Alaa Al Aswany. The Yacoubian Building

Translated by Humphrey Davies

Fourth Estate

Were the writers of The Bold and the Beautiful to create a syllabus for “Contemporary Egyptian Society 101”, The Yacoubian Building could be the result. Not quite soap opera (but close), this unpretentious social commentary maps out a metaphoric view of present-day Egypt.

 The Yacoubian building exists in Cairo, but has had a fictional makeover. Ten stories in the “high classical European style, the balconies decorated with Greek faces carved in stone”, built in the 1930s for an Armenian millionaire, were once inhabited by the cream of Egyptian society. Fifty utility rooms on the roof served as storage or laundries for each apartment.

Ongoing occupancy reflects Egyptian society over the years: military officers following 1952’s revolution, poorer residents during the 1970s, until the novel’s present (circa 1990), where nobility remains in some apartments, but an entire destitute community lives on the roof.

The building is, of course, a metaphor for Egypt herself, with individual characters serving as Egyptian class allegories. And it’s a chunky soup of (mostly male) social types: corrupt politician; corruptible, womanising businessman/political aspirant; old-time aristocratic ladies’ man; gay, half-French newspaper editor; cunning brothers with questionable modus operandi; poor widow.

Central to this (and, hence, toEgypt’s) tale are two roof-dwelling young sweethearts. He is a pious Muslim, desperately keen to be a police officer. The fact that he is the son of the Yacoubian Building’s doorkeeper – poor, honest, and without connections –  scuppers this dream, and he eventually advances along a militant route . She needs to help her recently widowed mother support her family, and soon finds ways to supplement a meagre shop assistant wage. At least one will be redeemed.

Al Aswany composes characters that cross class, gender, sexuality, age, and religion without prejudice (but it is clear that playboy Zaki is our author’s pet), delivering his slice of Egypt today with bulging metaphoric muscles but without excess melodrama.

It’s caused quite a stir since its publication. Certainly, sex, bribes, and sodomy do not popularly mix with Islamist morality. Authors have recently been beaten, imprisoned, or fined for less affront. But, in the case of The Yacoubian Building, controversy sells, and this Arabic bestseller was recently made into the most expensive Egyptian film in history.