Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Yacoubian Building عمارة يعقوبيان by Alaa Al Aswany and a book giveaway(CS Richardson's "The End of The Alphabet"!!!

# Paperback: 272 pages

# Publisher: Harper Collins (Jul 20 2006)

# Language: Elegantly translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies

#Genre: Fiction, Middle-Eastern, Cairo

First of, all thanks to Radha for recommending this book. I picked up my copy at London airport and read it in the 6 1/2 hours it took me to fly from London to Montreal. I should have been trying to catch up on my sleep really, but the book was hard to put down.

In "The Yacoubian Building" Egyptian writer Alaa Al Aswany turns a single Cairo apartment block into a vibrant portrait of Egypt. While it essentially tells the story of contemporary Egypt, it also touches upon its history and other forces that gave the country its present form. All this is told through a wonderful and diverse cast of characters spanning Egypt's social divides- from a French-speaking homosexual newspaper editor to a one-legged Coptic manservant; from a sensual geriatric to a young man who finds solace and self-respect in Islamic fanaticism and atleast ten other delightful characters.

When the novel's namesake was first built it attracted people from the upper echelons of Egyptian society like, the pashas, cotton millionaires and rich foreigners. Anyone who was someone had to have an apartment there because it was a status symbol , however, when
Abd el Nasser came to power in a coup in 1956, he threw the westerners out of the country and the rich and well-to-do Egyptians followed them leaving apartments in the Yacoubian Building vacant.

These vacant apartments were grabbed by Nasser's military officers and their families who were often of a more rural background and lower social caste than the previous residents.
Many of them arrived at the apartment with servants in tow and the storage rooms on the terrace were converted into lodgings for these servants, thus you now have a building which houses a slum community on its terraces and influential nouveau riche families in the apartments, thus embodying Egyptian society in microcosm. The change in the building demographics could also serve as a metaphor for the Egypt of old, the Egypt with its French cafes, distinguished and western- educated men and women no longer existed giving way to a new society where the desperate poor rub shoulders with the rich, the powerful and the corrupt.

(Talaat Harb Street, Cairo as it is today)

What makes the novel "The Yacoubian Building" special (apart from its wonderful characters and great writing) is that the building really did exist at the address given in the novel (Talaat Harb Street) even if it does not match its literary namesake in every detail. Infact, the author's father maintained an office there for a while and the author himself (a practicing dentist) once had a dental clinic there.

The novel was a bestseller in its native Egypt and in 2003, it was voted "Best Novel" by listeners to Egypt's Middle east Broadcasting service. I am not surprised because it is filled with delightful vignettes that are guaranteed to entertain, move, educate and appeal to the reader while opening a window to Middle Eastern culture and society. I should mention, however, that it's publication surprised a lot of people because it is very unusual for a book containing homosexual references to be cleared for publishing by the government of Egypt.

Be prepared to be annoyed at the way women are treated in this society and also be prepared to feel disturbed at how young men are recruited into the fundamentalist way of life. But despite some of the gloom, this wonderfully-written book will have you looking up more works from this author.

Read Moroccan writer Laila Lalami's take on the novel.

This must have been my lucky weekend because I was nominated for not one, but two blogger awards. Nymeth gave me the "Thoughtful Blogger Award" and Anali gave me the "Nice Matters Award". Thank you ladies, you really made my day! I know I am supposed to nominate 5 others, but it would be a really tough job to pick only five, so if you don't mind, may I pass on nominating someone else?
And last, but certainly not least, for anyone interested in Thai literature, look no further than Marcel Barang’s workshop which features a wonderful selection of Thai literature(short stories and novels) translated into English!!! I have been enjoying the stories so much, I hope you do too!

******WIN a copy of CS Richardson's 'The End of the Alphabet" . All you have to do is leave a comment letting me know you're interested in the book. I will conduct the draw in a week from now. Anyone, anywhere in the world is eligible to enter, good luck!*********


Saaleha said...

Sounds brilliant. on my wishlist now. And welcoma back Lotus :-)

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Saaleha!

