When I first opened The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany, I have to admit that I was daunted by its roll-call of characters with unfamiliar names, done in the style of a nineteenth-century Russian novel. Instinct told me to put a bookmark on this page. Instinct was right. Since this novel is narrated from a multiple point of view, this roll-call turned out to be a very useful way of keeping track of its twelve main characters and their roles in the plot. It added to my enjoyment of this wonderful saga of modern Egypt.
The author, Alaa Al Aswany, is a journalist who lives in Cairo and who’s made his living as a dentist. The Yacoubian Building was a bestseller in the Arab world and something of a scandal because of its racy content. The Yacoubian Building is also a real location in Cairo where the author once had a dental office, and in its fictional version, the building includes a spectrum of people, most of them either complicit in or frustrated by Egypt’s culture of corruption. Check out these lucky neighbours: an ageing playboy, son of a former Prime Minister; then a devout and unhappy Muslim, his social status too low for the police work he’s smart enough to do; his struggling girlfriend who works in a dress shop and gets stuck with daily feel-ups from her boss as part of her meal ticket; a rags-to-riches businessman aiming for politics, and his ill-treated second wife; an impoverished roof-dwelling tailor who longs for a shop in the building; the denizens of a gay bar in the basement, including an aristocratic newspaper editor and the cop he can’t take his hands off. Not exactly the chaste Middle East of the nightly news with its black-clad women and earnest men. Yet the Yacoubian Building contains this fractious crew like a pot of boiling water with a tight lid. Each character holds our interest as the author builds suspense by switching points of view back and forth. We also keep reading because this is one steamy novel, although I couldn’t help wondering if sexual expression that would be normal in the West just appears to be a lot more sensual and explosive in the more inhibited Middle Eastern context. All in all, the building’s a marvelous storytelling device, a metaphor for the whole of Egyptian society, full of characters we love and loathe, a microcosm of a country on the brink. It hints at the coming revolution that finally brought Egypt to a rolling boil — and better yet, in the unravelling of their lives, the characters show us why the revolution happened. There’s nothing like fiction for helping us understand the human heart in a culture so very different from our own. Plus it’s a wonderful read.
The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany is translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies and published in 2004 by Harper Collins.