The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al-Aswany – bringing Egypt to the West

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Image by Sarah Jane Callender

Middle Eastern Literature is hard to come by. As a Western audience, we are unfamiliar with the authors nor are we acquainted with the diverse and vast countries in the region. The writings of the region are simply absent from Western academia, bookshops and literature circles.

Having the opportunity to read Alaa Al Aswany’s ‘The Yacoubian Building’ as part of my English Literature degree, I was shocked by how honest, sometimes brutally so, al-Aswany’s writing was. Despite the strict regulations of Egyptian publishing, al- Aswany’s book emerged and went on to become the best Arabic novel in recent history.

Published in 2002, the novel details the lives of those living in the Yacoubian Building, an apartment block in downtown Cairo, which acts as a microcosm for Egyptian society. It is set in a poor, working-class district of Cairo, in the European quarter of downtown at the time of the 1990 Gulf War.

The building actually exists in real life and has a rich history of European influences. In the novel, the building is occupied by a middle-class community whilst a poor, largely migrant community lives on the roof. Al-Aswany gives his reader snippets of their lives, through his multi-layered narration.

The first character introduced is Zaki Bey, an aging playboy with a love of alcohol and women; Hatim Rasheed, the editor in chief of a French language newspaper and a closeted homosexual; and Hagg Azzam, a successful businessman who aspires to hold political office.

The romance of the story is found between Taha and Busayna. Taha, the intelligent and friendly doorkeeper’s son lives in the shacks on the roof and desires to be a police officer. When turned down from the police academy, Taha turns to Islamism and Muslim militancy and away from Busayna, who is making money from men to provide for her family.

Al-Aswany’s ensemble novel details the lives of the many characters in the building, in short, fleeting episodes. These episodes and multiplicity of stories, are funny, sad and disturbing with themes of homosexuality, prostitution, power and political corruption. Al-Aswany introduces his reader to a diverse, worldly Egypt that is largely unknown to the Western reader.

Although I enjoy Al-Aswany’s style, especially his fast-paced multi-narrative, his presentation of homosexuality is troubling, somewhat prejudiced and discriminatory. He illuminates homosexuality as a form of tyranny, presenting Hatim Rasheed as an exploiting sexual predator, seducing Abd Rabbuh, his lover, with sex, money and gifts to heed the latter’s financial situation and to support his wife and children.

The presentation of homosexuality sparked even more controversy when the novel was made into a film in 2006. Following the film’s release, Mustafa Bakri, an Egyptian Parliament member, together with 112 members of Parliament produced a petition to ban the movie due to its profane scenes of sexual debauchery and drinking. Bakri argued, “I am not against freedom of expression, but this abnormal phenomenon should not be presented as natural”.  The petition failed and the controversial scenes remained in the film.

Despite these troubling episodes, I argue that ‘The Yacoubian Building’ is simultaneously an engaging novel about sex, a romance about gender and power, and a comic yet sympathetic novel that gives the Western reader a quick glimpse into Egyptian society, which most readers have never had before. It is an important novel that breaks through stereotypes and highlights the vast and heterogeneous region and peoples of Egypt. What more could you ask for?