The Yacoubian Building

Streetcars in Cario during the 1940s (photographer unknown).

What catches the reader’s eye the most while reading Alaa Al-Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building (HarperCollins, 2006, translated from Arabic by Humphrey Davies) is the sheer enormity of its eponymous landmark, and how it reflects the identity of everyone who resides in it: The deformed on the rooftops, the depraved of its streets, a shoe-shining drug dealer turned politician, or the molesters who hire young women as “the help”—all of whom accompany the infamous building.

Aswany uses the building as a metaphor to inspect the neuroses of its inhabitants, and how their lives play out under an authoritarian regime. The novel encompasses all strata of men and the unifying element is a landmark which has lasted more than three generations, its rooftop transformed from storage rooms to the melting pot of newly arrived families in Cairo. Men are controlled, women are subdued and widowed, all, including their children, the children of Egypt, are sick of the reign of the now defunct rule of Abd el Nasser.

The novel depicts sexuality, both heterosexual and homosexual; and the acquisitive portrayal of the extremist values of an Islamic organization. Sexuality is in the forefront of this novel, not of the erotic kind—but, rather, through sexuality the author explores childhood trauma and guilt. Zaki Bey’s turmoil and experience and the inexperience of romantic love is in conflict with Taha’s experience in romantic love yet inexperience in life that lands him in the midst of an Islamic organization. The book goes on to explore the tumultuous relationships of characters in the novel. Everyone seems to be nurturing a hidden agenda. Female protagonists such as Busayna, and her mother “with that stern, prickly, masculine look that poor widows adorn” are vehemently in contrast with each other. Busayna, the childhood sweetheart of Taha, fragile and innocent ends up becoming cunning and cold-hearted like her mother, as she plots to trick Zaki Bey into signing the ownership contract for Malaak. Her mother, who once was sweet and caring but “little by little she grew bad tempered and took to quarreling all the time with the girls; even little Mustafa wasn’t spared beatings and abuse,” wants her to keep working for Talal, even though she knows that he takes advantage of her daughter’s body.

While other women are examined by the author through text, “The men pay little attention to the women’s quarrels, viewing them as just one more indication of the defectiveness of mind of which the Prophet— God bless him and grant him peace— spoke.” The author continues to trace and disseminate different, exigent perceptions of women through another beloved character, Zaki el Dessouki, “a true expert on women, and in the science of women, as he calls it.” The author further professes that “whether one accepts women or rejects them, they definitely deserve consideration.” But, the author forgets to underline the fact that women need to be more than mere devices of sexualization, or that their beauty just an idea to be toyed with, so much as to lose both their humanity and femininity. The author fails to acknowledge that women are not only a means to some end. And beauty can’t be marred or exhausted, as in case of Souad, who’s making sacrifices by being the wife of Hagg Azzam for the young Tamir, her son. Even when Souad is beautiful and “her attention to the minutiae details of her body was outstanding as is usually the case with the women of Alexandria,” yet she’s so exhausted from getting proposals from men trying to bed her, and tired of ignoring every advance, still agrees to be in a legal, contractual marriage with Hagg Azzam. And the Hagg who’s complicit in getting her a forced abortion, “You filthy bitch!” Shouted Hagg Azzam and he slapped her on her face.” Still, he wants to hold on to her because of her beauty and passion towards him. In his mind, he believes she’s a true, blessed Islamic woman, bringer of good fortune and the only truth; real meaning that she represents in his now meaningless life because he loves her and she’s where he finds moments of companionship, solace, and acceptance of his desires.

