For those of you short on time, I will cut to the chase: Yes, read this book. I couldn’t put it down. Should you choose it for your book club? Yes, with reservations.
This novel was published in 2002 but takes place in Cairo, Egypt, around the first Iraq war, way back at the start of the 1990’s. Written by an Egyptian, it is a slice of life–well, actually several slices of different lives–of people who are tied to each other via The Yacoubian Building. Yes, the building is the main character of the novel. Yes, it is a metaphor for what Egypt has gone through in its recent history. However, I don’t think the building itself looms as large in this story as the glass room did in Simon Mawer’s novel of the same name, reviewed here.
The Yacoubian Building follows the lives of several different characters who are struggling to survive the Cairo of their present, as opposed to their past. For the past is gone in a blink (or in a coup), and those who cannot adapt, die. There is Zaki Bey, for example, whose father was one of the richest men in Egypt–before the revolution. Now Zaki is reduced to prancing around like a playboy while fighting with his sister over their inheritance. There is Kamal el Rouli, who grew up poor, but who is now in a position of power to exhort money from those who cannot escape his clutch. There is Busayna, a innocent young girl whose mother encourages her to do whatever it takes in order to bring home money to help feed the family after the man of the house dies. And there’s many more. Like the fundamentalist jihadists. And the homosexual journalist. (There’s a lot of sex in this novel, but none of it gratuitous or “in your face,”; still it caused quite a stir in Egypt when it was published.)
For anyone who has ever been to Cairo, you know it is a place that teems with people, and this novel is teeming with characters, so much so that there is a helpful “Cast of Characters” at the front of the novel. Don’t let that intimidate you, though. The writing is so good, and the characters so well drawn, you will have no problem remembering who they are and what they are going through.
Now my gripe: I wasn’t happy with the ending of the novel. In fact, I said “What? That’s the end???” out loud to my book. I then met with my personal book club, and I felt a bit better after discussing it with them. Some light was shed on the story, like the “Big Man” being Mubarek. That had gone sailing clear over my head! It helps to have some knowledge about Egypt’s politics, past and present, and it helps to discuss it with others who can help read between the lines and decode some of what the author has written.
So, no surprise here, if your book club is willing to put some effort into the discussion, this book can be a great selection for you. If your book club just likes to “show up and chat,” you may have a much shorter evening, unless your members are already quite knowledgeable about Egypt.
This book is fascinating to read now, considering all that’s going on in Northern Africa and the Middle East. And the author, Alaa Al Aswany, has been quite outspoken during the recent revolution. There is another book by the Egyptian nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz entitled Midaq Alley, which is often compared with The Yacoubian Building. I read it a few years ago and liked it, but not as much as this novel. You should read both and let me know what you think.