# 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.
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!*********