Yes it is and looking forward to the day when I can put your published book on my wishlist. Good luck with your writing! And thank you for the welcome wishes, Saaleha!

Asha said...

Hey! Look who is back!:)
You read the whole book in 6 1/2 hrs instead of sleeping! Sounds like I used to do, not anymore unfortunately. Sounds interesting.Cairo street looks great,love the buildings.
I was hoping to see your vacation pics,Poland is it?
Enjoy the awards!:))

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Asha!

Yes! I'm back! I have been meaning to post our pics, but I have been lazy about uploading them. I'm planning on doing a post on Auschwitz soon, so you'll see some then. Asha, thanks so much for stopping by!

Ana S. said...

The book sounds very interesting. A nice way to get a glimpse into Egypt.

I'm glad the nomination put a smile on your face :) Btw, I love the new look of your blog!

"The End of the Alphabet" also sounds quite interesting. I would like to be entered in the drawing.

Happy Reader said...

Lotus, First of all, Congrats on the awards! You so deserve it :) I've been wanting to read yacoubian building for so long. It sounds like an interesting read.
How was your vacation? Pls do post some pics! I am so looking fwd to your post on Auschwitz.
Do count me in for the book draw :)

Dana said...

Another interesting book!!!!

The End of the Alphabet sounds very good also.Please enter me in the draw

Olivia said...

I'm fascinated by the fact that the demographic of the apartment building have remained the same - that neither one nor the other moved out leaving the other to take over as they parted ways. And it's usually the servants who move out....

Radha said...

Hey, congratulations for the double-award! :-)
I was waiting for your review on The Yacoubian Building! What struck me the most abt this book was the fearlessness of the author. He certainly wasnt thinking of the public response to his book when he drew up his characters & storyline.

Radha said...

And of course im interested in a free book! :)

Booklogged said...

Wonderful new look, Lotus. I am glad to see you still have your books arranged by color. We are going to move our stairway and that will leave a small room for a library. I told Candleman that I wanted to arrange the books by color. He gave me a queer, quizzical look.

Yacoubian Building sounds like something I would really enjoy. I've added it to THE list. Especially enjoyed seeing a picture to help with the setting.

Of course add my name to the drawing. I followed the link you gave. It sounds very interesting.

About the awards. You totally deserve them. I don't know when I've ever met such a thoughtful, nice person as you.

karmic said...

Lotus, I loved reading this engaging, lovely post. This will be another book to add to my TBR list which only appears to grow. I wonder if reading this book on that long flight gave you a particularly bad case of jet lag? I love how you distilled the essence of the book down so very well and then made it even more fun by telling us about the background and the events that lead to this strange but interesting amalgamation of characters and that the building did exist at the address in Cairo.
Given that you have read books from that part of the world did you feel by any chance that any of the characters were clichés? But even if they were do you think the author may have colored them with his own unique brand of pensmanship, thus making them unique?
Strangely enough it reminds me of the cast of characters one might find in the chawls in Bombay. I had a classmate in Bombay who lived in one and this book reminded me of the people that populated his place.
Interesting that it did not get banned, perhaps the censors saw (gasp!) the literary merit of this book?
This book was made into one of Egypt’s biggest movies ever in 2005. There are some reviews at here. I tried looking for the DVD but it does not seem to be available in our part of the world.
You read Thai literature too? You truly have eclectic tastes.
And last but not the least please accept my hearty congratulations on not one but two well deserved blogger awards!

Nyssaneala said...

Welcome back! I can't wait to hear about your trip, and the Auschwitz visit.

This sounds like a great book, I would like to read more books by Egyptian authors in the near future.

Oh, and add me into the drawing! What's the occasion?

Lisa Johnson said...

Your award looks great! This book sounds really interesting. I like the idea of vignettes all centering around the building. Sort of Melrose Place but not.

And your blog looks great! You've been doing some renovations! ; )

Sycorax Pine said...

What a lovely review! Just thought I would leave a quick comment to say that I would definitely be interested in entering the drawing for "The End of the Alphabet." I have heard great things about it!

