Five years ago this month, protestors in Egypt took to the streets against the dictator Mubarak. As the largest Arabic country, with a population over 82,000,000, the potential of the country continues to be thwarted by vicious, incompetent governments, such as the current one. In literature, however, modern Egypt has produced writers who have achieved international recognition. Naguib Mahfouz, for instance, won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1988. Last fall, by serendipity at the Decatur Book Festival, I discovered another Egyptian writer, Alaa Al Aswany, and his novel The Yacoubian Building.
As I’ve learned after reading the book, this novel has been widely read throughout Egypt and other Arabic countries, as well as made into both a movie and a TV program in Egypt. During the Arab spring protests against Mubarak, some people even credited this book with helping to bring people out to protest.
So The Yacoubian Building has had a huge impact. What is it like as a book? The English language version (translated by Humphrey Davies, published by Harper Perennial) is a short book, just under 250 pages, but it feels a bit like a grand epic (OK, a compressed grand epic). This is clearly an ambitious book, such that the title, with its reference to a single building, is almost ironic. The novel is actually about Egypt.
The book takes place at the beginning of this century, much of the action occurring in the Yacoubian Building in downtown Cairo. The author, Al Aswany, working from this focus, has followed a remarkable diversity of characters, so that the end result is a condensed portrait of modern Egyptian life in the capital city.
The novel has been controversial in Egypt for several reasons. Perhaps most provocatively, it vividly portrays corruption by the highest leaders in the country (including one who is named only as the Big Man), as well as open vote rigging of a crooked election. A political fixer comments on what he does by saying, “People are naive when they get the idea that we fix elections. Nothing of the kind. It just comes down to the fact that we’ve studied the Egyptian people well. Our Lord created the Egyptians to accept government authority…”
Socially, the book also provoked people by the fact that one of the protagonists, Hatim, is gay, and his life, including his sexual life, is shown in some detail. He is described after spending time with his lover (an uneducated country man who also has a wife and child): “They’d finished the morning love session and Hatim got out of bed, naked, and took a dreamy, dancing step on the tips of his toes, his face full of contentment and animation…”
For an Egyptian reader, this may be a valuable book because it shows political corruption and challenges the rigid social boxes that people are expected to live in. For a foreign reader, however, those aspects of the book might be interesting, but what also recommends the novel is that it lets us feel we’ve had a serious look at the country, that we have some sense of the place.
Among the many lives that come through the narrative, we see Taha, a young man who has studied hard hoping to get into the police, in spite of social prejudice that stands in the way of someone from his social class. Over the course of the book, we see him come under the influence of extremely religious Islamists, who are so angry at what is happening in their country that they are willing to destroy the current status quo. After what we have read up to that point, it is easy to understand how they could feel that way.
The very best novels, whatever their locale or story, comment on humanity beyond the setting of the book. The Yacoubian Building reaches for this level of literature, showing human passion—ambition, lust, religion, revenge, anger, greed—while bringing the reader into the story in such a way that we can often feel what the characters feel. In this small epic, we watch a young woman tolerate the sexual advances of her boss, watch the police viciously torture prisoners, and watch a religious woman wish her husband the chance to become a martyr during a terrorist act.
In the book we can also see reflections of ourselves, vulnerable anxious human beings, such as the rich old man who has been robbed by a woman he brought home for sex, sitting “almost naked on the edge of the couch that shortly before had been a cradle of love. At that moment, in his underwear and with his frail body and empty, collapsed mouth (he had removed his false teeth so as to be able to kiss the Beloved), he looked very much like some wretched comic actor…”