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.
The Chicago Tribune‘s Monica Eng catches up with Alaa’ Al-Aswany, author of The Yacoubian Building, which has become a best-seller in the Arab world, and which has just come out in the States. (If you hit a registration wall, use bugmenot.com for a login/password combo.)
Set in a landmark Cairo building, the novel follows the lives of the straight and gay, rich and poor, and the secular and fundamentalist as they unravel and intertwine against the backdrop of the first Gulf war.
The book also serves as the backbone for a star-studded movie filming in Egypt and expected to be that country’s most expensive ever, costing an estimated $3 million. It’s already being hyped as the Egyptian “Ocean’s Eleven.”
Despite this success, life remains largely business as usual for the 48-year-old dentist. A recent warm Thursday afternoon found him in his spotless Cairo dental clinic after a day’s work and his customary afternoon nap. (…) “You can never make your living as novelist here because we don’t have rights,” he says in a tobacco-cured baritone. “And with the publishers here, you don’t really know how many books you’ve sold. Here we say if you don’t trust your publisher you multiply the number they told you by five. But if you do trust him, you only multiply it by three.”
I’m expecting a review copy of the book, and will report back once I receive and read it.
Related posts by Friday guest blogger Randa Jarrar:
Arabic Translations Up?
More Yacoubian Buildings.
The Egyptian novelist Alaa al-Aswany had an opinion piece this past weekend in the New York Times:
PRESIDENT OBAMA is clearly trying to reach out to the Muslim world. I watched his Inaugural Address on television, and was most struck by the line: “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers.” He gave his first televised interview from the White House to Al Arabiya, an Arabic-language television channel.
But have these efforts reached the streets of Cairo?
Al-Aswany argues that Obama’s deafening silence about Israel’s air-, land-, and sea-based bombing of Gaza during the first three weeks of January has significantly drained any reservoir of goodwill he might have had in the region. Meanwhile, in the New York Times magazine, the Israeli novelist and screenwriter Etgar Keret contributes a short piece to the Lives section, about running into an old friend while in a bomb shelter. Here is the closing paragraph:
On the train from Beersheba I read a paper that someone had left behind on a seat. There was an item about the lions and ostriches at the Gaza Zoo. They were suffering from the bombing and hadn’t been fed regularly since the war began. The brigade commander wanted to rescue one particular lion in a special operation and transfer it to Israel. The other animals were going to have to fend for themselves. Another, smaller, item, without a picture, reported that the number of children who had died in the bombing of Gaza so far had passed 300. Like the ostriches, the rest of the children there would also have to fend for themselves. Our situation at the level of the matchstick Eiffel Tower has indeed improved beyond recognition. As for the rest, like Kobi, I have my doubts.
You can read both pieces here and here.