Customer Review

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Some peoples are excitable and rebellious by nature, but the Egyptian keeps his head down his whole life long so he can eat.", 10 July 2009
This review is from: The Yacoubian Building (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.

A variety of characters of different ages engages in many different daily activities as the author creates his vibrant "world," examining throughout the novel why certain forces are so influential--the movement for democracy, the growing Islamist counterculture, the power of the sheikhs and their differences in scriptural interpretation, the inbred culture of the military and the police, the student movements, and, most of all, the long-term influence of generations of poverty. Always in the background is the contest for wills between those who wish for true democacy and those committed to an Islamist future.

Al Aswany's remarkable study of the conversion of one character into a committed Islamist will resonate with westerners who read it, as it speaks more clearly than anything else I've read on why someone would take this route. The reasons that most westerners ascribe to these decisions do not really pertain here, and as Al Aswany shows through his character's reading of the scriptures why terrorism "makes sense" to him, western readers may also see why there is very little that non-Muslims can do to prevent the kind of absolute thinking that results in jihad, the commitment of people who truly believe that they are doing God's work. Simple in style, beautifully descriptive of daily life, insightful regarding the humanity of his characters, and filled with the kind of detail that enables the very best novels to communicate on an emotional level with readers from other cultures, Alaa Al Aswany's novel has depicted Egypt with all its variety, its energy, and its hopes within the microcosm of the Yacoubian Building. n Mary Whipple

Chicago
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