The World as a High Rise (plus a few feet on the roof)

By Rebecca Romani

The Yacoubian Building
By Alaa Al Aswany
Translated by Humphrey Davis
Harper Perennial, 2005

Suspended somewhere between the glitz and gentility of old Cairo and the grime and grabbiness of the new, stands a building whose faded Art Deco glory speaks of a pre-Nasser past while the inhabitants live in a decidedly Mubarak-dominated present.
Egyptian novelist Alaa Al Aswany builds in the very real Yacoubian Building (Imrat Ya’qubyan), where he had his dentist practice, his highly successful novel of the same name. The denizens of the building come together in a microcosm of desire, manipulation, loss and redemption – in short, a rich and dense weaving of human frailties and tender moments.

Al Aswany’s novel has enjoyed a success rare in the Arab world, going into nine printings. Most recently, it was turned into a film, “The Yacoubian Building,” playing to excellent reviews in several film festivals throughout the U.S.

Arab readers will recognize much of what Al Aswany describes: the ease of the privileged classes, the bribes and connections necessary to get business done, the opportuning women face, the secretive life of gay society. 

However, for English-language readers, this is a rare and engaging look into a world that most of them had no idea existed. Despite the occasional awkward phrase, Humphrey Davis delivers an eminently readable translation that takes the reader into its confidence and blows the lives of the inhabitants of the Yacoubian Building wide open.
Set on the eve of the first Gulf War, Al Aswany’s exploration of Cairene society displays a surprising frankness about personal relationships as well as the Egyptian government, although President Hosni Mubarak makes only a cameo appearance, as the “Big Man,” rapaciously wanting in on the action. The government is revealed as class-conscious and mendacious while love is in turn mercenary, kind, empty and eventually redemptive for some, mortal for others.

The cast of characters span class and profession, now crisscrossing, now passing each other by. The most explosive relationships come into play when lovers mix class and politics. Some live or work in the genteel apartments in the building (“six rooms plus reception…”), while others live on the roof in rooms formerly used for storage or washrooms by the original families of the building.

Al Aswany bookends his novel with the story of Zaki Bey el Dessouki, an aging playboy with one foot in his memories of a gracious, pre-revolutionary Cairo, and one in contemporary Cairo where his pursuit of women has left him hildless and at the mercy of unscrupulous “sweethearts.” Meanwhile, his sister, Dawlat, envisions acquiring Zaki’s holdings for her own children.

If Zaki is a charming lady’s man, Hagg Muhammad Azzam is a pious snake, aspiring to public office. A poor man who rose to affluence, Hagg Azzam practices a piety mixed with an extraordinary business sense. He seeks out the assistance of one Kamal El Fouli, the political right arm of the Big Man and one of the most corrupt men of Cairo. (“Kamal El Fouli is endowed with a real talent for politics that would have necessarily enabled him to assume the highest position of state even in a democratic society.”)

But a place at the political table is not all Hagg Azzam longs for. As one last sexual hurrah, true to his traditional beliefs, he contracts a secret second marriage with a poor but decent widow, Souad, who sells herself for security for her little son.

But this is Al Aswany’s tale, and as with other mercenary couplings, the second marriage ends badly, and it is always the woman who pays, as Hagg Azzam forces Souad to abort an unexpected pregnancy and then divorces her.

Hatim Rasheed, too, believes he has found love in the arms of a young Saidi police officer. Hatim is one of the more unusual characters in the book – son of a French barmaid and an intellectual Egyptian father, he occupies the twin positions of newspaper editor and closeted gay man, neither easy in Egypt. Although the novel is set more than a decade ago, it is interesting to read Hatim’s story against the current condition of the press in Egypt, suffering from restrictions on freedom of speech. Likewise, the reader is pressed to consider the condition of gay life in Egypt, where to be openly gay is to risk being arrested.

Like many gay Middle Eastern men, Hatim lives a furtive gay life until he encounters a young police officer from Upper Egypt who catches his eye. Hatim seduces the young man and plies him with gifts and favors. But, as we see with many of the slightly mercenary relationships in Al Aswany’s novel, love that must be bought often comes to a bad end. Hatim’s life comes to a bitter violent halt when his lover blames their relationship for the death of his young son.
Taha El Shazli is also another unusual and timely character. A resident of the roof rooms on the top of the Yacoubian Building, the teenaged Taha has aspirations of rising above his station as the doorman’s son and becoming a police officer. When matters of class prevent him from attaining his dream (“what does your father do?”), he turns to the university in disappointment, and there, among the poor boys, becomes radicalized by the Muslim Brotherhood (MB).

Taha’s character stands as a sharp contrast to Hagg Azzam. Where Azzam seeks to influence, Taha seeks acceptance and finds a sort of shelter in the purist Islamicist ideas of the Muslin Brotherhood (“he is now training himself to love or hate people in God,”) from the corruption and deadening of disconnected ambition represented by Azzam’s Egypt.

Again, like Hatim, Taha’s character carries a striking relationship to current events. As is common under Mubarak, potential enemies of the state such as the MB, and now, bloggers, are often arrested by the forces of order. In Taha’s case, he undergoes a humiliating beating and rape by the police for his political activities. One has only to consult Human Rights Watch to learn of recent charges of torture and rape of police detainees. There are even two clips on Youtube which bear witness to the proclivities of some of Cairo’s police.

Taha’s treatment at the hands of the police only deepens his sense of betrayal by Egypt and he falls ever further under the sphere of influence of a charismatic MB sheikh, who inducts Taha into a life of self-righteous terrorism. Al Aswany grants the teenager a measure of relief when he is killed while seeking to revenge his humiliation during an MB action against a police officer.

Taha’s sweetheart, Busayna, also a resident of the roof, finds herself buffeted by the demands and exigencies of working life in Cairo. Since her father died young of a heart attack, Busayna must leave aside her dreams of study and go to work. Like many girls of modest means, her body is not always hers to command, and the beautiful Busayna finds herself at the mercy of predatory employers as well as poverty, tolerating sexual harassment for money and favors with which she supports her widowed mother and siblings.

Unlucky in life and shocked by the harsh realities of the work world, Busayna becomes a hardened beauty, using others to get ahead. Her internal shame causes her to reject the radicalized Taha, (“You’ve even grown your beard and become observant, and I wear short skirts and go about uncovered. We don’t look right together.”) and turn, instead, toward opportunity.

Opportunity presents itself in the shape of Zaki Bey. Busayna has struck a deal with Zaki’s Christian servant to wheedle the rights to Zaki’s apartment after his demise for the servant and his brother. Except she can’t go through with it, as Busayna realizes Zaki Bey, far from being an unprincipled lech, is charming, kind, and well, loveable. No need to tell you the end – if you follow Egyptian soap operas, you can probably guess.
Although the characters are at times sketchy and predictable, the “Yacoubian Building” is an absorbing read, one made even more timely by recent events. 


This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 12, nos. 56/57 (2006)
Copyright (c) 2006 by Al Jadid