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The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany
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The Yacoubian Building (2002)

by Alaa Al Aswany

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1,717896,456 (3.59)212
The Yacoubian Building holds all that Egypt was and has become over the 75 years since its namesake was built on one of downtown Cairo's main boulevards. From the pious son of the building's doorkeeper and the raucous, impoverished squatters on its roof, via the tattered aristocrat and the gay intellectual in its apartments, to the ruthless businessman whose stores occupy its ground floor, each sharply etched character embodies a facet of modern Egypt--one where political corruption, ill-gotten wealth, and religious hypocrisy are natural allies, where the arrogance and defensiveness of the powerful find expression in the exploitation of the weak, where youthful idealism can turn quickly to extremism, and where an older, less violent vision of society may yet prevail. Alaa Al Aswany's novel caused an unprecedented stir when it was first published in 2002 and has remained the world's best selling novel in the Arabic language since.… (more)
Recently added byTonyAnderson, private library, dazzle21girl, carliwi, peterbg, steller0707, Horse1614, shikari
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» See also 212 mentions

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Showing 1-5 of 58 (next | show all)
The Yacoubian Building in Cairo, has seen better days. It's a sort of reverse "upstairs, downstairs" building, with the more wealthy living in multi room apartments on one of the ten floors, while the poor live in small tin huts on the roof. The novel is about the fictional people in the building who experience life in Egypt with corrupt politicians, shady businessmen, and fundamental Islamists. There are only two chapters: the first serves as introduction to the colorful characters, with vivid indications of their station in life; the second provides the stories of their survival.

Aswany is both a dentist and a writer. His political views are well-known from his column in the Cairo newspaper and his political activism. The novel was wildly popular in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world when it was published in the early 2000s. He doesn't preach a particular side but instead shows the view points rampant in society. Particularly vivid are the depiction of political corruption and the training of jihadists. ( )
  steller0707 | Aug 25, 2019 |
When I decided to take a summer class on contemporary Middle Eastern literature and society, I was excited--I felt that it would be a chance to learn more about a part of the world that I don't know enough about. And while that's proven to be a fairly realistic expectation, so far the literature has not been as enjoyable as I'd hoped.

Take this book, The Yacoubian Building. It chronicles the lives of several characters who live in the titular building in Cairo, discussing their hopes, dreams, and struggles. A slice-of-life story, it has no real plot but several interweaving character arcs. Alaa Al Aswany is very skilled at depicting his characters; his prose is beautiful and the style a joy to read. Unfortunately, however, I found the book's obsession with the sexual lives of its characters to be offputting at best. Although this book is not erotica, sex and sexual desire is its central subject, and I often felt the book to be crass in its approach to that subject. I wouldn't read it again or recommend it to a friend. Hopefully the next book for this class broadens its subject matter a little bit. ( )
  TheJaredFrancis | Jun 23, 2019 |
I found it interesting that a real Yacoubian Building exists, exactly where it’s located in the novel, though looking not much like its fictionalized version. The real-made-unreal building foreshadows and reflects the real-made-unreal inhabitants and the Cairo in which they live. The difference between the real and unreal Yacoubian Buildings is cosmetic and that suggests that the story itself, though not identical to Cairo is certainly stretched over the bones of the Cairo that exists in our world.

The story begins and ends with Zaki Bey el Dessouki. His father had been one of the richest men in the country before the revolution and it was expected that Zaki Bey would continue on his family’s path. After the revolution, much of his family’s money lost, his engineering career failed, he turned his engineering office in the Yacoubian Building into a more all-purpose “office,” which seems to serve as a place where he goes to drink, eat, meet friends, and conduct his many affairs with women. He’s a charming wastrel, the kind of man who offers advice to any who asks, and who lets no opportunity for seduction pass him by. On the surface he’s symbolic of pre-revolution Cairo and he embodies the decadence others see in that time.

Under the surface he is arguably one of the kindest characters in the novel, and the one who manages to come through nearly unscathed, despite the attempts of others to harm him in one way or another. He is the one who understands that people are not who they seem to be on the surface; as he tells his friend Christine, “You think that the good people should be smiling and jolly and the bad ones have ugly faces with thick, matted eyebrows. Life’s a lot more complicated than that.” (109) At the end of the novel, Zaki Bey, the consummate womanizer, the decadent symbol of a past most other characters would like to bury forever, marries Busayna el Sayed, one of the two clearest representatives of the new-Cairo.

Busayna, and her boyfriend at the beginning of the novel, Taha el Shazli, both live in the shacks on the roof of the Yacoubian Building. The shacks were originally built as storage spaces for each apartment in the building, then became rooms for the servants of tenants to live in (still belonging to the apartments), but now are homes and eventually shops. The rooftop shacks are part of the building by virtue of location but are separate in class and status. In this same way, Busayna and Taha are also separated from the tenants of the building because of their class and status.