This novel is a beautiful interpretation of treachery and deceit pandering to one’s animalistic desires. Hatim, Malaak, and Abaskharon are all victims of an entirely authoritarian regime of the mostly Islamic society, sordidly left after they threw out the Jews and the foreigners fled the country, are interrelated where they have to wear a mask of innocence and credulousness to prey on their righteous victims. Hatim Rasheed, with fine French features and a svelte figure, epicurean, ardent, adroit editor of Le Caire, walks along the streets of Suleman Basha and El Besser passage, sad and gloomy, where he finds his lover, Abduh, a simple man, reminiscent of his old lover, Idris, with whom Hatim remembers the first time he made love as if it was yesterday. He culturally grooms the credulous Abduh, till he’s as refined as he his, only for him to be killed by his lover’s hands on the ominous death of Abduh’s son. Abshakaron and Malaak, a team worse put together than any other, plotting and scheming to get rid of the only person who has supported them while teaming up with his sister, insinuates laughter and the comic air this grim novel requires. The craftiness of Abshakaron is found in the beginning when he tries to stratagem Fikri Bey to rent him one of the rooms on the building’s rooftop. “At this Abaskharon was obliged to launch into another interlude of pleading during which he attempted to kiss the Bey’s hand more than once and finally brought his importunities to a close with a special move that he kept in reserve for emergencies, suddenly bending his torso backward and pulling his worn, dirty gallabiya upward with both hands so that his truncated leg, attached to the depressingly dark-colored prosthesis, was displayed.” Malaak’s mannerism outwits even Abaskharon’s, when he not only ploys to hire Busayna making gifts and propositions to alleviate her family’s poverty, but uses her beauty to implicate her into a cleverly designed ruse to gain the ownership of Zaki Bey’s office apartment which is the only place he has left to his misery.

While the characters portrayed by the author are rich and uniform in clarity, three-dimensional, but the novel itself lacks clarity about what it is in totality trying to express. Taha el Shazli, humble and intelligent son of a doorkeeper, performs his religious prayers regularly, devoid of sin, violence and excess of anything, yet has fallen on the hands of an intrinsically orthodox Islamic organization. He takes part in violent protests after being rejected from the Police Academy. As though looking for a new mission in life, he takes the charge of the organization and leads multitude of protests, for which he is caught, and sodomized in investigation. When Taha el Shazli professes his unadulterated pain in front of Sheikh Bilal, that his honor has been violated ten times, Bilal shushes him angrily, saying, “I told you to stop, Taha! Everyone’s looking at us.” But we don’t know who “everyone” is, people listening in on the conversation, the author himself, or us, the readers.

Aswany investigates the social and political spite of the time through a cultural dialogue between his characters. He despises the ugly truths of downtown Cairo; the uncivilized political theatre; and, with abundant irony, the fake religiosity pervading its society. As Sheikh Bilal says sarcastically: “The secularists accuse us of puritanism and rigidity, even while they suffer from innumerable neuroses. You’ll find that if one of them marries a woman who was previously married, the thought of her first husband will haunt him and he may treat her badly, as though punishing her for her legitimate marriage. Islam has no such complexes.” The novel prods along a thin line of morality and depravity and the author lays the blame on its citizens for its cultural and political decline. But, what is the author trying to portray through Taha el Shazli? A life of indifference in a novel of sad endings?

Almost everyone’s life is inflicted by indifference and sad endings (as it is in 2002, the present-day Cairo of the book). Nobody is happy, and everybody’s life is filled with despair, yearning for a Cairo as it once was (or a romantic, nostalgic Cairo that never existed at all). Everybody is on the lookout for their own self-interest. There’s neither good nor evil. The author is trying to find answers for his own predicament in the Cairo of our day.

Throughout the movie based on this book, with scenic landscapes of downtown Cairo, the beautiful, Europeanized center that’s Suleiman Basha, and the making of an Armenian builder, The Yacoubian Building stands applauding its residents for their depravity, insincerity, petty remarks, and fights to jot down a memory and a history of Cairo, as well as its present.

The novel ends with a wedding ceremony, as if to blur the lines of power and indifference, poverty and wealth, sincerity and love, hope for the future, and tolerance of one’s pasts, with the affection of a long standing friendship to relish a new beginning for both Busayna and Zaki el Dessouki, as he finally throws down his hat into marriage, after Busayna, weeps feebly in a public restaurant of the beatings of the world she has had to take, she says: “All my life I’ve had bad luck in everything.” It’s the very feeling that every Egyptian must have felt at some point in time.