This novel was hypnotically uncomfortable to read, but also so rich in detail, colour, life, event, that I couldn’t help but keep going. I know a great deal more about modern Cairo than I did before, and I think I understand more of the horrific nature of Egyptian social and political corruption that brought about its particular Arab Spring. The novel was made into a film and a TV series, and the stills you can find online look terrific.
It’s set in the 1990s, and a great deal has happened since in Egypt, and elsewhere in the Middle East. Isis isn’t mentioned, nor are the Taliban, or al-Quaida, but a significant part of the plot concerns the indoctrination of young Egyptians into an Islamist terrorist cell. It feels odd to read that now, without any hint of the horrors to come in New York, and Iraq, but it’s important as a reminder of Egyptian-based Islamist fundamentalism.
The Yacoubian Building is about the inhabitants of this large apartment building in central Cairo (a famous building that still exists). There are many interconnecting stories about the people living there, and almost all of them have to grapple with bribery as a fact of life in modern Egypt. Bribery, and its monstrous extension into political corruption on a massive scale, is the moral touchstone for all the characters. How will they respond to it if it is offered? How will they try to avoid it, and what will they do once they are embroiled in it?
There is routine bribery: to gain an interview for a job, or for consideration for advancement. There is bribery for special services, when the shop manager wants to rub himself up against you in the storeroom until you have to wash your dress. There is sweetening bribery, to persuade your lover to see you again even though he believes that his child’s death is a punishment from God for your love affair. There is bribery on an epic scale, to gain political preferment. And there is wholesale bribery for prostitution, when an easily arranged second marriage is bought with a nice apartment and clothes. The doctor who arranged the resulting abortion while the ‘wife’ was unconscious had to be bribed too.
Information flows between characters like an underground river, and emerges unexpectedly to show how complex the networking is in such a compact, interlaced society. The shirtmaker who occupies the rooftop like a spreading infestation is the fixer who knows everyone’s stories, and his appearances become darker and more malevolent, the more power he has. But everyone’s story is nuanced, no-one is an angel or a villain, everyone has reasons for their actions.
The novel contains what was then a ground-breaking depiction for Arab society of homosexual love and sex, but by present-day Western standards this still reads as homophobic, particularly in the plot’s allocation of punishment for being gay.
Despite this, this novel is a fascinating portrait of a city and its people, and there are happy endings, as well as horribly tragic deaths.
Alaa Al Aswany, The Yacoubian Building, translated by Humphrey Davies (2002, Fourth Estate 2007, 2011), ISBN 978-0-00-724362-4, £8.99