The Yacoubian Building, by Alaa Al Aswany, trans Humphrey Davies

Home truths in Egypt's multi-story saga

It would be difficult to overestimate the impact that Alaa Al Aswany's novel has had in Egypt. The Yacoubian Building has topped the bestseller lists for over two years, been adapted for the screen by Marwan Hamid and inspired impassioned cultural debate. This addictively readable evocation of Cairo at a time of political and social ferment, during the first Gulf War, is both a damning critique and a love letter to a city and its inhabitants. It engages with corruption, homophobia, sexism, Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism; all sensitive and controversial issues in contemporary Egyptian society.

Yet despite dealing with serious subjects, the experience of reading the novel is more akin to a guilty literary pleasure than a civic duty. Al Aswany's interwoven narratives of the diverse inhabitants of a once grand, now dilapidated, apartment block in downtown Cairo marry the humanist realism of Balzac with the hyperbolic momentum of Egyptian soap opera.

Built in 1934 by an Italian firm for an Armenian millionaire, the Yacoubian Building, "ten lofty stories in the high European style", is a metaphor for wider historical upheavals. Initially home to the "cream of society", after the nationalist revolution in 1952 and the "exodus of Jews and foreigners", the apartments are taken over by army officers and their families. As the middle classes abandon the inner city the inhabitants become more varied, and the little lock-up sheds on the roof become homes for migrants from the countryside.

The inhabitants offer us a multiplicity of stories and perspectives, from the rabble on the roof to aristocrats in their 10-room apartments. While ageing roué Zaki Bey whiles away his evenings in Maxim's listening to Edith Piaf, nostalgic for Egypt's cosmopolitan past, Taha the doorman's son becomes a fervent advocate for its Islamic future.

Taha's trajectory from an ambitious schoolboy, whose aspiration is to join the police force, to a fundamentalist terrorist is perhaps the most compelling of the novel's plots. We are shown how social exclusion, police corruption and American atrocities in Iraq all play their part in his conversion, although it is oppression and torture that finally set him on the path to violence.

Busayna, Taha's childhood sweetheart, is worn down by the double standards which expect her to provide for her widowed mother and siblings, to guard her honour, and to endure sexual harassment at work. Hatim Rasheed, the editor of a French-language newspaper, an aristocrat and an intellectual, is madly in love with Abduh, an underfed conscript with unbrushed teeth.

Many Egyptian readers have found Al Aswany's depiction of male homosexuality the most challenging aspect of the novel. Yet the depiction is often uncomfortable because it seems prejudiced rather than permissive. Homosexuals, the novel tells us, excel in professions like public relations because they lack "that sense of shame that costs others opportunities". At times, the voice is culturally as well as sexually conservative. Despite acknowledging the rich contribution of Copts, Greeks, Armenians and Jews to Egyptian culture, the novel slips into monocultural assumptions.

But perhaps intellectual consistency is too much to ask, especially when Humphrey Davies's elegant translation provides us with the most emotionally compelling Egyptian novel published in English since Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy.

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