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The Yacoubian Building Paperback – 3 Sep 2007

4.0 out of 5 stars 72 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (3 Sept. 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007243626
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007243624
  • Product Dimensions: 13 x 2 x 19.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (72 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 62,125 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


‘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

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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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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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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