We’re first introduced to Busayna through a man—her then-boyfriend Taha—and through most of the novel we see her through the distorted lens of the men with whom she interacts. Before the events in the novel we’re told that Busayna dreamed of a life married to Taha, living in a roomy apartment far away from the Yacoubian Building. After her father died Busayna, after achieving her college degree, had to work to help support her family, taking and leaving many jobs over a year’s time. “How can I look after myself when faced with a boss who opens his fly?” (42) she asked her mother, referring to the rampant sexual harassment she experienced. On the advice of her friend who reminded Busayna that her education was nearly meaningless in an economy as bad as theirs she decided to use her sexual power—the only power available to her in this society—to make her and her family’s lives easier.

It’s Busayna who tells us why she—and presumably the real people serving as the bones upon which this novel is hung—hate Egypt. “You don’t understand because you’re well-off” (138) she tells Zaki Bey, talking about the poverty, corruption, and despair she and others like her experience. He can’t quite understand her hatred because “in [his] day love for one’s country was like a religion” (200). He makes it seem good, as though it is right to love your country that way, but it is impossible to forget that he and Busayna live in two different Cairos, two different Egypts, he in one of masculinity, and wealth and privilege, she in one of femininity, and poverty and injustice.

Taha el Shazli inhabits the same world as Busayna and, like her, dreams of escaping it, though not by leaving Egypt entirely as Busayna wants and is eventually promised by Zaki Bey, but by leaving his class and becoming a governmental police officer. He can’t beat them so he wants to join them. It’s his class, specifically his father the doorman, that prevents him from achieving this dream. He’s angered and devastated by this, wondering why he tried so hard when there was no way he could ever qualify. Taha leaves the Yacoubian Building and goes to college, joining up with a group of other religious young men, a group who is later revealed to be a radical Islamist group.

Because of his involvement with this group Taha is arrested by the very police he had wanted to join. He is tortured by them, beaten and sexually abused, forced to respond to a woman’s name. Taha becomes feminized in this way, treated as less than human in ways Busayna might have understood, had he felt able to tell her. Like Busayna, Taha was shamed and angered by this use and abuse, but unlike her he saw it not as a power to be exploited and turned back around on his abusers but as a reason to kill and die. He joins a militant group, trains to commit terrorist acts/be a martyr, and under the guise of his devout belief in Islam his desire for revenge is always lurking.

At the end of the novel, it’s Taha’s death that seems filled with more joy than Busayna’s marriage. Taha is fully present in his death, hearing bells and melodies, feeling welcomed “into a new world” (243). Busayna, on the other hand, disappears into Zaki Bey’s gaze, becoming the “wondrous, pure, newborn creature” (246) he sees her as. We don’t know how she sees herself or if this is her happy ending because she is nothing more than window dressing in Zaki Bey’s fantasy wedding.

Ultimately there was no happiness for Busayna and Taha, those representatives of new, post-revolution Cairo. They didn’t achieve their original desire—that of being happily married to each other and going far away from the Yacoubian Building—nor did they achieve anything we (the readers) might call happiness. Zaki Bey, however, triumphed over all obstacles and ended the novel in a state of true happiness. If there is no happiness to be found in or for new-Cairo, then where and how can it be found? Zaki Bey has the answer:

“The reason the country’s gone downhill is the absence of democracy. If there were a real democratic system, Egypt would be a great power. Egypt’s curse is dictatorship and dictatorship inevitably leads to poverty, corruption, and failure in all fields.” (200) ( )
  tldegray | Sep 21, 2018 |
Many lives, one building.
A moral tale, but not sure what the moral is though. Shifting from one life to another. Some tales meld, some fizzle, some sizzle. Egyptians go at it: rich poor gay straight scheming naive religiouszealots moneyzealots somewhatgoodguys sleazeos. The style is not 4-star, but the lives and settings are 4-star interesting (though the action is predictably formulaic). Can't have it all in every book. ( )
  kerns222 | May 25, 2018 |
"This book holds all that Egypt was and has become over the 75 years since its
namesake was built on one of Cairo's main boulevards. From the pious son of the
building's doorkeeper and the raucous, impoverished squatters on its roof, via
the tattered aristocrat and the gay intellectual in its apartments, to the
ruthless businessman whose stores occupy its ground floor, each sharply etched
character embodies a facet of modern Egypt - one where political corruption,
ill-gotten wealth, and religious hypocrisy are natural allies, where the
arrogance and defensiveness of the powerful find expression in the exploitation
of the the weak, where youthful idealism can turn quickly to extremism, and
where an older, less violent vision of society may yet prevail." --cover
  collectionmcc | Mar 6, 2018 |
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» Add other authors (28 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Alaa Al Aswanyprimary authorall editionscalculated
Alibek, PiusTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Davies, HumphreyTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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To My Guardian Angel - Iman Taymur
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The distance between Baehler Passage, where Zaki Bey el Dessouki lives, and his office in the Yacoubian Building is not more than a hundred meters, but it takes him an hour to cover it each morning as he is obliged to greet his friends on the street.
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Original title: 'Imarat Ya'qubyan
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