Country Focus: Egypt (Misr in Arabic)
The Yacoubian Building
By Alaa Al Aswany
Translated by Humphrey Davies
Originally published in Arabic as Imarat Ya’qubyan, 2002.
My edition: Harper Perennial, 2006.
Time period: Contemporary
This contemporary novel completely bypasses mummies and pyramids for modern Egyptians who live in the Yacoubian Building, an apartment and office high-rise situated on one of Cairo’s main streets. Time and the aftereffects of the 1952 Revolution have diluted the Yacoubian’s original exclusivity, and its tenants now include poverty-stricken families living on the roof as well as aging aristocrats.
The Yacoubian Building describes the romantic and business entanglements – none of them on the up and up – of the Yacoubian’s occupants. These complicated trysts include: a young but jaded woman who falls in love with her employer, an elderly playboy; a married businessman who becomes irate when his second (secret) wife refuses to have an abortion; an affair between a journalist and a soldier that ends violently when one of the men wants out; and a gihadist who is required to marry the widow of a martyr. Al Aswany jumps so frequently between each relationship that I had a hard time keeping track of people and plotlines. The fates of these couples would have been easier to follow if Al Aswany turned them into several short stories rather then blended them into a novel.
If love (and sex) stories weren’t enough, Al Aswany tosses in some familiar Middle Eastern themes: a good guy turned fundamentalist; a once cosmopolitan culture closed off to the West; corrupt elections and business dealings; and the struggles of women, homosexuals and the poor for equal rights. Content this rich should add up to be an armchair traveler’s delight. Instead, the numerous characters competed for most unmemorable and Al Aswany’s prose, though insightful and intelligent, never varies from monotone.
Abduh told his neighbors that he worked as Hatim Rasheed’s cook, but they didn’t believe him because they knew about Hatim’s homosexuality and because he would spend the night with him at least twice a week. Among themselves, they would joke about these “midnight feasts” that Abduh would prepare for his master, knowing the truth and accepting it. In general their behavior with any deviant person depended on how much they liked him. If they disliked him, they would rise up against him in defense of virtue, quarrel bitterly with him, and prevent their children from having anything to do with him. If, on the other hand, they liked him, as they did Abduh, they would forgive him and deal with him on the basis that he was misled and to be pitied, telling one another that everything in the end was fate and that it was not unlikely that God, Almighty and Glorious, would set him on the straight path – and “How many others have been worse than that but Our Lord set them straight and inspired them and they became saints.” They would say this smacking their lips and nodding their heads in sympathy.