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The Yacoubian Building [Paperback]

Alaa Al Aswany , Humphrey Davies
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (46 customer reviews)
RRP: 7.99
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Book Description

3 Sep 2007

This exceptional Egyptian novel – as mesmerising as it is controversial – caused an unprecedented stir when it was first published in Arabic.

Welcome to the Yacoubian Building, Cairo: once grand, now dilapidated, and full of stories and passion. Some live in squalor on its rooftop while others inhabit the faded glory of its apartments and offices. Within these walls religious fervour jostles with promiscuity; bribery with bliss; modern life with ancient culture. At ground level, Taha, the doorman’s son, harbours career aspirations and romantic dreams – but when these are dashed by unyielding corruption, hope turns to bitterness, with devastating consequences.

Alaa Al Aswany’s superb novel about Egypt’s many contradictions is at once an impassioned celebration and a ruthless dissection of a society dominated by dishonesty.


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Product details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (3 Sep 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007243626
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007243624
  • Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 19.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (46 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 37,516 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description

Review

‘A superbly crafted feat of storytelling.’ Sunday Telegraph

'An intriguing and highly charged novel…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, Daily Telegraph

‘A sharp, humorous novel.' Caroline Moorhead, Spectator

‘Addictively readable…The most emotionally compelling Egyptian novel published in English since Naguib Mahfouz’s “Cairo Trilogy”.’ Indendent

'It's not hard to see why this Egyptian novel has created a furore in the Arab world…It's a fabulous, acutely observed story of human foibles, full of vivid scenes and extraordinary characters.' Mail on Sunday

‘The stories in this novel are beautifully, simply told – the characters are alive from page one.’ 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.' The Times

'In its 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

'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 1840s, to Eugene Sue and Charles Dickens…The plotting is neat, the episodes are funny and sad, and there are deaths and weddings aplenty.' Guardian

‘Bewitching.’ Scotsman

'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

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.


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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
By Rowena Hoseason HALL OF FAME TOP 50 REVIEWER
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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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
By Benjamin TOP 500 REVIEWER
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 nave 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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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
By Mary Whipple HALL OF FAME TOP 100 REVIEWER
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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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Worthwhile as a Window into Another Society 31 July 2008
Format:Hardcover
This book was published in Arabic in 2002 and for a few years thereafter was one of the world's best-selling novels in that language. It was translated into English in 2004. I didn't open it looking for a masterpiece of style or psychological depth, but for a window into another society's values, types, behaviors and problems. On that level, it satisfied.

It followed the lives of five main characters who lived or worked in a once-grand, now-decaying building in downtown Cairo: male/female, young/old, rich/poor, devout/secular, educated/working class, straight/gay. The author introduced the five as individuals, then paired them off with each other or with the secondary characters around them. The action jumped back and forth between the pairs as the novel progressed, contrasting the characters' behavior up through the conclusion.

With this structure, the author was able to touch on many aspects of society, one after another. He depicted political corruption, the scheming for advantage among the powerful and powerless, sexual repression and obsession, the benefits that flowed from money and connections, the lack of democracy and opportunity, the frustration that led to religious fundamentalism, and the search of so many for love and respect.

In interviews, the author has said he saw the majority of the characters in his novel as oppressed, and that he believed in the long run a repressive government would generate terrorism. In the book, one of the protagonists argued that the country's curse was dictatorship, that it led inevitably to poverty, corruption and failure in all fields, and that a step forward must include progress toward democracy.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful
I read this when I was incredibly nave and thought that muslims actually never had sex outside of marriage. Read more
Published 6 days 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 2 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 4 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 8 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 8 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 10 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 13 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 14 months ago by Sarah Julian
4.0 out of 5 stars A good interesting read
Really enjoyed reading this but wish i had bought the book and not on a kindle as i needed to refer back to check whcih character was being written about in the different chapters. Read more
Published 14 months ago by Mrs. S. J. Erhardt
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant book... Part of the path to Tahrir Sq
I was reading this on holiday in Cairo and was so taken by the book that I tracked down the real life Yacoubian Building (easy to find at junction of Talaat Harb and Aldy streets,... Read more
Published 24 months ago by Tom Doyle
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