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The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany

The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany          -        Cairo in Fiction and Fact

As the world watched the changes rapidly taking place in Egypt – especially in Cairo – this late winter, it was recommended that I read The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany. I was in the midst of reading the novel when I heard an interview with the author on CBC radio. As It Happens host Carol Off spoke, by telephone, with Alaa Al Aswany from his home in Cairo on 11 March 2011, about the recent changes that have taken place in Egypt, and the men who have declared themselves as candidates for President of Egypt in future elections. Alaa Al Aswany said he felt, since 2007, that Egypt has been close to revolution, and he replied that what is most important is that there is a “real democracy with a free election”. Some wonder if the author will himself decide to enter the race.

Alaa Al Aswany became a dentist, graduating from the University of Illinois in Chicago and working there for many years. He returned to Cairo, writing for newspapers about literature, politics and social issues – and his novel The Yacoubian Building, the best selling book in the Arab world. In fact Dr. Alaa Al Aswany still practices dentistry from his office in Garden City, an affluent area between the Nile and downtown Cairo just south of Tahrir Square. A district of beautifully carved streets designed by the British to surround their embassy in colonial times.

Alaa Al Aswany is quoted as saying, “It’s the system that is corrupt. You have power according to how much money you have. There is no law in Egypt. Everyone has his own law – him [referring to a portrait of President Mubarak on the office wall], the police, the government and me. I have a lot of power. If I wanted to take money, it would be easy. They pay the police very badly, so it’s tempting to take money. Fortunately, I have another source of income.”

The Yacoubian Building has been translated into many languages, and made into a film and a television series.  A reporter who interviewed people in Egypt about the film was somewhat surprised, as I am, that the film was so universally accepted, because, as one man said, “it presented a true picture of Egypt today. The classes. There have always been two classes in Egypt since the pharaohs: the ruling class and the ones who want to be ruled.” Said another, “it presented a true picture of Egypt – how hard it is for poor people in our society; how we have lost the value of caring for one another. Because of the speed of our lives, the poverty – you chase after money just to live.” Others said that the depiction of homosexuality was just another aspect of a culture lacking morals. There is certainly shockingly explicit homosexual content in this novel – and some say that may have boosted sales.

This novel may perhaps have put into words – out there for all to read as fiction – subjects not spoken of but known as truth - police brutality, fundamentalist Islamic extremism, sexual exploitation of women, and the corruption of bribery and extortion in every aspect of daily living. As one businessman put it, “Other Egyptian novels and films have treated one or another of these topics. But this book brought them all together in one work.”

The author when asked, in 2006, how he got this novel past the censors, replied, “There is no official censorship of books before they are published – it’s after the fact. Then Al Azhar or the government might make judgments or pull a book. It was the film that upset them. At first they supported it, but when they saw the effect it was having in the theatres – people were applauding characters and shouting – they got concerned. About 100 members of the People’s Assembly tried to ban the film because of the homosexuality – so-called “family values.” But they allow other movies that are almost pornographic! There was a big campaign in the official newspapers. They said the film “gives a bad impression of Egypt; the author is almost a foreigner.” Yes – I had a French education in Egypt and I went to dental school in the United States, but I’m not working for the Ministry of Tourism. To be loyal to my country, I have to be ignorant?”

I found the novel an interesting – and yes, shocking - view into the world that was Egypt, particularly Cairo, in the days and years leading up to the recent revolution. The Yacoubian Building reveals that society and culture through the lives of it’s characters, from the days of European wealth to a time of poverty and corruption - and increasing Islamic fundamentalism.

Another novel about Egypt – actually a trilogy of novels - I would recommend is the Cairo Trilogy – Palace Walk, Palace of Desire and Sugar Street, by the late Egyptian novelist and Nobel Prize Winner for Literature, Naguib Mahfouz. Written in the mid to late 1950’s, these novels provide a longer, more in depth, view of the years prior to the coup of 1952, the end of the rule of King Farouk, and the optimistic beginning of a new Republic. The story told in The Yacoubian Building, published in 2002, comes after this earlier time and brings us closer to the present time.

The days to come are going to be full of even more conflict that will have an effect on the rest of the world. These novels will provide the reader of fiction some context as we watch the changes taking place across the Middle East.

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