The Yacoubian Building stands in downtown Cairo, a handsome Art Deco building, housing offices and some old time residents. The author, a dentist by occupation opened his first clinic here.
A building bearing the same name and perhaps modeled on the original, is the setting for the novel.
Originally written in Arabic, it traces the lives of the various building residents. They pursue different professions, profess differing allegiances, swing different ways, but they are all united in their subjection to the Egyptian condition. That is how the book started to appear after I had gotten through a third of it—initially I thought it was a pretty, slice-of-life narrative that would affirm some fuzzy-warm, feel-good aspect of humanity. I expected an Egyptian R.K. Narayan as I took in the various characters and their back-stories, but at some point I got rather startled by the sheer carnality of the book. I wondered among other things, about the author's attitude towards homosexuality. He implies a character turned homosexual after being abused as a child, and seems a little too fixated on the actual act. No R.K. Narayan this. It is almost as if the sexual exploitation of the poor young by the established wrinkled is the thread that binds the stories, with a few accounts of lust making in happier circumstances standing out. Tad depressing. However, the writer has a mesmeric voice and despite the all- too aggressive male gaze that informs his observations, he tells his stories with a touch of understanding and compassion. It is just enough to keep the book from becoming either a political rant or a piece for the prurient. Also, Al Aswany manages to sew up a lot of Egyptian history, politics and culture in his novel, giving one a snapshot picture of modern Cairo society.
The book made me understand how the latest revolution had come about. Clearly even the middle classes—the ones willing to work hard and keep their head down, if only they had some prospects—had become disaffected in Egypt. In India, which is not exactly behind in the exploitation and corruption parameters, there has been some trickle down to the middle layer. Does one attribute that to democracy or press freedom or both?
The book reads very well and the translation is superb. I love the Arabic cadence and the switch to present tense for descriptions – a West and South Asian conceit that I am much partial to. It is important to me that the book was a runaway bestseller in the Arab world. It reminded me too much of Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk, and the resonance suggests that truth is reflected in the stories of the Yacoubian Building. I can only hope the author, in his zeal had not given thought to the fact that so many shocking but perfectly conceivable stories cannot take place at once. It is a bit like ‘A Fine Balance’- almost everything bad that can happen in India happens to the four likeable protagonists of Rohington Mistry’s novel.
Yet unlike Mistry’s book, the Yacoubian building does not end in despair. It shows people acting out their wants, and at some level reconciling to their situation. They do not get a great resolution, but it could be worse.
Definitely go for the book. It speaks the truth, is racy but not a rag. And great if you want an introduction to contemporary Arab literature.