Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Yacoubian Building - Alaa Al Aswani

Originally published in 2002 in Egypt, this book has been a best seller in that part of the world ever since. However, it took few years to get this translated into English, and was popular in the rest of the world as well.

Yacoubian Building, the novel based on the life and events of a cross section of people living and dying in this building in the downtown Cairo. According to the notes, this building still exists in Cairo to whom the description of the book relate ; however, the rest of the story and characters are fictional.

This is the story of the contemporary Cairo or Egypt , even though set in the time of the first Gulf war. The inhabitants of the building is from a cross section of the society. It has businessmen, ultra rich elites, old men, people of different origins, intellectuals, with different religious back ground, sales men. It also have loads of poor families settles on the terrace of the building in tents, sharing common amenities. They share the life on the terrace which is more colourful and real with their quarrel, their stories, their jealousy.

The novel traces the lives of these families in few distinct threads. An old bachelor Zaki, a Paris return elite, flirtatious and womaniser, in search of true love at the twilight of his life, a young boy Taha, son of a door keeper, who cherishes the dream of joining the police academy, passing the intermediate with exemplary result, to be rejected for being the son of a door keeper. He later turns himself into the hands of the religious fundamentals ; indoctrinated , trained and sent for a mission. His girlfriend Busayna , forced to work as a sales girl , exploited by the owner, keeps her family of mother and siblings from her earnings. Her conscience does not allow her to continue her love for Taha, manages to break their friendship. The opportunities and events lands her as a secretary of the old man, assigned by a task of stealing the house from him in the event of his death. She is determined , not to get carried away with sympathy for the old man and of her task at hand. As they get to know each other, she developed a liking towards the old man , eventually marrying him.

The parallel thread follows the life of the businessman Hagg Azzam , who wake up one day and realised that he has been having wet dreams and his potency is as active as in his old days , which he is not able to get satisfied with his wife. His friends and men of religious authority advises him to marry , as it is perfectly legal under the Islamic texts. His sons, finds him a young bride whose husband has not returned from the gulf. He has been missing without any trace for a while and the authorities have granted her the divorce. She had been put up in a separate apartment after the wedding, out of sight from his first wife, where he spent his afternoon, before returning home at night. With the help of bribe and powerful allies, he manages to get elected into the Egyptian House of Representatives, but soon realise that his business fortunes have to be shared by the Supreme leader of the country.

There is also an gay editor in chief , who frequent the gay joints and other places of similar nature while leading an intellectual public life. He falls to the beauty of a black Egyptian Army cadet, living his nights with him. As the military training comes to an end , he manages to fund a kiosk for him thus keeping him under his control and charm. Though he brings his wife and kid to live with him in his new place arranged by the Editor, he is not able to get himself free from the clutches of power and lust. The unfortunate death of their kid and the scream of his wife, forces him to abandon the kiosk and the company of the Editor, moving back to his town. The regular income and the money has dried and soon living has become difficult. This is when the desperate Editor traced him and offered him another job, with a plead to spent another night with him , after which he is free to choose his future. The passionate night turns itself to the unpleasant arguments resulting in the death of the editor.

This book is a tale of love, of desire, of lust , of power, of poverty , of corruption , of terrorism - all in one. It is the tale of distress, of exploitation of the poor , of the systematic failure of the authorities to bring development and hope to the vast majority of people. Yacoubian Building itself - Once grand a symbol of aristocracy - is now ruined carries the current state of the affairs of the country. It is also of people , forced to make the choices out of compulsion, against their conscience, later convince themselves with made up excuses.

Alaa Al Aswani, has managed to portray the current social spectrum of Egypt with some good writing. As a reader, I was left with this impression as Zaki says to Busayna, "You know, I feel as though I owned the Yacoubian Building. I'm the longest resident in it. I know the history of every individual and every square meter in the building. I've spent most of my life in it. I lived my best days in it and I feel as though it's a part of me. The day this building's demolished or something happens to it, that'll be the day I die."


The Yacoubian Building

Alaa Al Aswani ( Translated by Humphrey Davies )

American Univ in Cairo Press

253 pages

Rs 295


More Reads : Complete Review

1 comment:

Stephen said...

I enjoyed this book too because you feel as though you have actually spent time living in Cairo by the time you have finished this book.