Monday, August 13, 2007

The Yacoubian Building

The Yacoubian Building, a novel by Alaa Al Aswany, recently made into a movie (which I have yet to see), is set in Cairo around 1991 in a building which really exists (pictured below) at 34 Talaat Harb street. Despite the often dark subject matter, the book is never heavy and is hard to put down. The story follows several characters who are connected somehow with the building and who represent various extremes of Egyptian society: corrupt politicians, radical Islamists, pre-revolution pseudo-aristocrats and gay lovers among them. The book, regarded by many Egyptians as too exaggerated to be taken very seriously, attempts to portray a cross-section of society. In this, it is an attempt to follow the same approach by Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy, which, despite many critics's comparisons, is a far more subtle and powerful work. Most reviews of The Yacoubian Building take it to be an expose of the violence and corruption of modern Egypt, and an exploration of various taboo subjects. This is not a surprising reaction to the work from Western reviewers given our propensity to focus on these sorts of issues (as I've mentioned before), and the author's tendency to play into this tendency (as in this interview).

The book no doubt is partly about these issues. However, like any book that can be considered a candidate for being a truly good book, this one is really an attempt to understand something fundamental about human nature and how people relate to each other. When people have their hearts broken, their dreams crushed or come to realize their powerlessness in the face of forces they can't control, how do they react? Is it a sign of weakness to become cynical and 'play the game' and a sign of strength to fight against injustice tooth and nail? Or is it in fact the other way around - is it a sign of strength of character to make the best of a bad situation and to remain, perhaps even despite oneself, a good person and a sign of weakness to fall prey to an enchanted world view that leads one to see everything in overly simple terms of good and evil?

Another major theme of the book is the difference between those who go through life trying to manipulate others and act out of complete selfishness and those who retain their compassion and humanity. In a corrupt society it seems impossible to try to manipulate others without being taken advantage of oneself and one's only chance for happiness is finding some shelter and weathering the storm and hopefully finding others who are trying to do the same.

It is worth asking how much a role fate plays in peoples' lives according to the author and what we are to make of the clear moral of the book in light of this.

Overall, this book is worth reading both for its (perhaps exaggerated) look at modern Egyptian society and for the thought provoking moral issues it raises. One thing is sure - you won't ever look the same way at the veiled girls standing outside the many clothing stores in downtown Cairo...

Chris McClure

1 comment:

Erica said...

many things you say about the Cairo Trilogy remind me of home. I think u'll buy it!