Alaa Al Aswany’s novel, “The Yacoubian Building” is an endearing tale of life in Cairo, in the period of political and religious turmoil during the first Gulf War.
The famous, formerly elegant Yacoubian Building is now a tad run down, and home to a host of characters, some of whom live in the elegant apartments, and many others who live on the roof, literally. In a reversal of the upstairs/downstairs analogy, here it is rather a case of upstairs/on top of upstairs.
Happily occupying tiny rooms on the roof, the roof-inhabitants lead their busy lives, eking out a living, while their more fortunate fellow occupants live below them, largely unaware of the passions and dramas being played out over their heads.
The novel follows the lives of many of these inhabitants, some of whose lives cross, and others who don’t. As a skilled storyteller, the author introduces us to each of his characters by plunging straight into their adventures. Thus we meet Zaki Bey in the opening sentence of he book, taking an hour to walk the 100 metres between his home and the Yacoubian building where he has his office, since he has to stop and talk to everyone he meets on the way.
We meet the young and clever Taha, the doorman’s son, who is brilliant academically and hopes to pass the exams into the Police Academy. Taha is endearing and we witness with sadness, during the course of the book, his descent from optimism to bitterness and beyond, and if you are like the reviewer, you hope against hope that something might intervene to change Taha’s fate.
In a cast of many appealing characters, Taha stands out, for we the reader see how easily his fate might have been different, if only his contact with officialdom had been different. But it wasn’t, and from the moment of his rejection, we know instinctively that this young man is headed down a violently different path.
As his life descends into chaos, the life of his childhood sweetheart Busanya moves in the opposite direction. Steering her way through the mine field of sexual predators, this clever but naive girl has a relativey happy ending. No, let’s be honest she has a very happy ending. She may have thought she was compromising, but she ends up in confused, but real love.
The Yacoubian Building is the clever focal point, of the book from which each of these characters leaves each morning to start their day, and where they return at night, often to sit on the roof, overlooking Cairo, and think over their day.
The themes of sexual predation and militant Islam run powerfully through this novel, and there is hardly a character who doesn’t have a brush with either. The people who live in the Yacoubian Building think a lot about sex and money, and opportunities, and how to better their lives. And some of them think a lot about Islam.
The growing radicalisation of the Egyptian students is skilfully portrayed, as is their manipulation by their religious leaders and their parallel abandonment by their political leaders. From the moment Taha is arrested after a student demo, you have a horrible feeling that you know exactly where this young man is heading.
The book is written with obvious affection both for the city and the people of Cairo. The noise, the packed streets, the shabby chic restaurants, the dusty suburbs, are all described and brought to life with skill.
There are so many clever threads running through this book : militant vs casual easy-going religion. Westernised Egyptian life vs the poor, earthy village life, brilliantly portrayed in the passionate but sadly doomed affair between Hatim Rasheed and Abd Rabbuh. Is God vengeful? Is that why tragedy often follows illicit love in this book? There is huge sexual tension in the book, be it the agonies of being homosexual when it is both against your faith and against the law, or the love of a mother for her unborn child that ruins her life and her love. There is the love of an ageing playboy for a young woman, and the indignities they must suffer as a result. Sex is very much a part of the lives of the residents of the Yacoubian Building, but it is rarely simultaneously consensual and uncomplicated sex.
The lives and loves of the residents are fraught with the consequences of their actions, all of which are played out against a backdrop of nosy, often noisy neighbours, who all know perfectly well what goes on in the lives of their neighbours.
As we dip in and out of the lives of the many residents of this building, itself a symbol of the decay and parallel change that is taking place in society, the story-telling style of the author sweeps us along.
Well written – well, one imagines so, since this is the English translation – full of life, and death, and passion, and love, and religion, and sadness, the novel leaves you feeling both saddened by the way some characters lives have evolved, and yet also happy for others.
Published by Harper Perennial, the paperback costs £7.99.
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