Nicolas Levy's Reviews > The Yacoubian Building

The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany
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's review
Jan 16, 2011

really liked it
Read in January, 2011

The Yacoubian Building is a great read for anyone seeking a greater understanding of modern Egyptian society, or any place where people must cope with daily frustration and repression.

Set in the streets of modern-day Cairo, this novel portrays the sometimes intersecting lives of residents of the Yacoubian Building. The building itself serves as a metaphor for the modern Egypt of the story: once grand and exciting, it has decayed over years of neglect. Its residents, in turn, must cope with political and personal frustrations on a daily basis. Among them is the story of Taha, whose life-long dream of becoming a police officer is crushed due to his low social standing, and who gradually turns to Islamic extremism. Busayna, his girlfriend, turns away from him and bitterly learns that the only way for her to make a living is to satisfy the sexual desires of older, wealthier men. Meanwhile, Hagg Azzam, an ambitious businessman-turned-politician, must learn to navigate the complexities of one-party authoritarian rule. Hatim Rasheed, the independently wealthy editor of the French-language newspaper, searches for love in the city's undercover gay nightlife.

Throughout his thoughtful novel, Alaa al Aswany poignantly weaves each character's story with the frustrations of their society at large. In this manner, he adds depth and colour to a world that is too often misunderstood and caricaturized.

But the Yacoubian Building also offers more than a glimpse of Egyptian society. In exploring how each character responds to the failures and frustrations imposed by external forces, Aswany touches on an aspect of the human condition that is crucial to truly empathizing with one another. While many of the characters take a somewhat predictable, and sometimes larger-than-life turn for the worse, a few characters stand out for their remarkable perseverance in an otherwise hopeless world.

Of particular note is Zaki el Dessouki: an aging aristocrat, he spends his days in his office in the Yacoubian Building, often seducing younger women. As he grows increasingly nostalgic for the more European-influenced Egypt of the past, and increasingly isolated from his remaining family and those around him, he forms a surprising connection that offers a hopeful turn to an otherwise despondent story.

The Yacoubian Building offers a quick and entertaining read for those seeking greater insight into contemporary Egypt, as well as for readers seeking an empathetic exploration of human suffering and resilience.

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