The Yacoubian Building (2002) – Alaa AL ASWANY

To distract myself from the huge pile of Australian novels I have to read very soon, I thought I’d pick up something that was thoroughly different. The Yacoubian Building caught my eye when al Aswany’s new novel, Chicago, came into work, and when I saw a cheap copy of it in a second hald bookshop, I picked it up. Now, I’ve finally got around to reading it.

There’s a building in downtown Cairo called the Yacoubian Building. Built in the early twentiety century in a showy style, there are now many, many people living in it. These range from the rich people who inhabit the apartments, to the poor people how live on their roof. And yet, none of them are so different. Each of their lives is fascinating – from the womanising old man, Zaki, to the son of the doorman, Taha, who wants to be a policeman, to Souana, the wife of a man who has high aspirations in Egyptian society. This novel is a window into a society that is oft ignored by the Western world.

This book has a pretty huge cast of characters, but you don’t feel bogged down by names and situations really quickly, as other novels can do (I’m looking at The Slap here…). Instead, each character has a discrete storyline that very rarely meets another. As such, it’s almost like a big collection of short stories about these people, but somehow, they gel together, and it really works out. I didn’t fell at any stage as though one character was getting preference over another, though I think Zaki is probably the main character – his tale book-ends the novel, so there’s a sense of his story definitely beginning and ending.

Al Aswany’s writing style remind me of Alexander McCall Smith, in that both strive for a kind of old-world charm in their prose. If it weren’t for the storyline about Islamic fundamentalists in Iraq, I could clearly see this book coming from the 20s or 30s. And that’s a good thing. I love the juxtaposition of al Aswany’s writing style and what he’s writing about. Because what he is writing about is very much contemporary society.

This book is very much concerned with gender roles and sexuality in contemporary Egypt – perhaps ironic, considering Western views of Islam and sex. These people go at it all the time in all ways imaginable. What makes it more interesting is that the people who go at it often hide what they are doing from the public, in case of shame. This is particularly evident in the gay plot, where the editor of a newspaper is having affair with a married man – they clearly love each other, but they still can’t say it. Granted, the book’s treatment of homosexuality gives way to stereotypes pretty quickly, but I don’t think that was a conscious decision by al Asway. It’s just the way this society views the gays. More important than this, however, is the way women are portrayed in the novel.Each and every one of them is subjected to subjugation by their male partners, who seem to think this is ok. And yet, there is love here. People truly fall in love and are happy about where they are, despite what is going on around them. What makes this most ironic, perhaps, is when Taha is tortured by the police, a process that involves his ‘honour’ being violated. It is ironic that he should be so outraged and hurt by what they did to him, when there’s so much inherant misogynism in the socity in which he lives – misogynism that extends to forcing a woman to have an abortion because the father doesn’t want the child. This scene is pretty brutal, but necessary, I think.

I was surprised at how good this book actually is. Despite being a first novel and all that, al Aswany has a good grip on how to write his story and his characters. Clearly there’s something to be said for being a dentist in a large city, a source of inspiration he has admitted to many times over. Ignore what people say about this book being like a soap-opera – here, they mean it as a great compliment.

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3 thoughts on “The Yacoubian Building (2002) – Alaa AL ASWANY

  1. Great writeup there, it’s a fabulous novel, the comparison with Alexander McCall Smith is an interesting one – it hadn’t occurred to me but it has an aptness. Armistead Maupin also possibly.

    I thought al Aswany the best of them though, as you say it’s often brutal in its subject matter and yet the style is warm and full of charm. It’s an interesting juxtaposition, and it’s an extraordinarily easy read given its huge cast, difficult issues (gender, sexuality, politics, radical Islam, corruption, there are others) and (for me anyway) being set in a city foreign to most of its Western readers.

  2. […] to the novel, it never seems to take over the characters, who are pretty universal. More thoughts here. __________________ Looking for something to read? […]

  3. […] in his first novel, The Yacoubian Building, al Aswany gives us a large cast of characters, whose stories intertwine around the Medical […]

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