Anonymous said...

Another book that you've sent straight onto my wishlist! (Urk, that's getting so long...) I'd love to enter the drawing for the next book---it sounds quite lovely!

karmic said...

But even if they were do you think the author may have colored them with his own unique brand of pensmanship, thus making them unique?
Ouch! Unique twice in one line and the word penmanship, which I think is wrong to use here. Sorry, so let me reword that part...

But if they were, do you think the author with his distinct writing style created richer and more vibrant characters although they may sound familiar?

Lotus Reads said...

@Nymeth ~ The award sure did make my day, thank you again and I've put your name in the hat, thanks for playing!

@Chitts ~ Thank you! Auschwitz is next. Your name is in the hat, too, good luck!

@Dana ~ I'd be glad to enter you for the draw. All the best!

@Olivia ~ Fascinating isn't it? Most cities are like rubber bands, they keep expanding to accommodate more and more people. Also, the rich have to learn to live with the poor because the rich need people to do their bidding. In Bombay, which I assume is a lot like Cairo, all the wealthy suburbs are also homes to some of the most wretched poor. Thanks so much for your comment!

@Radha ~ Good point! He certainly was fearless...I am truly glad the censors haven't managed to take the spirit out of these authors. You're in the draw! And once again, thank you so much for the book recommendation.

Hollydolly said...

Wow, I just loved reading your post. You have such a beautiful and unique way with words. If only I were that blessed.....I have been looking at this book for the past while,now you have really helped me make up my mind...please throw my name into the pile......

I am so looking forward to your post on Auschwitz, i would be really interested to hear the girls thoughts.

Have a beautiful day dear friend....hugs.

Hollydolly said...

Me again......I do realize the draw is for 'The End of the Alphabet".Posted before I edited....Duh.....

Lotus Reads said...

hi, booklogged!

lol, just don't tell Candleman where you got the idea from! He'll probably think I have too much time on my hands! :)

Thank you for your generous praise, booklogged, you are always so kind!

I'd be very glad to put your name in the hat!

@Nyssaneala ~ Alaa Al Aswany is an excellent choice with which to discover Egyptian writing, you could also try reading Hamdy Abu Golayyel whose novel "Thieves in Retirement" is very similar in construction to "The Yacoubian Building" and, ofcourse, there's the ever popular Naguib Mahfouz.

THank you for the welcome back wishes! No, no occasion for offering this book. It's just that sometimes I over-enthusiastically buy more books than I can read, so how best to make sure it's not a purchase in vain..give it away. :)

@Anali ~ Glad you like the blog's new look! And true, it could be an Egyptian version of Melrose's Place! :) An apartment block is such wonderful fodder for a story, isn't it? Again, thank you very much for your sweet award!

@pour of tor ~ Thank you for playing, I shall certainly put your name in the hat!

@Heather - You're in! Good luck!

Lotus Reads said...

Hello, Sanjay and thank you for your insightful comment!

Yes, do go ahead and add this to your wishlist, I think you will quite enjoy the read.

Given that you have read books from that part of the world did you feel by any chance that any of the characters were clichés? But even if they were do you think the author may have colored them with his own unique brand of pensmanship, thus making them unique?

You guessed right, they were cliches alright, but given that his intention was to show the readers what modern Egyptian society was really like, he had to use stereotypes - like the corrupt politician who says his prayers publicly 5 times a day; the young woman who forsakes her principles and lets herself become the mistress of a rich man to make some pocket-money;the rich businessman who wants a mistress, but in secret so that it doesn't damage his reputation and so on, but yes, like you suggested he does it in a style that is unique to Al Aswany. It's really one big soap opera and like Anali suggested very much like an Egyptian version of Melrose Place, but it's enjoyable and entertaining and you learn so much about the ills that plague Egyptian society today.

Strangely enough it reminds me of the cast of characters one might find in the chawls in Bombay. I had a classmate in Bombay who lived in one and this book reminded me of the people that populated his place.

