Wednesday 20 August 2008

Book Review: Alaa al Aswany -The Yacoubian Building

Al Aswany’s novel tells the interconnected stories of the tenants of the once-grand Yacoubian Building, now housing a motley mix of Cairo’s citizens: gentlemen who yearn for the "golden era" when Cairo was like Paris, corrupt politician (what other kind are there?), a gay newspaper editor, a student demoralised by corruption and drawn to religious fundamentalism, a young woman finding out that it’s a man’s world and the conniving and desperate poor.
The characters and their lives reflect all of the different aspects of Egyptian life and society and deliver a damning verdict as to the state of Egypt today. Neither the government, the police and the politicians, nor the Imams (both state-sponsored and fundamentalist types), the old-money, the new-rich, the intellectuals nor the poor come off very well in this novel.

They say that one of the things that must exist in a novel is that the characters must arouse sympathy on the part of the reader in order to keep him/her interested. I did find that most of the characters were so corrupt in one way or another or often so self-deluding that I did not feel much for nay of them except a little contempt and occasionally pity. The exception to this is those people who come into the story from outside of Cairo: the politician’s second wife, the newspaper editor’s soldier lover and his wife – all of whom become hateful, angry and deceitful as they are drawn into the lives of the inhabitants of the Yacoubian building.

I was surprised at how openly this book deals with the trials of the young woman who is forced to use her looks to her advantage to keep her job and also the sexuality of the newspaper editor. I have not read much Arab literature, but suspect that this is not the norm (especially considering that this book was a mainstream hit in Arab countries).

There was enough of a plot for me to want to continue reading, but this is a depressing portrayal of Egypt despite some kind of a happy ending for a few of the characters.

I wouls be very curious what other readers think, especially Egyptian's regarding how realistic a portrayal of modern Egypt this is.


  1. Assalam Alaikum,

    We are still traveling so my connection is slow and sporadic but I cannot resist a peek at your blog. I simply loved the book! Not that I am familiar with Egyptian social culture but I could see lots of resemblance with today's Moroccan culture. I tried to watch the movie as well but was somewhat disappointed. Try and read Laila Lalami's novel Of Hope and Other Dangerous Persuits! Also, you might love Naghieb Maghfouz's Cairo Trilogy! Salaam

  2. Assalam-alaikam Sister Umm Nassim,
    I've seen the trailers for the movie, I wondered if it was any good.

    I have to admit, I did enjoy reading the book espite its flaws and so did alot of other people judging by its success. I think I mut be turning into one big critic!

    I've read some of Naghuib Mahfouz's books and really enjoyed them but not the Cairo Trilogy which I have sitting on a shelf at home but haven't got round to yet.

    Sounds like you and the kids are having fun, keep well insh'Allah.

  3. Wa alaikum assalam,

    I just read your latest entries and needed to take a deep breath. I have seen and heard things here that make me truly appreciate my life in the US. It also makes me think that there is so much more we could do and I would love to find a cause for Muslim women or children to put some time and money in. On another note...I was reading a magazine today that mentioned Alaa al Aswany newest novel Chicago - probably one of my next reads InshaAllah. Have a great weekend!

  4. i have to agree with some of the things in your review-i didn't feel much sympathy for many of the characters as they were too corrupt and the few that i did have sympathy for i.e. the caretakers son ends up doing something nonsensical!
    i have to say i found the end quite unsatisfying too but i do still want to read his new book Chicago which is out in the UK next week