First published in 2002, The Yacoubian Building is set in an old European-style apartment block in 1990’s Cairo and is a commentary on Egyptian society since the 1952 revolution.
The characters in the novel are a cosmopolitan lot. There are inhabitants living in squalor on the rooftop, yet the apartments themselves are home to more well-heeled types, such as an aging playboy with inherited wealth – Zaki Bey el Dessouki and a quietly-gay newspaper editor – Hatim Rasheed. At the poorer end of the spectrum there is Busanaya, the daughter of one of the families on the roof, and Taha el Shazli who is the son of the doorman. The reader is allowed to peek through the windows and watch a sophisticated soap opera unfold.
The Yacoubian Building was a Christmas gift from my thoughtful sisters, recommended by the elder of the two who is studying Arabic as part of her university course and hopes to go to Egypt. It hadn’t crossed my radar somehow despite it being a hugely succesful novel (The Yacoubian Building has been translated into twenty-three languages world-wide and made into a film). This is exactly the example of why getting books as gifts is so brilliant, as I don’t think I would have thought to get a copy otherwise. For a former History student I’m unusually adept at not reading factual books, but I do love to learn inadvertently by reading novels that give me a glimpse into other cultures and times. The Yacoubian Building gives the reader a fascinating insight into a society at a crossroads. Tradition struggles against modernity with a the growth of religious conservatism. At the same time that Busanaya learns that wearing a figure-hugging dress is the key to a well paid job, there are department stores offering to swap women’s old clothes for new ‘modest’ fashions. In Alaa’s Cairo, ability has little effect in helping a person over class barriers. A dissillusioned Taha is susceptible to extremist religious ideas when he is denied access to the police force despite gaining outstanding grades.
The characters in the book are complex and feel authentic. I couldn’t help but warm to Busnaya who is sassy yet responsible and wiser than Taha, a brainy yet naive and easily influenced young man. Then there is Hatim whose homosexuality is a well-known secret and whose struggle to find and keep a long-term companion is both discomfiting because of his manipulative behaviour, and sad because circumstance seems so against him being able to find happiness. I came to like Zaki Bey too, against my own better judgement. On one hand he comes across as a sleazy past-it-playboy and on the other a kind friend and lover.
It took a little while for me to get my head around the long names and multitude of characters, however a cast-list is helpfully provided as well as a glossary which is great if you’re not too hot on key events and figures in Egyptian society. The more I think about The Yacoubian Building in hindsight, the more I’m genuinely impressed by how adeptly Al Aswany conveys his ideas using vibrant characters and an engaging narrative.
I wonder how much has changed, nearly twenty years on?