Absolutely! I felt the same when I was reading the book, Sanjay! It will hold fond memories for anyone that has lived in an apartment block!

This book was made into one of Egypt’s biggest movies ever in 2005. There are some reviews at here. I tried looking for the DVD but it does not seem to be available in our part of the world.

Not available in our part of the world? That's a bummer! I wonder why? I could ask M to look for a copy when he's in Dubai next.

Thank you for the comment Sanjay and don't worry about any errors in the post, I certainly didn't notice any!

Lotus Reads said...

@Sylvia ~ Awww, thank you for your kind words, you say the nicest things! I can see why you would confuse the book's my fault I should have been clearer about the giveaway in the title header, I'll see if I can remedy that. Are you still wanting to be in the draw?

Thank you and hugs back at ya!!!

Jennie said...

Yacoubian Building has been on my to-read list for a while now. Your review is making it move up the pile!

This has to be the third book this summer where I've dropped everything to read something you recommended! What are you doing to me here, Lotus?! :)

I am also interested in the drawing!

karmic said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
karmic said...

@Lotus. Thank you for your response. I can see more clearly now that you articulated it so well. The DVD not being available here mystified me too, perhaps it never got the kind of publicity and reviews that increases the visibility of some of these movies to the point where enough folks notice?
And if I may respond to your comment to Olivia re Bombay..

The rubber band analogy is wonderful, for it also tells you that cities while expandable are often stretched to breaking points. The rich have to exist with the poor also because there is only so much space. And in Bombay the poor are pretty much all over, most of Bombay's teeming masses live in the slums and that contributes (along with other things) to making the city look worn and decrepit.

Beenzzz said...

Hi Lotus,
Lovely review! You know how much I like to torture myself with subject matter that makes me angry. The treatment of Egyptian woman and the recruitment of young men into any fundamental cause, is sure to be right up my alley! I'd imagine it was one of those books that made you experience a variety of emotions from beginning to end.

Anonymous said...

Hey Lotus, welcome back! Put my name in the draw as well as I'm in desparate need of a new book to read. Loved your review of the book as always. You're the same as me, one who reads a whole book in one flight. :)

I updated my blog with new pics of Alex so do check it out when you can!

Tara said...

Wonderful post and review Lotus - I am also looking forward to seeing photographs of your trip. Please throw my name in the hat for your drawing!

Melwyk said...

I've heard some good things about this book already; your review makes me want to move it up my list.
And I'd love to be added into the draw for The End of the Alphabet .

diyadear said...

hey i rem u had posted abt a book which had almost the same coverpage. dont rem the name though.. n hey the new look is good. i love green :)n hope to find u on shelfari :)

tanabata said...

'The Yacoubian Building' sounds great! Another one for the wishlist!

Congratulations on the awards! You're certainly one of the nicest, most thoughtful bloggers!

And I'd love to be included in the draw for 'The End of the Alphabet'. I remember hearing about it but then proceeded to forget about it. Thanks for reminding me again.

I look forward to seeing your pics.

Lotus Reads said...

@Jennie ~ You made my day! :) I am so glad you've been finding these reviews helpful...sorry to have disrupted your summer reading schedule however! :) I have put in a request for "Does my Head Look Big in This?" at our local library and cannot wait to receive it! Putting your name in the hat.

@Beenzzz ~ I knew those lines would catch your was quite disturbing to me to see how women are used by men that part of the world, but then again, it's a cultural thing and I am not sure that they would consider themselves victims.

@Sasgirl ~ How lovely to see you here after so long, truly, I mean that! Why don't you visit and have a look at my bookshelves? You can borrow any book you want. Alex must have grown so much I am definitely going to take a peek at his pics. You are in the draw.

@Tara ~ THank you and adding your name right away. Thanks for playing!

@Melanie ~ Consider it done!

@Diya ~ Thank you!!! I hope to see you on Shelfari too!

@Nat ~ Awww, thanks! You were nominated for the same award too, so my congratulations go out to you as well! Putting your name in the hat right away!

