It's funny, isn't it, how travelling to a place always somehow makes something written that much more real and identifiable? I always find that once I've been to the place that a particular novel is set in, the stories that I may have read before become that much more magical for me when I read them again. Perhaps all I do is colour in the narratives in my own head with what I now know of the place, but in any case, I somehow find the second reading so much more intimate.
This is exactly what happened with a book I'd read some months back, but hadn't thought to write a review of. But after my whistlestop tour of Cairo, which only served to whet my appetite for going back, I picked up The Yacoubian Building again. The book itself was a gift from a friend who was passing through London from Cairo last year. When I'd read it originally, it had seemed a good read, but nothing exceptional. But after spending just over 36 hours in Egypt, with a hotel view that looked out over Garden City towards Mohandiseen & the Citadel, I was somehow drawn back to the novel, and picked it up again last week.
First published in 2004 in Arabic, The Yacoubian Building is the work of Egyptian author Alaa al Aswany, a dentist by profession. The story traces the lives of several characters, each from different walks of life and different social strata, with very little to connect them to each other other than the fact that they all live in The Yacoubian Building, a typical Egyptian residential block in the old city. While the more affluent & powerful residents live in the large apartments in the main building, the roof contains small rooms which are inhabited by the poorer characters in the tale.
The story reads like a mosaic, moving fluidly between multiple narratives and tracing the ordinary lives of its protagonists, each of whom is in a unique way a victim of their own circumstances. There is Zaki Bey, an affluent man from a landed family, who was destined for power and influence, but had that deprived by the 1952 revolution. Taha just wants to be a police officer, but his humble antecedents deprive him of a place in the academy. Busayna does her best to earn enough to feed her widowed mother and younger siblings, but ends up in all her jobs as the victim of sexual exploitation. And there are many, many others.
Through all of their troubles and worries, the Yacoubian Building is the recurring leit motif. The story takes place in many locations, but at several points the scene is set in one of its apartments or on the crowded rooftop. On the whole, the story is not particularly cataclysmic, and there the ending of the story is somehat abrupt, leaving you feeling as if you were being led along, but were not given any catharsis. The small joys and sorrows that are spread through the novel continue until the end, perhaps appropriately illustrating what the realities of its characters must be like to live through. But there are two things I found remarkable about this novel, and more so after my trip to Cairo.
The first is this incredible sense of claustrophobia that pervades the novel. The overwhelming sense of entrapment, of being stuck in a situation from which you cannot get away, is one that affects each and everyone of the characters. Whether due to a lack of money, or for other, more complex circumstances, each protagonist is a prisoner of their own reality, unable to break out of a cycle of corruption, fraud and exploitation, whether a perpetrator or victim. While this claustrophobia came across even the first time I read the novel, it was magnified after I went to Egypt, and could see the streets and city for myself. Like so many developing countries, people in Egypt are either extremely rich or extremely poor, with very few individuals qualifying as "middle-class". And associated with these extremes are the classic cycles of exploitation, whether economic or sexual.
The second point that, at least for me, was quite unusual, was the sexuality of the writing. The Yacoubian Building was originally written in Arabic, and was for some time a best seller across the Arab world. Perhaps this is symptomatic of my own ignorance of the region and its multiple realities and complex social mores, but there is a frankness in dealing with so many things that I would have thought would be taboo. Whether it is the detailed exposition of Busayna's exploitation at the hands of her many bosses, the extensive lovemaking between various couples (never graphic or titillating, nor even erotic, but suggestive) or in the extensive description of the gay scene in Cairo, I was suprised by the extent to which Aswany deals with what I would have thought taboo, especially in a country like Egypt.
Finally, and perhaps appropriately for our present day realities, there is one subplot that is worth mentioning. Aswany describes in one of his subplots the evolution of an Islamist, one who is motivated by the desire for change in what is perceived to be a corrupt and decadent establishment to one that is fair, egalitarian and just. The sense of inevitability that surrounds the birth of the extremist is handled adeptly, but also sensitively, without going into any moralising or political grandstanding. Aswany reminds us that there are no black & whites - just one really confusing grey.