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  • The Yacoubian Building
  • Steve Street
The Yacoubian Building By Alaa al Aswany Translated by Humphrey DaviesHarper Perennial, 2006, 255 pp., $13.95

Even before the cast of characters, acknowledgments, and translator's note that open this novel from deep inside contemporary Egypt, the phenomenon it has become will have captivated readers familiar with that place. Controversy has surrounded this two-year Arabic-language best-seller. The film adaptation is the most expensive Egyptian movie ever made; it was shown at last year's Tribeca Film Festival. Readers who until now have not been particularly interested in Egypt and the extremes it embodies—East and West, secularism and religiosity, haves and have-nots, globalization and colonialism's continuing legacy—will be interested by the book's end. Some dozen major characters' interwoven stories not only address all those themes and more but evoke a spectrum of emotions, from the purest impulses of young characters' love, piety, and concern for social justice to individual readers' responses to details on sodomy, terrorism, murder, substance abuse and greed.

Not that the book wallows in those subjects or even has much time for the others. It's a quick, clear read in two episodic chapters, an achievement all the more remarkable for the complexities it encompasses. Some of these are social, particular to Egypt and Cairo, the teeming capital of some fifteen million affectionately called Mother of the World; it is in downtown Cairo that the building of the title is in fact located. Within the first few pages is a fictionalized description of the building and its history, from the Armenian who hired Italians to design and build it before World War II, to the "ministers, big land-owning bashas, foreign manufacturers, and two Jewish millionaires" who lived there until the 1952 revolution, to the new occupants afterward, wives of military personnel, [End Page 143] who began converting the iron storage rooms on the roof into the living spaces that eventually became property themselves. In this way the Yacoubian building, with its present-day rooftop community of poor families and lower-floor occupants from a variety of wealthy classes, is a microcosm of that world. But identity in this world comes not just from wealth; it comes also from language, ethnicity, religion, proximity to Europe and/or the seats of Egyptian political power, gender, attractiveness, sexual orientation, traditional or modern dress.

Other effects are less intricate. Al Aswany's graphic but empathetic portrayals of homosexual men, along with heterosexuality of a business-like nature, and substance abuse, account for some of the controversy the book has met with. But for Westerners these provide a counterbalancing glimpse into the fully human dimensions of what's often considered to be a repressed and joyless culture. So does the portrait of a rooftop dweller, son of the Yacoubian's doorkeeper, whose abruptly broken dreams of a police career lead him to an Islamist training camp where, along with his indoctrination, he unexpectedly finds conjugal bliss.

That narrative thread leads where it has to, and, given al Aswany's proclivity for what cynics might call melodrama, so do others involving passion; but the outcomes of other threads are gratifyingly surprising. The novel pays close and careful attention to human behaviors, ranging from the seduction of a nine-year-old boy to prayers, prostrations and citations of the Koran. There are, as well, the rationalizations of a poor girl propositioned by her shopkeeper boss and the regretful ruminations of an "aging playboy" who, like the terrorist in the training camp, finds peace in unexpected quarters.

Whether due to the nature of translation or to the author's mindfulness of a readership beyond his own cultural confines, the prose, idioms and narrative technique can seem intrusive or rudimentary, and much is flat-out explained, from individual perceptions to group attitudes. The novel is precisely set during the invasion of Kuwait and the first coalition against Saddam Hussein (which, as explained, constituted a considerable conflict for Muslims recruited by non-Muslims to fight other Muslims), but events evolve "for some months," with few more allusions to the war.

Eloquence, emotional power and the ring of truth predominate, and for...


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pp. 143-144
Launched on MUSE
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