An international bestseller, ‘The Yacoubian Building’ is a mesmerising and controversial novel that is at once an impassioned celebration and a ruthless dissection of a society dominated by bribery and corruption.
The Yacoubian building – once grand, but now dilapidated – stands on one of Cairo's main boulevards. Taha, the doorman's son, has aspirations beyond the slum in the skies, and dreams of one day becoming a policeman. He studies hard, and passes all the exams, but when he is rejected because his family is neither rich nor influential, the bitterness sets in. His girlfriend, Busyana, finds herself unable to earn a living without also providing sexual services for the men who hire her. When Taha seeks solace in a student Islamic organisation, the pressure mounts, and he is drawn to actions with devastating consequences.
‘The Yacoubian Building’ follows Taha's trajectory from innocence to tragedy. The people whose lives orbit his – the inhabitants of the building – are also facing their own difficult choices. From those living in squalid and cramped conditions on the rooftops, to the homosexual editor of Le Caire newspaper and a womanising aristocrat, all of the contradictions in Egyptian society are here. Religious feelings live side-by-side with promiscuity; bribery and exploitation alternate with moments of joy and elation; modernity clashes with the vision of a more ancient society.
Alaa Al Aswany's mesmerising novel caused an unprecedented stir when it was published in Egypt. It is at once an impassioned celebration and a ruthless dissection of a society dominated by bribery and corruption.
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'You don't get many writers like Alaa Al Aswany in the West any more. “The Yacoubian Building” paints a marvellous picture of modern Egypt with all its hypocrisies and fanaticism – the gulf between rich and poor reminiscent of Dickensian London. Like the late Naguib Mahfouz, Alaa Al Aswany is a world writer, making Egyptian concerns into human ones and beautifully illuminating our always extraordinary and sometimes sad and baffling world.' The Times
'A wonderfully atmospheric, poignant and funny novel about the lives and loves of the residents of a once glamorous but now sad Cairo apartment block. It serves, too, as a microcosm of the social and political troubles of Egypt itself. My best book of the year, so far.' Guardian
‘A bewitching political novel of contemporary Cairo that is also an ‘engage’ novel about sex, a romantic novel about power and a comic yet sympathetic novel about the vagaries of the human heart.’ New York Times Book Review
'A powerful novel of corruption and fanaticism…Anyone with an interest in Middle East culture will find something refreshing here. Anyone else willing to lose their weekend devouring this absorbing novel shouldn't hesitate.' Waterstones Books Quarterly
‘Captivating and controversial…an amazing glimpse of modern Egyptian society and culture.’ New York Review of Books
‘Delves into a mix of power, currption, sex exploitation, poverty, and extremism…lucidly captures the varied aspects of Egyptian life: straight, gay, rich, poor, powerful, and powerless.’ Egypt Today
'The colourful stories are interwoven seamlessly in a narrative packed with incident and inevitability. Inevitability, because in ‘The Yacoubian Building’ the corruption of the neo-colonial government is a natural consequence of colonial history, and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism is a natural by-product of the resistance of such corruption. Evocative and moving.' Sunday Business Post
'An intriguing and highly charged novel…Based on a real-life building in downtown Cairo, Alaa Al Aswany's eponymous structure is a microcosm of modern Egyptian society…Al Aswany manages to capture the challenges facing much of the developing world…a superbly crafted feat of storytelling.' Tash Aw, Telegraph
'A brave novel…with its multiple storylines and accusatory indignation, the novel could have got stuck somewhere between soap opera and soap box. In fact it is far more fascinating. Alongside progressive political and social sentiments are some antiquated attitudes…its sprawling cast of rich and poor, linked by sexual obsession or thirst for money in a capital city like a monstrous seething warren, can call to mind Balzac…What lingers most from this enthralling novel is its close quarters portrayal of a fragmented nation dangerously torn between state ferocity ad Islamist fanaticism.' Peter Kemp, The Sunday Times
'There are many stories here. The book is elaborate to bursting point, but always controlled, always whole. It is as juicy and satisfying as a shiny apple, its taste both strange and familiar, compassionate and bitter.' Times
