The Yacoubian Building – Arabic vignettes by Alaa Al Aswany, translated by Humphrey Davies

I’ve been reading Alaa Al Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building lately. It’s not very long, but it’s taken me a while to get through it as I’ve been continually distracted by other things. I picked it up because it sounded interesting, and because I hadn’t read any Arabic literature.

Here’s what the publishers, Harper Perennial, say about the book:

This exceptional Egyptian novel – as mesmerising as it is controversial – caused an unprecedented stir when it was first published in Arabic.

Welcome to the Yacoubian Building, Cairo: once grand, now dilapidated, and full of stories and passion. Some live in squalor on its rooftop while others inhabit the faded glory of its apartments and offices. Within these walls religious fervour jostles with promiscuity; bribery with bliss; modern life with ancient culture. At ground level, Taha, the doorman’s son, harbours career aspirations and romantic dreams – but when these are dashed by unyielding corruption, hope turns to bitterness, with devastating consequences.

Alaa Al Aswany’s superb novel about Egypt’s many contradictions is at once an impassioned celebration and a ruthless dissection of a society dominated by dishonesty. Source:

In fact, it’s more a series of vignettes than a novel – interconnecting stories about interconnecting characters from all walks of life. This may be why I struggled so much to get through the book – I’d get going on one strand of the story line, get interested in that character, but by the time I came back to it, I’d forgotten who the others were. Difficulty in keeping track of the characters is often given as a reason for struggling with the Russian classics and I certainly found it a problem here. Fortunately though, there is a cast list at the beginning, which helps to some extent. I also found that the constant shifs in attention from one story to another meant that I was insufficiently gripped to get back to the book once the latest distraction was out of the way. Perhaps if I’d been reading it at a less frantic point in the summer, I’d have got on better. Certainly once I finally sat down to it last night, entirely uninterested in the various motorsports mari was watching, I raced through the final chapters at a much quicker pace.

I gather that the frank portrayal of sex, and homosexuality in particular, was one of the things that made this novel so contraversial in Egypt. I found the sexual politics uneasy though. The constant use of the word “homosexuals” – I presume that the translator is reflecting the Arabic, but obviously I don’t know – seems rather patronising or disapproving, while there is no shortage of  stereotyping:

[Aziz] is blessed with a strong presence and savoir-faire and under his supervision and care homosexuals meet at Chez Nous and form friendships there, released from the social pressures that prevent them from advertising their tendencies. (p. 35)

Hatim Rasheed is a conservative homosexual, if that is the right expression: he does not sacrifice his dignity, put powder on his face or stoop to using provocative ways… (p. 37)

that sad, mysterious gloomy look that often haunts the faces of homosexuals (p. 38)

Homosexuals, it is said, often excel in professions that depend on contact with other people, such as public relations, acting, brokering and the law. Their success in these fields is attributable to their lack of that sense of shame that costs others opportunities, while their sexual lives, filled as they are with diverse and unusual encounters, give them deeper insight into human nature and make them more capable of influencing others. Homosexuals also excel in professions associated with taste and beauty such as interior decoration and clothing design… (p. 130)

The author is more sympathetic to the young women who find themselves in compromising positions – accepting a groping boss for financial reasons, or unpleasant marriages for the sake of security, for example. He is good on the social pressures that lead to these situations, as well as the characters’ battles with themselves and retreat into bitterness and suppression of emotion.

Then there’s the religion. Some characters are Christian, most are Muslim. The phrase “God willing” crops up continually and, when used by corrupt politicians, for example, serves to highlight their hypocrisy:

“You mean, if I pay that sum, Kamal Bey, I’ll be sure of winning the elections, God willing?”

“Shame on you, Hagg! You’re talking to Kamal el Fouli! Thirty years’ experience in parliament! There’s not a candidate in Egypt can win without our say-so, God willing!” (p. 84)

(As this is one Arabic phrase I do know, I wondered how different the effect would have been if left as insh’Allah) There are characters like this for whom religion is a pious mask, something expected of them and little more, characters of genuine devotion, fundamentalist terrrorists and all stages in between.

Meanwhile, underlying the whole thing is the increasing radicalisation of Taha, the devout doorman’s son, whose future plans are dashed by corruption and snobbery. Drawn into the Islamist world, he finds himself yearning for martyrdom and revenge on those who have hurt him, both physically and emotionally. Perhaps because of more recent events in the Middle East – the book was first published in Egypt in 2002 – and given the “devastating consequences” mentioned in the blurb, I was more or less expecting it to conclude in some kind of bloodbath so the happyish ending was a surprise.


Alaa Al Aswany in Tahrir Square on the 12th of...

Alaa Al Aswany in Tahrir Square on the 12th of August (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Egyptian politics have also moved on since the book was written, and I found it interesting to read in that light. Although set during the first Gulf War, the translator, Humphrey Davies says in his introduction that:

the reader need not pay too much heed to the fact that the events described nominally take place before and during Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait: the novel reflects the Egypt of the present. (p. xii)

That there is a translator’s note at all is interesting and is perhaps explained by being first published by an academic publisher – American University in Cairo Press. More mainstream publishers seldom bother. In this instance it is useful in providing a little background information on the Yacoubian Building itself and the relationship between the characters, settings and reality. There is also a useful glossary at the back and a list of Qua’ranic references. The translation reads well, for the most part, with occasional clumsy phrasing. I wasn’t always convinced by the dialogue, for example, although again I don’t know how it reflects the Arabic.

I think I’ll have to come back to this book later and see if I can get more out of it on a second reading. The trouble is, as always, too many books and too little time!

About forwardtranslations

I'm a freelance literary translator from German and French to English. The title of my blog comes from Mary Schmich's description of reading: it struck home with me, and seems especially apt for translated fiction. Here are some of my musings on what I'm reading, re-reading, reading to my children, and translating.
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