ML said...

"Be prepared to be annoyed at the way women are treated in this society..."
That got my attention!

Lotus, your reviews are always too good! I've added this book to my HUGE pile of TBR.

Lotus Reads said...

@Sanjay ~ Thank you! It's funny but I think I articulate how I feel about books I read better through the comments than through my posts, perhaps the fine questions you ask makes it easier to describe certain things about the book.

That was a great observation on Bombay...I believe it may have reached its breaking point, but only time will tell. About it looking worn and is such a sad thing because underneath all that grime the city has such a great soul!

@ml ~ I think you will enjoy this book! Thank you for stopping by, always glad to see you!

Nanditha Prabhu said...

I am new to your blog, but i feel happy to have stopped by!
you have given a wonderful review there !and i am sue to pick it up soon.
congrats on your double awards !!!
will get back here to read more from you!

david mcmahon said...

Love the new header!

Id it is said...

An interesting read, no doubt; I am just not certain when I'll get down to reading it since summer break is almost over.
Lalami's take on it was rather insightful and made me want to read it even more. This will be a novel read for me as I haven't read anything contemporary out of Egypt.

Anonymous said...

Hey, great blog! I love it. I came across it as the first result when I looked up "Guests of the Shiek," which I have been assigned to read by my WSU Anthropology class. Keep it up.

Nabeel said...

Yaqub (pbuh) was one of our prophets, who was the father of Prophet Yusuf (God gave him beauty). When he used to walk into a room, women used to cut their finger (while cutting vegetables) and still kept looking at him not knowing of the pain.

Anonymous said...

Lotus I agree I thought this book was wonderful! I read it earlier this year and sadly some of the names and details are already sketchy in my mind but I do remember how angry I felt about the treatment of some of the women. It was just so sad.
Anyway, great review as always and of course congrats on your thoughtful & nice blogger awards - you are a sweetie!

Anonymous said...

I too had started this book in the airport going from Delhi to Bangalore. I had enjoyed reading this. I like your review and I too plan write a review soon. Right now I am reviewing all those books I read sometime back. Some Very oldies too!

I have been here for some time now. I like the new look of your blog.

And if the offer still stands, May I be included in that draw?


Gentle Reader said...

This book sounds interesting! And so does The End of the Alphabet, so put me down for your drawing! Also, glad you were nominated for those blogger awards, being that you are both thoughtful and nice :)

hellomelissa said...

i like your peek-a-boo photo! and your books are still color coded, i see. :)

Lotus Reads said...

@Nanditha ~ Hello and welcome! Sorry for not getting back to you sooner, but you know how it is with the weekend and all of that. So glad you like this blog, I am looking forward to visiting yours too!

@David ~ Thank you! You, Sanjay and Tanabata are the inspiration for my wanting a new blog header!

@Id ~ I feel certain you will love this book. I chose to include Lalami's take because she is from the region originally and I thought she'd have a great grasp on the culture and politics of the area, also, she is a great reviewer!

@Gilgersleeve ~ Thank you, thank you, so appreciate the visit! I am an anthropologist wannabe! ;)

@Nabeel ~ Thank you for that! I found the info on Yacoub and Yusuf so interesting!!!

Lotus Reads said...

@Iliana ~ Thank you for leaving me such a wonderful comment! I thoroughly enjoyed "The Yacoubian Building", the characters were so fun and you learn so much about Egypt in the bargain.

@Gautami ~ Ofcourse, you are included in the draw. Will be looking for your review!

@Gentle Reader ~ Thank you so much! Your name is in the hat. The drawing is tomorrow, good luck!

@Melissa ~ Thank you, was feeling a little playful when i took that picture and yes, the books are still color coordinated,I am much too lazy to want to change! :)

Ted said...

wonderful blog. I just discovered you and will certainly return!

Lotus Reads said...

THank you, Ted, appreciate the visit!

equiano said...

A much belated comment! I have this in my TBR pile and this has only made me look forward to it all the more!

gs said...

hi lr
congratulations on the richly deserved awards.