‘It is an affectionate portrait of feckless and flawed humanity, this is a rich and engaging book; in its analysis of the Islamist threat, it is a brave and indispensable one.’ Daily Mail
‘“The Yacoubian Building” is the sort of dense neighbourhood novel which, though quite out of style when set in London or Paris, has been revived for the banlieue of downtown Cairo. With its parade of big-city characters, both ludicrous and tender, its warm heart and political indignation, it belongs to a literary tradition that goes back to the 1840’s, to Eugene Sue and Charles Dickens.’ Guardian
‘Al Aswany is excellent on the bitterness young Egyptians feel towards a country where hard-won qualifications are worthless unless backed with money…an absorbing portrait of the struggle to survive in the Arab world’s ‘best friend of the West’.’ Observer
'For 2002 and 2003 “The Yacoubian Building” was the bestselling novel in the Arab World. With its agreeable and unobtrusive translation by Humphrey Davies it deserves as wide an audience in the West. People in Egypt, Al Aswany has his narrator observe, are particularly interested in the lives of others, delving into them with 'persistence and focus', and it is his particular skill as a novelist at fixing his large cast of characters, and their intricately mingled lives with such sharpness and humour that makes this book so enjoyable. Poignant, sad, funny, often disquieting, “The Yacoubian Building” is a remarkable book.' The Spectator
'”The Yacoubian Building” was a best-seller in Egypt, and last year a feature film based on the book opened there to popular and critical acclaim (though members of the Egyptian parliament tried to censor certain scenes). Although the highest budget Arab film ever made, it still awaits its breakthrough in the West. Let's hope that Humphrey Davies fine translation helps win the wider audience both novel and film deserve.’ The Sunday Times
‘Like a cross between your favourtie soap opera and On Thousand and One Nights, it will reel you in and hold you rapt.’ You MagazineFrom the Publisher:
Alaa Al Aswany on The Yacoubian Building
Q: What was the first spark of inspiration for this novel?
A: I got the idea for this book ten years ago. I was walking in downtown Cairo and saw that the American University people were destroying an old building in order to build a new campus. I looked into the old building and saw empty rooms littered with small things the inhabitants had left behind: old towels, mirrors, student notebooks. I kept watching the scene and I thought, `Every one of these rooms has a history full of dramas.' Each room had seen a baby born, the pleasure of love, a hard-working student, the pain of a divorce, etc. I told myself, `If I can write the tale of just one of those rooms, it would be a good novel.' Some days later I began work on The Yacoubian Building.
Q: Some of Egypt's most famous actors and a much-lauded screenwriter made a film based on The Yacoubian Building. Have you seen it? How do you feel about it?
A: Yes, I have seen it in New York at the Tribeca Film Festival. I did like it and it was very good and extremely well-received. I felt that it was loyal to the novel. It kept the atmosphere and message as well.
Q: The novel is currently the best-selling book in the Arabic language, which might surprise most Westerners given its critique of government and handling of homosexuality and radical Islamists. How did the novel become so popular?
A: Probably because it's a good novel. I don't know as I don't think the author has the right to evaluate his own work. The author must write and this is his only job. It's up to the readers and critics to assess the novel.
Q: The novel seems to bemoan an encroaching corruption in Egyptian society, but that's arguably the case worldwide. Is this not, perhaps, an unavoidable aspect of democratization?
A: I believe the corruption in Egypt comes from the dictatorship. To me, democracy is actually the best thing we have to fight against corruption. In Egypt we have an undemocratic society and as a result of this we have corruption. In political science there is a known phrase that describes this principle: `total authority is total corruption.'
Q: Who are your favorite Egyptian authors, and which novels in particular do you think should be introduced to American readers?
A: I believe Noble prize winner Naguib Mahfouz is not only the best Egyptian novelist, but also the best Arab novelist. I highly recommend American readers read all of his works.
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