Constructed as a series of vignettes about characters whose fates will soon converge, a stylistic device highly popular in today's Hollywood, Egyptian author Alaa Al Aswany's Arabic best-seller The Yacoubian Building brings to life a seedy and despicable Cairo where only the corrupted and the corruptible can fare well. The book focuses mainly on the residents of the Yacoubian building, a once-chic but now rundown edifice that acts as a metaphor for Cairo's own deterioration. Gone are the crème de la crème of Egyptian society who lived in the building during the city's heydays of the thirties and forties. In their stead, a new breed of Cairenes has moved in. All in all, they constitute a loathsome bunch: conniving, egotistic, coarse, violent and dejected.
In this scathing critique of contemporary Egypt, one is hard put to find a redeemable character. Both men and women are manipulative and thieving, with women using their seductive prowess to trap men into self-serving situations. But Al Aswany goes to great length to also show how these people are all victims of their merciless society: Busayna comes to accept her employer's groping in the backroom because she has a family to support; Souad pretends to enjoy sex with her elderly husband because he can provide for her son from another marriage. It is undoubtedly this groundbreaking literary rendition of Egyptian realism, served with a heavy dose of humor, that has made the book such a hit with the local audience (two years running), and that, despite the awkward translation in parts, renders it an entertaining and revelatory read for those intrigued by Egyptian culture.
Al Aswany's Egypt is a cruel place, one that forces many of its citizens into compromising situations. Even men are reduced to a form of semi-prostitution. Though Abduh, an illiterate family man from rural Egypt, appears to have consensually entered into a relationship with Hatim, a refined editor of a newspaper, it is never clear whether he is in it for pleasure or by necessity. Hatim, after all, not only arranges work and lodging for his lover but also promises to pay for anything Abduh's wife or son might need. The book is set around the first Gulf War, when homosexuality in Egypt is taboo-it is not clear if now, almost fifteen years later, attitudes in this regard have at all changed-and Abduh struggles to overcome his society's and Islam's stern disapproval of his bedtime activities with Hatim.
It is only recently that Arab film and literature have started to approach the subject of sex with unflinching openness. Following that lead, The Yacoubian Building is filled with sexual harassment, promiscuity, homosexuality, and even pedophilia, all described in graphic detail. It is also only as of late that authors and filmmakers have begun to examine the omnipotent presence of religion in their society. Al Aswany, a dentist by profession and a regular contributor to Egyptian newspapers and magazines, derisively portrays the contradiction between many of the protagonists' thoughts, actions and utterances and their piousness. Big-shot lawyer Kamal el Fouli and his cohort, Hagg Azzam, in whose favor El Fouli rigs the People's Assembly vote, pepper their wheeling and dealing with "God willing," and justify their actions by implying that they are but implementing God's will: "Our Lord created the Egyptians to accept authority," el Fouli tells Azzam.
El Fouli and Azzam are not the only ones trading money and favors. Little gets done in Al Aswany's Egypt without wasta, bribery. "This country doesn't belong to us," one mother tells her disappointed son, rejected from his dream job because his father is a doorkeeper. "It belongs to the people who have money." For the young men and women, such as Talal and his sweetheart, Busayna, this injustice is too much to bear. While Busayna gives into her dejection until she herself becomes as indifferent and heartless as her surroundings, Talal seeks solace-and reparation-in Islam. In following Talal's ascension to martyrdom, the author illustrates the Egyptian government's vicious clamping down on Islamists, a policy that the book suggests has only fed the hatred the young feel for their leaders and aggrandized their sense of betrayal.
The mounting pressure of life down-at- the-heels leads to more than one act of violence and Al Aswany deftly builds up the narrative to the boiling point. But instead of ending his book with an explosive bang, one that might leave an indelible mark on the reader, the novelist chooses to keep things light, resorting to a Hollywood-style finale, where everything ties up nicely and happily. Was this intentional irony on the part of Al Aswany? Perhaps. But now that this highly popular and controversial book is being made into a big-budget Egyptian film, one can't help but wonder if the author's cinematic-like approach was not a calculated decision all along.
Nana Asfour works at the New Yorker and writes about the Middle East. Her articles have appeared in the New York Times, Travel + Leisure and ARTnews.