Monday, April 17, 2017

Egypt: The Yacoubian Building, by Alaa Al Aswany

This turned out to be a much easier read than my choice for Lebanon (previous post). In the first chapter or so, I felt it was strongly reminiscent of Alexander McCall Smith's series of novels about the inhabitants of 44 Scotland Street, Edinburgh. However it turned out to be much darker than that. Like the 44 Scotland Street books, The Yacoubian Building presents the various stories of the inhabitants of a single building, in this case in downtown Cairo. The year is approximately 1990, at the time of the Gulf War which followed the invasion of Kuwait. This backgrounds the tension between the various sectors of Egyptian society - the poor, the politicians, the intellectuals, the businessmen. Taha, the son of the doorkeeper of the Yacoubian Building, is a bright student who wants to join the police force, but is turned down despite outstanding performance in the entry exams because of his father's occupation. At university, he is drawn in to militant Islam. His sweetheart, Busayna, has to work to support her family after the death of her father, but finds that what her employers expect of a beautiful woman is problematic. The two gradually drift apart.

The novel exposes rampant corruption in political life, and in the police force. I found the depiction of female characters rather troubling, as most of them seemed to exist only in relation to men - someone's mother, someone's sister, someone's wife. Only the older Frenchwoman, Christine, a bar owner, and Dalwat, the rather unpleasant widowed elder sister of another character, appeared to have much agency of their own. I suspect this reflects the Eqyptian situation at the time as much as it reflects the writer's ability to create convincing depictions of the opposite sex.

The depiction of homosexuals I also found rather troubling, but again, perhaps realistic in the setting of the novel. In both cases (women and homosexuals) there seemed to be a huge focus on them as sexual objects, rather than as people with wide-ranging lives.

Despite all the dark events in the novel, it does end on a somewhat positive note. I'm not sure though, that I would agree with the blurbs on the back - the New York Times describes it as "a comic yet sympathetic novel about the vagaries of the human heart" - sympathetic, perhaps, but hardly comic in my opinion.

The Yacoubian Building was published in Arabic in 2002, translated by Humphrey Davies and published in English by Harper Perennial in 2007.

No comments: