14. The Yacoubian Building by Alaa el Aswany

           The Yacoubian Building is a novel set in 1990’s Egypt, although the author admits that the attitudes and mores are consistent with today’s Cairo, as much as they can be after the January 25th movement, which has added a new (more open) political dimension to the public sphere here. The story follows the tenants of one yacoubian building, an actual building on Sharia Talaat Harb, right near Midan Tahrir. Although the building is not as beautiful or ornate as described in the book, it is the actual setting where Aswany, a dentist by profession, had his first dental patients. Aswany writes in a way that is so true to what I know of Egypt and of the Middle East, and I feel like his personal connection to the building and to the neighborhood shines through in the writing.

Although the book describes Cairene society, it doesn’t reflect Cairo or Egypt as a whole, as some people have generalized it to do. The Yacoubian Building reflects the problems and desires and life choices of a certain subset of people in a dramatically imagined Cario. I highly enjoyed Aswany’s depiction of this type of society, and that he chose to tell these stories, because I think they exist much more frequently in Egyptian society than many people know or care to admit. However, it is clear that these narratives are fictionalized (which I’ve seen be more frequently obscured in discussions of Arab literature than in other genres) and focus on the exceptional rather than the prosaic.

Aside from the many possible cultural comments, I thought that it was a fantastic piece of literature. Aswany’s prose is truly lush (in Arabic, his writing is phenomenal, and the translation has kept a lot of the great qualities) and many of the scenes in the book played out like a film in my head. Even with so many characters to keep track of, I felt deeply connected to many of them. Aswany doesn’t neglect any aspect of their descriptions – he focuses not just on the physical, but also on the mental states of each person and the motivations behind their actions. The detail with which each character is presented lends itself to a much deeper analysis than I am currently capable of giving.

Since reading the novel, I’ve discussed it with several friends, both American and Egyptian, and my Egyptian friends were all extremely interested in hearing an American perspective on the book, to see if I think it accurately reflects the Cairo and Egypt that I’ve been seeing. They thought that it wasn’t particularly representative of most Egyptians, and seemed a little embarrassed by his frank descriptions of drug and alcohol use, as well as his open treatment of homosexuality (which got the novel banned in a few countries, I think). Like I said before, I don’t think that the novel is particularly applicable to Cairenes or to Egyptians as a whole, but Aswany writes about much more private circumstances that are not often visible to outsiders.

The novel depicts the complicated relationships between different socioeconomic classes that still have a strong presence in Egypt today. Despite strong interpersonal bonds, people easily fall back into their respective classes, or socially codified behavior. Also, Aswany’s portrayal of women is interesting and I thought he gave a lot of depth to characters that could have been oversimplified, for example, one character’s choice to enter into a relationship for the betterment of her family and for the good of her child. Aswany gave much more depth to her and to her choice that I originally imagined he would.

The author touches on so many aspects of Egyptian life that are frequently brushed under the rug, and I think it was refreshing to read such an open (if fictionalized) version of what goes on behind closed doors in Egyptian homes. For some of my friends, they weren’t able to say whether they liked it or not, but thought it had significant merit in the openness with which Aswany approaches Egyptian society. Personally, I love the way Aswany writes, and I thought the many possibilities for cultural commentary or connection enhanced my enjoyment of the novel, and really made it a great book to discuss with others.


Pages: 255/3820



~ by lefaquin on July 14, 2012.

One Response to “14. The Yacoubian Building by Alaa el Aswany”

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