Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Yacoubian Building - Alaa Al Aswany

Title: The Yacoubian Building (Imarat Ya'qubyan in Arabic)
Author: Alaa Al Aswany (translated by Humphrey Davies)
Year: 2002
Country: Egypt
Pages: 253
Rating: 5 out of 5

First sentence: The distance between Baehler Passage, where Zaki Bey el Dessouki lives, and his office in the Yacoubian building is not more than a hundred meters, but it takes him an hour to cover it each morning as he is obliged to greet his friends on the street.

In The Yacoubian Building, a look at the residents of the title's namesake reveals the overlapping layers of Egyptian culture and politics. They represent the multiple facets of modern Egyptian society: the old, the new, and everything in between. 

Zaki Bey el Dessouki, one of the Yacoubian building's longest-residing tenants, is the son of a former prime minister, and was one of Egypt's wealthiest men before the Revolution. 
Busayna tried pushing him gently so they could cross the street, but he went on, "You know,Busayna, I feel as though I owned the Yacoubian Building. I'm the longest resident in it. I know the history of every individual and every square meter in the building. I've spent most of my life in it. I lived my best days in it and I feel as though it's a part of me. The day this building's demolished or something happens to it, that'll be the day I die." (p. 165)
Hatim Rasheed is the homosexual son of aristocrats, whose mother is French. Hagg Azzam is nouveau rich, a self-made millionaire who started out as an immigrant shoe shiner on the streets of Cairo. Taha el Shazli, the doorkeeper's son, is an observant Muslim who is lured to fundamentalism after his dream of becoming a police officer is denied to him due to his family's poverty and low social status. Busayna, Taha's childhood sweetheart, also resides on the rooftop of the Yacoubian building and is subject to overwhelming sexual harrassment as she struggles as the sole income-earner for her mother and siblings.

The sheer number of main characters followed throughout the story can at times be hard to follow, but is well worth the frequent reference to the "Cast of Characters" given at the beginning of the novel. The story paints a vivid and insightful portrait of Egyptian society for the reader, and sets a high standard (along with Naguib Mahfouz) for some of the other Egyptian literature I have on my TBR pile.

About the real Yacoubian building: The Yacoubian building does exist at the address given in the novel. A six-story building, it was built by Nishan Yacoubian, an Armenian, in the 1930's.

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Anonymous said...

I am glad you enjoyed The Yacoubian Building. I read it last year (pre-blogging, so no link to share :-( ) and I enjoyed it a lot as well.

A movie based on the book was made last year or the year before. I haven't seen it, but I'd love to get hold of the dvd.

Amanda said...

Thank you for this post! My husband and I are going to Egypt later this year for a belated honeymoon and I've been wanting to pick up some Egyptian literature. I'll have to pick this one up!

Teddy Rose said...

I haven't read the book yet, but I saw the film. It was at The Vancouver International Film festival and was very good! It had english subtitles and was a bit over four hours long.