MIDDLE EAST AND NORTH AFRICA

Translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies

This Egyptian best-selling novel, written by former dentist Alaa Al Aswany, was first published in 2002, and immediately had an enormous impact, becoming a national bestseller and the world’s best-selling work of fiction in the Arabic language. The Yacoubian Building has therefore achieved something that very few Middle Eastern novels manage: a huge popular readership, not only domestically, but throughout the wider region and across the world.

The book, in its broadest sense, describes the changing fate of a building, a beautiful but now faded apartment block built during the 1930s:

ten lofty stories in the high classical European style, the balconies decorated with Greek faces carved in stone, the columns, steps and corridors all of natural marble … an architectural gem that so exceeded expectations that its owner requested of the Italian architect [his signature] on the inside of the doorway … as though to immortalise his name and emphasise his ownership of the gorgeous building

The novel’s focus on a crumbling architectural gem serves more widely as a metaphor for the history of Egypt pre-Arab Spring, with the gradual disillusionment experienced by many of the characters, who find themselves, variously, embroiled in family feuds, sexually coerced and manipulated, and thwarted in their attempts to make their way in the world on the basis of merit.

It is noteworthy that the book openly discusses subjects such as political corruption (“it’s true that Egyptian elections are always fixed in favour of the ruling party“), police brutality and homosexuality – areas that Middle Eastern writers might typically be expected to have been more circumspect in describing around the turn of the millennium.

However, to a Western reader, the narrative voice can appear sexist and homophobic. Aziz runs a bar frequented by gay men, and “he is a victim of that same condition“. About wives, we read: “When the children are asleep … and the room they all live in is clean and tidy, and the husband has come home … and asked for his wife, is it not then her duty to obey his call, after first bathing, prettying herself up, and putting on perfume?” The book, for me, was more socially conservative than it seems to think it is.

The Yacoubian Building is Dickensian in scope, carrying a message about the failings of society and with a diverse range of characters. Like the Yacoubian Building itself, the novel is densely populated, and this did initially make it difficult for me to remember who was who, as I struggled to keep all the unfamiliar names straight in my head. Also, like Dickens, we have surface-level characterisation and a reliance on stereotype.

One of the most powerful elements of the novel is its examination of the transition of a young, ambitious police academy hopeful, Taha. He gradually becomes disillusioned by the doors that are shut in his face in secular Egypt under Hosni Mubarak, as a result of his humble background, and turns to radical Islam, encouraged to propagate a “true love for death in God’s cause, and [a] deep contempt for the evanescent pleasures of this world“. Meanwhile, Taha’s former childhood sweetheart Busayna is shocked to discover that her male employers assume that sexual favours are part of her contract of employment.

I found the prose didn’t flow as easily as I would have liked, whether to do with the style, different narrative norms or the translation (or, of course, a mix of all three!). However, the book’s vivacity lends itself to film, and a quick Google search showed that it has already been adapted successfully both for film and for the small screen. I feel that I might enjoy the movie more.

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3 Comments

  1. I have flirted with picking this up a number of times but not done so. This surprised me, “The book, for me, was more socially conservative than it seems to think it is.” but is useful to know.

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    1. I’ve nearly bought this book so many times over the years, and brought it home from the library at least once, and finally picked it up and actually read itbecause I needed to read a couple of books by Egyptian writers for this project. I was a bit disappointed overall, really. But so many other people have said it is gripping and brilliant so it might be just me! I did find it a bit well, shocking really, in its generalisations about gay people and women though, although the fact that it acknowledged gay people at all is probably significant.

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