Review by Florence Holmes
“We are here because of what you wrote” – Alla Al Aswany
The world’s bestselling Arab novelist, Alla Al Aswany, was approached and thanked repeatedly by protestors during the Egyptian revolution of 2011. Aswany was openly opposed to President Mubarak and suffered censorship as a journalist for years, and was even banned from the film premiere of his own novel The Yacoubian Building. This book, first published in Arabic in 2002 and later translated into 23 languages, has played a foundational role in inspiring people to fight for democracy.
In downtown Cairo, where you “find streets that look the same as those to be found in any of the capitals of Europe,” the real Yacoubian building, an Art Deco style apartment block, still stands. In Aswany’s novel, set in 1990, it becomes a metaphor for Egyptian society. The lives of the inhabitants of the different floors, including the rooftop where fifty storage rooms have become slum dwellings for migrants from the countryside, are continually intertwined as Aswany scathingly critiques late twentieth-century Egypt. We see class prejudices stall ambition as Taha El Shazli, the doorman’s son, is prevented from joining the police academy because of his father’s profession. Disillusioned, Taha ends up in a militant Islamist organisation. We see double standards inflicted on women like Buyana el Sayed, who suffers under a sexist male employer until she works out how to capitalise on her beauty, only to fall in love and have her schemes turned upside down. We see the arguments between the wealthy Zaki el Dessouki and his sister Dawlat as they fight over the apartment inherited from their father; Zaki takes refuge at The Automobile Club, which “bears the stamp of the past in the same way as do old Rolls-Royces, ladies’ long white gloves, hats decorated with feathers, gramophones with horns and gold needles…”
The Yacoubian Building introduces us to a complex web of people, melding different social classes, the religious with the secular, and the public with private. Because Aswany has lived and worked in Cairo, the novel reads almost like a piece of non-fiction, with an insightful view of the city within the last decade of the 20th century. The novel especially illuminates what has been hidden behind society’s closed doors. The backstory of previous generations and origins of the building’s inhabitants is interspersed with punchy dialogue, and Aswany offsets the darker moments with wry humour. The Yacoubian Building is an exploration of how people share physical spaces; in the light of Egypt’s turbulent past few years, today has never been a better time to read it.
Florence Holmes is an English and Related Literature student at the University of York, Opinion Editor and committee member of York PEN.