RAD Book Club review: The Yacoubian Building

05 Jul 2018

RAD Book Club’s latest read and the last title in our third series was The Yacoubian Building, a novel by Egyptian writer Alaa Al Aswany.

First published in 2002 and translated from the Arabic (titled Imarat Ya’qubyan) into English by Humphreys Davies, this novel follows the lives of several inhabitants of a dilapidated building in Old Cairo. Seven of our members met to discuss their thoughts on this novel exploring issues of love and power, sexuality and gender, corruption and social change.

The Yacoubian Building in Suleiman Basha Street, Old Cairo, once an opulent art deco block of flats for the rich built in a fashionable part of the city by an Armenian millionaire, is the stage on which the passions and hopes of its current tenants play out. Now dilapidated, the Yacoubian Building is both the main character of the novel and a symbol of Egyptian society in the 1990s.

The novel narrates the lived experiences of a group of people with very different social and economic backgrounds as they try to make a living and find their place in the world. The Yacoubian Building is in this sense a sketch of the whole country, representing its diversity and its varied inheritance. Some of the male characters we encounter are Hagg Muhammad Azzam, a wealthy businessman with political aspirations; Zaki Bey, a rich womaniser who lives with his sister Dawlat and has his office in the building; Hatim Rashid, a gay newspaper editor, and his lover, Abd Rabbuh, a married police officer and father of one; Taha el Shazli, devout Muslim who fails to become a police officer and gets involved with extreme views after ending his relationship with Busayna; and Malak, a Christian tailor who intends to set up shop in the building. Of the female characters, we meet Busayna, Taha’s ex-girlfriend, who takes cares of her family after her father dies; Dawlat, Zaki Bey’s sister, who kicks her brother out of the house to avoid losing the property to a woman he might marry; and, among others, Souad Gaber, the Alexandrian secretary and mother of Tamir who becomes Hagg Azzam’s second wife.

Most of us liked this novel, although for different reasons. Many of us found the way the characters were described very appealing. The way the building is portrayed is also very expressive as it allows us to see a whole spectrum of society in one place: from the rich offices and apartments to poor rooms in the rooftop, from the doorman and the servant to the entrepreneur, the politician’s son and the newspaper editor.

The different storylines alternate in a way that suggests the way human relations intermingle in any society. Whereas some thought this was done artfully and with neat precision, others felt a bit disappointed as they would have liked the different stories to come together in a more effective and encompassing way.

We discussed the fact that the language used in the novel isn’t consonant with the changes of mood the action takes. We couldn’t agree on whether this enabled the novel to succinctly present the realities of a society undergoing huge social, political and ideological changes or whether it undermined this; after all, the novel presents very serious issues relating to gender and sexuality, extremism, abortion and corruption. However, the novel can also be seen as a celebration of life in the midst of adversity, of pleasures and passions confronted with frustration, oppression, corruption and suffering which for some end in tragic circumstances.

In thinking about the reception of the novel in Egypt itself, and indeed in other Arab countries we wondered which of the topics the novel deals with would have caused consternation. Some of the topics of the novel we felt surprised and curious about are Hatim’s early sexual experiences, Busayna’s motivation for marrying, Dawlat’s dealings with her brother, Taha’s torture and later turn to extremism, and Souad’s abortion.