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The Yacoubian Building [Hardcover]

Alaa Al Aswany , Humphrey Davies
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (49 customer reviews)

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Book Description

5 Feb 2007

An international bestseller, ‘The Yacoubian Building’ is a mesmerising and controversial novel that is at once an impassioned celebration and a ruthless dissection of a society dominated by bribery and corruption.

The Yacoubian building – once grand, but now dilapidated – stands on one of Cairo's main boulevards. Taha, the doorman's son, has aspirations beyond the slum in the skies, and dreams of one day becoming a policeman. He studies hard, and passes all the exams, but when he is rejected because his family is neither rich nor influential, the bitterness sets in. His girlfriend, Busyana, finds herself unable to earn a living without also providing sexual services for the men who hire her. When Taha seeks solace in a student Islamic organisation, the pressure mounts, and he is drawn to actions with devastating consequences.

‘The Yacoubian Building’ follows Taha's trajectory from innocence to tragedy. The people whose lives orbit his – the inhabitants of the building – are also facing their own difficult choices. From those living in squalid and cramped conditions on the rooftops, to the homosexual editor of Le Caire newspaper and a womanising aristocrat, all of the contradictions in Egyptian society are here. Religious feelings live side-by-side with promiscuity; bribery and exploitation alternate with moments of joy and elation; modernity clashes with the vision of a more ancient society.

Alaa Al Aswany's mesmerising novel caused an unprecedented stir when it was published in Egypt. It is at once an impassioned celebration and a ruthless dissection of a society dominated by bribery and corruption.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Fourth Estate (5 Feb 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007243618
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007243617
  • Product Dimensions: 14.1 x 22.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (49 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 580,132 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


'You don't get many writers like Alaa Al Aswany in the West any more. “The Yacoubian Building” paints a marvellous picture of modern Egypt with all its hypocrisies and fanaticism – the gulf between rich and poor reminiscent of Dickensian London. Like the late Naguib Mahfouz, Alaa Al Aswany is a world writer, making Egyptian concerns into human ones and beautifully illuminating our always extraordinary and sometimes sad and baffling world.' The Times

'A wonderfully atmospheric, poignant and funny novel about the lives and loves of the residents of a once glamorous but now sad Cairo apartment block. It serves, too, as a microcosm of the social and political troubles of Egypt itself. My best book of the year, so far.' Guardian

‘A bewitching political novel of contemporary Cairo that is also an ‘engage’ novel about sex, a romantic novel about power and a comic yet sympathetic novel about the vagaries of the human heart.’ New York Times Book Review

'A powerful novel of corruption and fanaticism…Anyone with an interest in Middle East culture will find something refreshing here. Anyone else willing to lose their weekend devouring this absorbing novel shouldn't hesitate.' Waterstones Books Quarterly

‘Captivating and controversial…an amazing glimpse of modern Egyptian society and culture.’ New York Review of Books

‘Delves into a mix of power, currption, sex exploitation, poverty, and extremism…lucidly captures the varied aspects of Egyptian life: straight, gay, rich, poor, powerful, and powerless.’ Egypt Today

'The colourful stories are interwoven seamlessly in a narrative packed with incident and inevitability. Inevitability, because in ‘The Yacoubian Building’ the corruption of the neo-colonial government is a natural consequence of colonial history, and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism is a natural by-product of the resistance of such corruption. Evocative and moving.' Sunday Business Post

'An intriguing and highly charged novel…Based on a real-life building in downtown Cairo, Alaa Al Aswany's eponymous structure is a microcosm of modern Egyptian society…Al Aswany manages to capture the challenges facing much of the developing world…a superbly crafted feat of storytelling.' Tash Aw, Telegraph

'A brave novel…with its multiple storylines and accusatory indignation, the novel could have got stuck somewhere between soap opera and soap box. In fact it is far more fascinating. Alongside progressive political and social sentiments are some antiquated attitudes…its sprawling cast of rich and poor, linked by sexual obsession or thirst for money in a capital city like a monstrous seething warren, can call to mind Balzac…What lingers most from this enthralling novel is its close quarters portrayal of a fragmented nation dangerously torn between state ferocity ad Islamist fanaticism.' Peter Kemp, The Sunday Times

