Where new writing finds its voice

The Yacoubian Building

Alex Akin Ajayi

By Alaa al-Aswany
Harper Perennial 2006

Egypt is a country ill at ease with itself. The most populous nation in the Arab Middle East, it is politically dependent upon American military aid, estimated at $1bn a year. This, understandably, is problematic at a time when anti-American sentiment is prevalent across the region. Contradictions abound, socially and politically.

The country’s official stance of moderate Islam insists, for instance, that television presenters are forbidden from wearing the niqab; a government minister was publicly censured, however, after describing the Islamic headscarf as ‘regressive’. The country is constitutionally described as a democratic and socialist republic; but the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest of the Islamist groups seeking to establish the Caliphate across the region, is formally barred from participating in elections. (Not that this inconvenience prevents it from participating in democratic plurality; running as independents, the ‘party’ secured a fifth of the seats in the last parliamentary elections.) 

This is the society that provides the background for The Yacoubian Building, Alaa al-Aswany’s dissection of the mores that govern, and imprison, the Egyptian populace. It is an important book because it offers an often critical, and sometimes unflattering, heartfelt and passionately written portrait of modern Egypt. The eponymous building is situated in downtown Cairo. Its decaying art deco grandeur and fading décor serve multiple dramatic purposes; as a metaphor for the social condition of the country as well as the central location for the bisecting lives of the principal characters of the novel, individuals and representatives of the multi-faceted tensions that constitute modern Egypt. 

These include a lecherous old roué, lamenting the disastrous consequences of following his libidinal urges to their illogical conclusions; the earnest son of the doorkeeper, driven towards fundamentalism by the nepotistic obstacles that hinder his ambition; his girlfriend, anxious to preserve her modesty, yet painfully aware of the opportunities for economic improvement that sexual debasement would offer her; an urbane newspaper editor, trapped between the homophobic conservatism of his society and his love for a naïve policeman; and a corrupt politician, keen on self-advancement and comfortable with the nefarious tactics that will help him achieve his ambitions.

Al-Aswany’s book was a cause célèbre when it was first published in Egypt in 2002. The frank depictions of sexual licentiousness were difficult to accept in a country where many citizens subscribe, at least nominally, to Islamic sharia law, which prescribes public flogging and imprisonment for the offences of adultery and homosexuality. Its critical depiction of the poisonous relationship between state hypocrisy, nepotism, opposition to social reform, and its exploration of how these feed Islamic fundamentalism and violence, were also felt to be controversial. 

But the book is much more than an idealistic political tract; in the style of the Egyptian soap operas popular across the Middle East the lives of the characters unfold episodically, interwoven and interdependent, each one in its own way flawed, yet optimistic. And this is the strength of the book – al-Aswany rejects crude self-serving caricatures but instead, through his principal actors, tries to represent the tarnished, yet ultimately hopeful social fabric of his native country. Recommended reading for anyone interested in the reality of life in the region in the twenty-first century.