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The Yacoubian Building: A Novel Paperback – August 1, 2006
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“[A] hilarious, sensual, bawdy and beautiful novel.” (Nerve)
“Captivating and controversial .. . .an amazing glimpse of modern Egyptian society and culture.” (New York Review of Books)
“...tremendously likable.... This vision of life connects high with low, rich with poor, through shared vices and needs.” (San Francisco Chronicle)
About the Author
Alaa Al Aswany is the internationally bestselling author of The Yacoubian Building and Chicago. A journalist who writes a controversial opposition column, Al Aswany makes his living as a dentist in Cairo.
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Set in the late 20th century Egypt, after the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, the Yacoubian Building started filling up with people from Egypt's lower class, while some others from the upper and middle classes stayed put. This has given Al Aswany the opportunity to develop many interesting characters. There is a son of the doorman who struggles to make a career as a policeman, even after being good at his studies and what he does after that. His beautiful young girlfriend, who performs sexual favors for little money. A rich homosexual man, whose boyfriend moves into the building with his wife and kid. A religious old man with dreams of being a politician. His second wife, a divorced lady from a porer region of Egypt. A pre-Revolution single rich man whose life has declined dramatically after the Revolution. His girlfriends. His servant and his brother, a tailor by profession, who moves into the building.
The lives of these characters overlap and interact with each other; but otherwise, this book "feels" like a collection of short stories. Please note that they are not separate stories though.
Al Aswany's characters are well-developed and thought out in detail. The characters go through a change in their lives over the course of several events. The reasons compelling these changes are beautifully pointed out by the author: poverty, sexual desparation, corruption, failure in career, etc.
Being translated from Arabic into English, the prose is not of high quality. Some of the sentences actually feel odd because of this.
There are lots of references to Egyptian culture, but I never felt lost or confused (I am not an Egyptian or an Arab, or in any way related). Having never visited Egypt, I still understood the book well. (Of course, I had an interest in knowing more about the culture.)
The X-Ray feature of Kindle is not enabled for this book. It would have been helpful to avoid referring to the glossary section at the back of the book. Still, it did not make the book overwhelming to read.
Since the decade in which the book has been mainly set, Egypt has undergone lots of socio-political changes. Lives of common Egyptians has definitely changed. However, this book captures the late 1900s and the struggles in the lives of common people well.
Overall, it is a good book to get a perspective on modern Egyptian culture.
It followed the lives of five main characters who lived or worked in a once-grand, now-decaying building in downtown Cairo: male/female, young/old, rich/poor, devout/secular, educated/working class, straight/gay. The author introduced the five as individuals, then paired them off with each other or with the secondary characters around them. The action jumped back and forth between the pairs as the novel progressed, contrasting the characters' behavior up through the conclusion.
With this structure, the author was able to touch on many aspects of society, one after another. He depicted political corruption, the scheming for advantage among the powerful and powerless, sexual repression and obsession, the benefits that flowed from money and connections, the lack of democracy and opportunity, the frustration that led to religious fundamentalism, and the search of so many for love and respect.
In interviews, the author has said he saw the majority of the characters in his novel as oppressed, and that he believed in the long run a repressive government would generate terrorism. In the book, one of the protagonists argued that the country's curse was dictatorship, that it led inevitably to poverty, corruption and failure in all fields, and that a step forward must include progress toward democracy.
I was struck particularly by the book's ending, where the main characters' various fates might hint at the author's view of the way toward a brighter future: joining the tolerant outlook of the old with the aspirations and vitality of the young, in a relationship of mutual trust and respect. And an avoidance of religious extremism and unbridled sensuality, both of which seemed to lead to wasted potential and a dead end.
The story was very readable, and the plot raced along. Toward the end, the pace was sustained at the cost of some believability. I found the characters' behavior credible or interesting enough a good deal of the time, except for the sudden anger and class scorn expressed by one of the characters that led to violence. Or the love that developed so quickly between a younger character and an older one.
Finally, I was left wondering how the author really felt about the religious beliefs of the sheikh who became the mentor of one of the young main characters. How evolution toward democracy would incorporate people like the sheikh is something I'm still trying to understand.