'There are many stories here. The book is elaborate to bursting point, but always controlled, always whole. It is as juicy and satisfying as a shiny apple, its taste both strange and familiar, compassionate and bitter.' Times

‘It is an affectionate portrait of feckless and flawed humanity, this is a rich and engaging book; in its analysis of the Islamist threat, it is a brave and indispensable one.’ Daily Mail

‘“The Yacoubian Building” is the sort of dense neighbourhood novel which, though quite out of style when set in London or Paris, has been revived for the banlieue of downtown Cairo. With its parade of big-city characters, both ludicrous and tender, its warm heart and political indignation, it belongs to a literary tradition that goes back to the 1840’s, to Eugene Sue and Charles Dickens.’ Guardian

‘Al Aswany is excellent on the bitterness young Egyptians feel towards a country where hard-won qualifications are worthless unless backed with money…an absorbing portrait of the struggle to survive in the Arab world’s ‘best friend of the West’.’ Observer

'For 2002 and 2003 “The Yacoubian Building” was the bestselling novel in the Arab World. With its agreeable and unobtrusive translation by Humphrey Davies it deserves as wide an audience in the West. People in Egypt, Al Aswany has his narrator observe, are particularly interested in the lives of others, delving into them with 'persistence and focus', and it is his particular skill as a novelist at fixing his large cast of characters, and their intricately mingled lives with such sharpness and humour that makes this book so enjoyable. Poignant, sad, funny, often disquieting, “The Yacoubian Building” is a remarkable book.' The Spectator

'”The Yacoubian Building” was a best-seller in Egypt, and last year a feature film based on the book opened there to popular and critical acclaim (though members of the Egyptian parliament tried to censor certain scenes). Although the highest budget Arab film ever made, it still awaits its breakthrough in the West. Let's hope that Humphrey Davies fine translation helps win the wider audience both novel and film deserve.’ The Sunday Times

‘Like a cross between your favourtie soap opera and On Thousand and One Nights, it will reel you in and hold you rapt.’ You Magazine

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.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
18 of 18 people found the following review helpful
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
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
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
4.0 out of 5 stars An interesting slice of Cairo life 25 Mar 2008
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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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent service. A book that everyone should read
Excellent service. A book that everyone should read. Guess who the big boss man is. He is still about today, but without the power.
Published 1 month ago by Mr C L Potter
5.0 out of 5 stars The Yacoubian Building
Having read a lot about Egypt, both ancient and modern, I have only now discovered this author's writings. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Keen Reader
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful
I read this when I was incredibly naïve and thought that muslims actually never had sex outside of marriage. Read more
Published 6 months ago by Rebecca McCarthy
4.0 out of 5 stars Stark language, great reading, moving and realistic picture of today's...
Brilliant story homed in a fin de siècle apartment building. The present inhabitants and their fates, every day's life and adventures are brilliantly related and interwoven... Read more
Published 8 months ago by Dr. Manfred Ottow
4.0 out of 5 stars A good book with plenty of scandal.
I read this as part of a course that looked into the Egyptian/middle eastern/ arab life thus it is a good recommended read if you are interested in understanding Egyptian culture.
Published 10 months ago by Rosie Becker
5.0 out of 5 stars Cairo
An excellent read especially with the current political unrest. All characters well drawn and believable. Will read more by this author
Published 14 months ago by Reader
4.0 out of 5 stars Under one roof!
Very interesting insights into the mixture of power, religion, poverty and passion of contemporary Egypt. Read more
Published 14 months ago by Claire Sarkies
4.0 out of 5 stars a complex city with complex characters
Four of our group have been to Cairo and have fond memories. Since then there was been the so-called Arab Spring and this book acts as a living metaphor for a Culture at a... Read more
Published 16 months ago by Mr. D. P. Jay
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting View Into Egyptian Culture
The cast of characters who reside or work in the Yacoubian Building in Cairo are laid out at the start of the book with useful potted biographies: the clever young man who is drawn... Read more
Published 19 months ago by Elizabeth Ducie
3.0 out of 5 stars An Interesting Read!
A very different read from what I normally choose, but very interesting to read about other cultures all the same!
Published 20 months ago by Sarah Julian
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