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The Yacoubian Building Hardcover – 30 Nov 2004

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: The American University in Cairo Press; New edition edition (30 Nov. 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9774248627
  • ISBN-13: 978-9774248627
  • Product Dimensions: 23.4 x 2.5 x 16 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (59 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 764,212 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


"Readers in English have an unprecedented opportunity to see Arabic fiction at its best in "The Yacoubian Building" by Alaa Al Aswany (American University in Cairo Press, in translation). In Arabic, it's the best-selling work of fiction in years. Aswany tells the story of a building, a street, but more importantly, a country and the currents that have shaped it over a generation. This is a soulful book, one that journeys seamlessly across Egypt's borders of class, faith and identity. When it ends, we know more about Egypt, but perhaps also, we better understand the currents that shape our own lives."

From 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. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

Inside This Book

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First Sentence
The distance between Baehler Passage, where Zaki Bey el Dessouki lives, and his office in the Yacoubian Building is not more than a hundred meters, but it takes him an hour to cover it each morning as he is obliged to greet his friends on the street. Read the first page
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Customer Reviews

3.9 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

20 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Rowena Hoseason HALL OF FAMETOP 50 REVIEWER on 21 Aug. 2008
Format: Hardcover
The Yacoubian Building is misleading easy to read, but the insights it unveils can be both bleak and enlightening.
The threads of The Yacoubian Building twist together to create a compelling and easily digested story. It's a series of individual tales set in modern Egypt, each offering a slightly different view of life in a modern middle-eastern city, where lives overlap in an old colonial apartment block. Once I'd read enough to keep the characters straight in my mind the pages absolutely flew by; I found it to be very engaging and absorbing.
We meet various characters whose lives are enhanced / overturned / damaged by the events which unfold as the plot weaves between them. The Yacoubian Building offers western readers like myself a fascinating glimpse at how life might be lived at different social levels in Cairo; you can almost get swept away in the deliberate bustle and hustle of the street life which the novel brilliantly evokes. The book also explains how a Muslim youth might come to be radicalised - but it is not a book about Muslim extremism. It also reveals political corruption, the reality of being a young working woman in Egyptian society, the nature of love and how it can be found when least expected, how a homosexual might struggle to find a permanent partner and any form of social acceptance, and how some folk still mourn the loss of grandeur which faded along with the old colonial influence.
There's plenty of sex in The Yacoubian Building, too; some of it is sensually delirious, some of it is graphically unpleasant and sordid, and most of it is honestly believable.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Mary Whipple HALL OF FAMETOP 100 REVIEWER on 10 July 2009
Format: Hardcover
Western readers coming to this novel will find it an exciting reading experience and a vibrant and descriptive primer illuminating the various forces in contemporary Egypt that affect its current political climate. Set in a ten-story building built in 1934 and located in downtown Cairo, the Yacoubian building was once the ultimate in luxury, located in an area in which the most elegant of European activities took place and where Europhiles gathered to eat, drink and socialize. In the ensuing years, the Yacoubian Building has changed its character, as has the surrounding neighborhood, and it is now a microcosm of life in Egypt. The small iron rooms on the roof, which were once used for storage by each apartment owner, are now occupied as tiny residences by the poor. The elegant apartments which once housed the elite have now attracted the military and politicians who took over after the revolution of 1952.

Using a conversational and unpretentious style to create characters that the reader comes to care about, Alaa Al Aswany shows his characters' home life, their dreams and goals, the nature of life in the city at large, and the characters' impediments to success. Many residents are poor, and some have become poor as a result of their property being seized by the government. No one at the Yacoubian Building is secure in any aspect of his/her life.
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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Benjamin TOP 500 REVIEWER on 4 April 2007
Format: Hardcover
Set in Cairo around the time of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, The Yacoubian Building covers the lives of the varied assortment of residents of the decaying Art Deco apartment block of the title. The residents range from the wealthy who live in the apartment building proper to the poor who inhabit the cabins on the roof. The wealthy include a self made business man who courts political success, a gay editor in chief of a French language newspaper passionately in love with a policeman, and an aging yet virile playboy. The residents on the roof include young devout Muslim who as a very able student who aspires to join the police, his attractive and initially naïve girlfriend who lives with her mother, and a shirt maker who eventually sets up business on the roof.

One or another of this varied collection of humanity engage in or suffer deceit, corruption, illegal dealings, domestic strife, rejection, fundamentalism, torture, and sexual desire, harassment and fulfilment. For some the outcome is frustration or even tragedy, for others unexpected joy and satisfaction. Altogether this provides a very colourful picture of life in Egypt during a difficult period. An engaging and revealing read.
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Gordon Eldridge on 25 Mar. 2008
Format: Paperback
Al Aswany populates the Yacoubian Building with a set of socially diverse characters and then relates a set of stories involving various residents. This device allows him to create a portrait of life in Cairo; the injustices suffered by the poor, the corruption of the elite, the political and economic realities of a repressed society and the way religion is used by different players to achieve their purposes.

The main characters are each introduced in some detail and because there are a large number of them, this means that lengthy digressions into the background of characters are still taking place halfway through the book. This tends to almost bog the narrative down in places. The other disadvantage of having so many central characters is that it makes it difficult to develop them in any real way. Though a number of them do emerge by the end of the book as having the necessary depth to make them interesting, others remain close to being stereotypes. The novel is an interesting slice of modern Cairo life and as such is a rewarding read, but it doesn't quite ever become totally engrossing.
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