The Yacoubian Building
by Alaa Al Aswany
Alaa Al Aswany′s mesmerising novel caused an unprecedented stir when it was published in Egypt, and is now the bestselling novel in the Arabic language. It follows the fortunes of the inhabitants of a dilapidated mansion block in Cairo, and is at once an impassioned celebration and a ruthless dissection of a society dominated by bribery and corruption.
The Yacoubian building - once grand, now dilapidated - stands on one of Cairo′s main boulevards. Taha, the doorman′s son, has aspirations beyond the slum in the skies, and dreams of one day becoming a policeman.
This work follows Taha′s trajectory from innocence to tragedy. The people whose lives orbit his - the inhabitants of the building - are also facing their own difficult choices. From those living in squalid and cramped conditions on the rooftops, to the homosexual editor of Le Caire newspaper and a womanising aristocrat, all of the contradictions in Egyptian society are here. Religious feelings live side-by-side with promiscuity; bribery and exploitation alternate with moments of joy and elation; modernity clashes with the vision of a more ancient society.
What they said:
′You don′t get many writers like Alaa Al Aswany in the West any more. The Yacoubian Building paints a marvellous picture of modern Egypt with all its hypocrisies and fanaticism - the gulf between rich and poor reminiscent of Dickensian London. Like the late Naguib Mahfouz, Alaa Al Aswany is a world writer, making Egyptian concerns into human ones and beautifully illuminating our always extraordinary and sometimes sad and baffling world.′ The Times
′An intriguing and highly charged novel...Based on a real-life building in downtown Cairo, Alaa Al Aswany′s eponymous structure is a microcosm of modern Egyptian society...Al Aswany manages to capture the challenges facing much of the developing world...a superbly crafted feat of storytelling.′ Tash Aw, Daily Telegraph
′In its affectionate portrait of feckless and flawed humanity, this is a rich and engaging book; in its analysis of the Islamist threat, it is a brave and indispensable one.′ Daily Mail
′The Yacoubian Building is the sort of dense neighbourhood novel which, though quite out of style when set in London or Paris, has been revived for the banlieue of downtown Cairo. With its parade of big-city characters, both ludicrous and tender, its warm heart and political indignation, it belongs to a literary tradition that goes back to the 1840s, to Eugene Sue and Charles Dickens.′ Guardian
′Al Aswany is excellent on the bitterness young Egyptians feel towards a country where hard-won qualifications are worthless unless backed with money...an absorbing portrait of the struggle to survive in the Arab world′s best friend of the West.′ Observer
′A bewitching political novel of contemporary Cairo that is also an ′engage′ novel about sex, a romantic novel about power and a comic yet sympathetic novel about the vagaries of the human heart.′ New York Times Book Review
′A powerful novel of corruption and fanaticism...Anyone with an interest in Middle East culture will find something refreshing here. Anyone else willing to lose their weekend devouring this absorbing novel shouldn′t hesitate.′ Waterstones Books Quarterly
′Captivating and controversial...an amazing glimpse of modern Egyptian society and culture.′ New York Review of Books
′Delves into a mix of power, corruption, sex exploitation, poverty, and extremism...lucidly captures the varied aspects of Egyptian life: straight, gay, rich, poor, powerful, and powerless.′ Egypt Today
What role does exploitation play in the lives of each of the characters? How are they being exploited - knowingly or unknowingly - and how are some of them, in turn, exploiting others?
What do you think about Al Aswany′s use of the Yacoubian Building as a framing device? Did it contribute to your understanding and ability to visualise the perplexities of the character′s lives and relationships?
Many of the characters go through a marked turning point in the novel. Discuss the various turning points for each character, the build-up to that point and what is different afterwards.
What are Taha′s motives for becoming involved in gihad? In what way is he a victim of his circumstance?
What do you think of the ending? Do you think Busyana is truly happy?
How do you feel for Souad? Do you think her situation could have been avoided? Would you go as far to say that she is partially to blame for her circumstances? How do you feel towards Hagg Azzam? Should he have been punished?
How does the ending between Hatim and Abduh affect you? Is it believable? Do you think it is tragic?
In this story, many of the characters go from loving one another to feeling indifference or hatred. Examine these relationships. Why do you think this happens? Does society′s influence have anything to do with this? In any of the cases, could it have been avoided?
Compare Radwa to Busyana. How are they different? Did Taha end up with the right woman?
Of all the characters, who do you feel most sympathy for? If you could help just one of them, who would it be?
Alaa Al Aswany is adept at illustrating a cross-section of Egyptian society and the ways in which these different classes and sectors overlap and intermingle. What elements of this society are also evident in the West for example in modern Britain or North America?
If you liked the Yacoubian Building you might also like:
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
The Shadow of the Wind by Carols Ruiz Zafon
The Harmony Silk Factory by Tash Aw
The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai
The Bookseller of Kabul by Anne Seierstad
About the author: Alaa Al Aswany was born in 1957. He is a dentist by profession, and for many years practiced in the Yacoubian Building which was to form the setting for his bestselling novel. He has written prolifically for Egyptian newspapers on politics, literature and social issues.
About Alaa Al Aswany