuits.

The ten-story building of the title, like its namesake in Cairo, was built in 1934 by an Armenian businessman. It’s a beautifully designed building, we are told, with balconies “decorated with Greek faces,” marble corridors, and a Schindler elevator. It became home to Cairo’s rich and powerful when it opened. Things changed after the revolution, however, with the storage sheds on the rooftop being rented out to poor families–a sort of sky-high slum. The Yacoubian became the sort of place that housed both squatters and bigwigs.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the residents of the Yacoubian building in Alaa Al Aswany’s novel are meant to represent different players in modern Egyptian society, from the old guard to the new. Zaki Bey El Dessouki, for instance, is an aristocrat and an incorrigible womanizer who is nostalgic for the days of King Farouq. He cannot abide what Nasser’s revolution has done to Egypt, and he merely wants to live out his days in peace and comfort while seeking refuge in whiskey and the occasional bit of opium. His neighbor, Hagg Azam, is a self-made millionaire with political ambitions. He made money from a chain of clothing stores that cater to “modest women.” Now the Hagg wants to run for a seat in the People’s Assembly, not out of political ambition, but out of a desire to belong into the rarefied circles of the powerful, where real money is to be made. In other words, Hagg Azzam is the nouveau riche to Zaki Bey’s aristocrat.

Then there’s the young generation. Taha El Shazli, the doorkeeper’s son, is a straight A student with loads of ambition, but when he applies for the Police Officer’s Academy, his candidacy is dismissed with one question, “What does your father do?” His social class prevents him from getting ahead, and despite his entreaties to the highest level of government, he has to turn to Plan B: majoring in Political Science. At the university, he finds kinship with a group of religious students, and is soon taken in with their right-wing imam. Meanwhile, Taha’s girlfriend, Busayna, the sole breadwinner for her family, struggles to make ends meet. She is sexually harassed at every job she gets and soon realizes that the only way she can make it is if she puts up with her bosses’ advances. Egypt’s young men are easy preys to religious extremism while the country’s young women are victims of sexual exploitation.

In the world Al Aswany has devised, there are also elements of a multicultural society. The brothers Abaskharon and Malak are Coptic Christians who save every penny they make, by legal and illegal means, in order to finally afford a room on the roof. The Yacoubian is also home to Hatim Rasheed, a half-French gay intellectual and brilliant editor of Le Caire newspaper. Hatim has a fondness for Nubian men, those who remind him of his first homosexual experience, with one of his servants. All these characters are forced, at one point or another, to make choices that ultimately result in either their downfall or redemption. In at least one case, the outcome will be interpreted entirely differently depending on the political and social persuasions of the reader.

The Yacoubian Building is reminiscent of the large-scale melodramas so often produced by Egypt’s huge film industry–young idealists, desirable ingenues, old predators, and so on. The novel wallows in manipulative emotion: Countless scenes end in cliffhangers that are not resolved for another thirty pages. In fact, the writing style itself is reminiscent of the visual language of the movies. Each section is introduced with a paragraph or two of exposition, a sort of establishing shot for the action that is about to unfold. The narrator in these introductory sections is omniscient, and he is given to sweeping and rather infuriating generalizations. He tells us, for instance, that women “all love sex enormously,” that miscegenation produces children who are “confused,” that the faces of homosexuals are marked by “miserable, unpleasant, mysterious, gloomy, look[s],” that gays, “like burglars, pickpockets, and all other groups outside the law” have developed a secret language of their own, and so on. Such pronouncements make it difficult to inhabit the world of the characters and to experience their lives in the way one expects from a novel.

Still, Al Aswany manages to mine his material for satirical purposes. For instance, God is invoked countless times, both by the righteous and by the corrupt. In a particularly humorous scene, a group of government officials who are discussing the price for a bribe to fix upcoming elections repeatedly call on God to bless them. They even conclude the agreement by reading the Fatiha (the first Sura of the Qur’an). Similarly, the Prophet’s hadith are cited both to encourage patience and to justify preventing a young man from having an education. Al Aswany also does a good job of portraying the tough choices faced by Egyptian youth in the face of a corrupt, repressive regime: Join the (Islamic) opposition or leave the country and go work elsewhere, never to return. It is in his commentary on Egyptian politics that Al-Aswany (a frequent contributor to local newspapers) really hits his stride.

The Yacoubian Building is an ambitious novel, but ultimately a flawed one. As a portrait of a country in crisis, however, it is a worthwhile read.