Nathaniel's Reviews > The Yacoubian Building

The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany
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's review
Jan 13, 2011

really liked it
Read in January, 2011

Al Aswany prefaces his novel by explaining that it is a novel about place, about the Yacoubian Building and what it reveals about Cairo over time. I am pleased to report that this claim is misleading: "The Yacoubian Building" may contain brief forays into the past and various asides about certain establishments and customs; but it is primarily concerned with the nuances of infatuation, courtship and transactional sex in age disparate Cairo relationships.

Three affluent and independent men (all at least fifty years old and all, conveniently, apartment holders in the Yacoubian Buildnig) create drama by exercising their power to initiate relationships with much younger Egyptians, whether male or female. The novel is pleasantly villain-free; though there are plenty of misled, meddling and ill-intentioned characters.

"The Yacoubian Building" is interspersed with Al Aswany's contribution to the "What makes them do it?" sub-genre of humanizing jihadists. This sub-plot, while slightly predictable and a little grim, is balanced, detailed and not particularly manipulative. The only other young man in the novel (who doesn't want to shoot the infidels) is a poor Nubian with wife and child who serves to illustrate the vaguely tragic plight of sensitive and cultured Cairo homosexuals. Al Aswany deals with gayness in Egypt in an unabashed and almost affectionate way, going out of his way to explain how the larger community adapts to the presence of homosexuals in their midst.

The whole composition works quiet well and is propelled by a series of creative and comical power grabs and sexual stratagems set against the struggle between secularists and fundamentalists, wealthy power holders and aspirants. Al Aswany's careful attention to the psychology of his characters sustains the novel and prevents it from becoming an overblown parade of stereotypes. His ability to slow down and pinpoint, often with a pleasantly dark humor, the precise motivations and tactics of his characters is what elevates this from story-telling to literature.

For instance, "Right now, in bed with Hagg Azzam, she is playing out a scene--that of the woman who, taken unawares by her husband's virility, surrenders to him so that he may do with her body whatever his extraordinary strength may demand, her eyes closed, panting, and sighing--while in reality she feels nothing except rubbing, just the rubbing of two naked bodies, cold and annoying."

And, "There lay between the two old people all the irritability, impatience and obstinance that go with old age, plus that certain tension that develops when two individuals live in too close a proximity to one another--from using the bathroom for a long time when the other wants it, from one seeing the sullen face the other wears when he wakes from sleeping, from one wanting silence while the other insists on talking, from the mere presence of another person who never leaves you day and night, who stares at you, who interrupts you, who picks on everything you say, and the grating of whose molars when he chews sets you on edge and the ringing noise of whose spoon striking the dishes disturbs your quiet every time he sits down to eat with you."

I find it easier to be patient with an author who is constantly introducing new characters if he will at least take the time to put them forward in such a clear light. I will read Al Aswany's subsequent novel. (And this is definitely one of the two best Arabic language novels that I have ever read.)

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