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Alaa al Aswany: عمارة يعقوبيان (The Yacoubian Building)

This novel is a bit like something that Mahfouz might have written had he been born forty-six years later. The debt to Mahfouz is clear but al Aswany is writing about a lot later time and while he can still about talk about Islamists, he can also talk about terrorist attacks on police officials and while he can still talk about sex, he can talk more openly about homosexuality. The novel tells the stories pf the inhabitants of the Yacoubian building, an actual building in Cairo (and at the same address) though al Aswany has changed the description of it somewhat. Both he and his father worked there as dentists.

We follow stories of several of the inhabitants, from the better-off ones who live on the lower floors to the poorer ones who live on the roof. Many of the characters naturally know one another and appear in each other’s stories. The book was controversial in Egypt, not just for its open description of homosexuality but also because it showed that corruption is rife in Egypt and that the only way to survive and prosper is by dishonesty, with the only alternatives being to leave the country or to turn to militant Islamism, a theme also apparent in Mahfouz. Taha el Shazli, for example, is the son of a doorman but wants to be a policeman. He studies hard and works hard but when the police interviewers find out that his father is a doorman, he is denied the job. He enrolls at a university and falls in with a crowd of Islamists. When he is arrested, tortured and raped, his anger is used by the Islamists to enroll him in a training camp for jihad and he finally gets his chance. On the other hand, Hagg Azzam wishes to be a member of parliament. He has been very successful in business and is able to bribe his way both to parliament and also to a lucrative car dealership but when he tries to stand up to the powers that be, he is put in his place. He takes an attractive woman as a second wife but when she gets pregnant and won’t have an abortion, she is forcibly abducted and given an abortion against her will. She is powerless to do anything about it. The homosexual journalist who keeps a lover, who is married with a child, the son of a man who was powerful before the Revolution but is now in conflict with his sister, the ambitious shirt-maker and his crippled brother and the attractive young woman, initially Taha’s girlfriend but who later becomes the secretary/mistress of the man fighting his sister are some of the other characters in the building.

Al Aswany takes a bleak view of current Egypt but tells an excellent story of the interactions between the inhabitants of the building. He is highly critical of the police and the government and of the powerful who all abuse their position. The poor are often the victims but will also use corruption if they can. See La Vie mode d’emploi (Life: A User’s Manual), Barbary Shore and Passage de Milan for other interesting building stories.

Publishing history

First published in 2002 by Mirit lil-Nashr wa-al-Ma’lumat
First English translation in 2004 by American University in Cairo Press
Translated by Humphrey Davies