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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 4 April 2007
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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on 25 March 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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on 31 July 2008
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.

I was struck particularly by the book's ending, where the main characters' various fates might hint at the author's view of the way toward a brighter future: joining the tolerant outlook of the old with the aspirations and vitality of the young, in a relationship of mutual trust and respect. And an avoidance of religious extremism and unbridled sensuality, both of which seemed to lead to wasted potential and a dead end.

The story was very readable, and the plot raced along. Toward the end, the pace was sustained at the cost of some believability. I found the characters' behavior credible or interesting enough a good deal of the time, except for the sudden anger and class scorn expressed by one of the characters that led to violence. Or the love that developed so quickly between a younger character and an older one.

Finally, I was left wondering how the author really felt about the religious beliefs of the sheikh who became the mentor of one of the young main characters. How evolution toward democracy would incorporate people like the sheikh is something I'm still trying to understand.
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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.
Not all of the plot threads come to a satisfactory end (I couldn't help wondering what happened to some of the minor characters), and if you're looking for an upbeat and positive conclusion then you may not be entirely happy with the way some of these stories are resolved. However, I'm glad the author resisted the temptation to neatly sew everything together and, despite some of the bitter endings, my overall impression of The Yacoubian Building is positive. I'll definitely look out for other books by the same author, and appreciate the very sympathetic and considered work of the translator.
If the themes of the Yacoubian Building interest you, then I can also recommend the author's next work, Chicago, which elaborates upon them and sets the action in the USA.
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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

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on 13 March 2007
This is a fabulous book, introducing all the individual characters of a large building in downtown Cairo, from the powerful to the powerless, greedy to giving, gay to straight, joyful to tragic. One can imagine the dilapidated building, and the busy lives going on on top the roof. It is a thought provoking book as we see the young man Taha's hopes to join the police dashed because his father was a mere doorman and not a civil servant, and we see how he is pulled in to the Fundamentalist group who's goals are Jihad. The hopes of bygone years vanished, corruption flourishes, yet love springs eternal. This is a sensitively written book, and captures the contemporary style of life in Cairo today. I would highly recommend it.
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VINE VOICEon 18 March 2016
The impression of the Arab world in much of the English-speaking world is pretty monolithic and very much at the extremes - the kind of world depicted in the opening scene of Aladdin. This has been fostered mostly by our impressions from movies and limited experience with Arabs outside of specific tourist destinations and perhaps some local kebab shops.

When it comes to literature, I haven't met many people who have read the brilliant Cairo Trilogy and even then that's usually the only body of (relatively) modern Arabic literature people in English-speaking countries can cite.

I heard an interview with Al Aswany recently on the BBC for 'The Automobile Club' of Egypt and upon further reading decided to give it a read and I'm so glad I did. It's a rich tapestry showcasing just how rich Arab culture and attitudes really are. There are no monolithic blocks, there are regular people trying to get by and choosing different paths. People who fall in love, have illicit affairs, are gay, take drugs, become violent, betray each-other, succumb to venality, are greedy, are sneaky, are beautiful and ugly, are kind: they're *just* *like* *us*.

The plot itself is a series of interwoven fictional character stories forming a mosaic around a real building in Cairo - The Yacoubian Building. The plots are rich and developed but it is a rollercoaster ride of character-building and important events reflecting not only its decades-ago setting but the current problems Egypt has been facing since the Arab Spring.

It's beautiful, wonderful and I gobbled it up. You should definitely read it.
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on 13 August 2006
Ala Alaswany language is simple, direct and readable. His description of the people in Yacoubian Building is not far from Egyptian soap operas' characters which all arabs are used to watch every year after having breakfast in the month of Ramadan. However, Yacoubian Biulding is not suitable for TV mass broadcasting becuase it is too explicit and too vulgar. The theme dominated the novel is sex. Adultry, homosexual sex, nymphomanic women and many other kinds of lovers ( doers) are on every page of this novel. But Alaswany used the sex to shock the arab reader and stimulate him to go deeper looking for the hypocisy and corruption in Egyptian life. For the western reader the novel is good to change many prejudice and misconcepts about arab society.
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on 22 April 2010
"The Yacoubian Building" is a novel about modern-day Cairo, using the residents of the building as a broad cross-section of Egyptian society. Through their various exploits, we learn about businessmen, politics, closet homosexuality, students, entrepeneurs and families living hand to mouth.

The novel clearly aims to give you a broad vision of the contradictions and peculiarities of life as a modern Egyptian covering no fewer than 12 basic characters. The problem is that the individual stories are picked up for sometimes no more than a paragraph before Al Aswany resumes another story thread. Although eventually about half a dozen characters evolve into central figures, even then with so little interaction between the stories, the book as a whole remains rather unfulfilling. The characters for me were sketches rather than portraits; very much lacking any credible depth. The fractured, vignette-based narrative also made this less than compelling and especially in the first half, led to a repeated need to refer back to the list of main characters to remember who people were.

What connects the characters is the Yacoubian buiding itself, which is one of the very few locations described with any kind of detail and some general themes. Al Aswany highlights four broad themes that affect all levels of Egytian life: Endemic corruption; Sexual politics (the inequality and exploitation of women and the problems of homosexuality); Religion in a secular state and finally the seemingly insurmountable chasm between rich and poor. These are fascinating themes and there are many interesting episodes highlighting the challenges and contradictions inherent in living and surviving in modern Cairo. However, I would argue that almost all of these themes have been better and more satisfyingly explored and developed in other work from North Africa and the Middle East, with the notable exception perhaps of the homosexual storyline.

So, as a broad introduction to North African/Middle Eastern fiction this is worth a read. It may put some readers off with its stop-start narrative and may prove insubstantial to others, but as a general starting point or overview it's fine. If you'd like more character detail and more depth though, may I recommend Yasmina Khadra, Ahmed Abodehman, Ibrahim al-Koni, Ahdaf Soueif, Hisham Matar, Nawal El Saadawi and of course, the Naguib Mahfouz.
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I read this because it was recommended on The Book Show with Mariella Frostrup and it sounded interesting. It is a loosely connected series of stories following the lives of a group of people living in an apartment building in the heart of Cairo. It was represented to be sexy, funny and intriguing.
I enjoyed the book, but I would say that it wasn't at all funny, and the sex, although there is plenty of it is often complex, tragic and dark. The story starts off in a fairly pedestrian way, introducing you to the various characters and setting up their narratives. It then gets increasingly dark, tragic and at times horribly disturbing with issues such as torture, police brutality, rape, corruption and religious fundamentalism rearing their heads.
About half way through the book we are plunged headlong into the dark undercurrents of Egyptian society and emerge only in the last few pages of the book in what seems like a highly incongruous, and to be honest, given all that precedes it, unlikely, happy ending.
This book is well written and engaging but I found the rapid swing into the seamier side of life quite challenging at times.
Parts of the book recalled one of my favourite books of all time, Justine by Lawrence Durrell, the first book in the Alexandria Quartet, which also swings between the poetic and the horrific, so maybe this is just what life in Cairo is like. An interesting, but ultimately quite unpleasant read.
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