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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



The Yacoubian Building

by
Alaa Al Aswany


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Yacoubian Building



Title: The Yacoubian Building
Author: Alaa Al Aswany
Genre: Novel
Written: 2002 (Eng. 2004)
Length: 245 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: The Yacoubian Building - US
The Yacoubian Building - UK
The Yacoubian Building - Canada
L'Immeuble Yacoubian - France
Der Jakubian-Bau - Deutschland
  • Arabic title: عمارة يعقوبيان‎
  • Translated by Humphrey Davies
  • The Yacoubian Building was made into a film in 2006, directed by Marwan Hamed

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Our Assessment:

B+ : appealing slice-of-Cairo-lives novel

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Foreign Policy . 5-6/2005 Saad Eddin Ibrahim
The Guardian . 17/2/2007 James Buchan
The Independent . 16/2/2007 Alev Adil
NZZ . 12/5/2007 Angela Schader
The NY Times Book Rev. . 27/8/2006 Lorraine Adams
The Observer . 18/2/2007 Rachel Aspden
San Francisco Chronicle . 13/8/2006 John Freeman
Sunday Times . 4/2/2007 Peter Kemp
The Telegraph . 28/01/2007 Tash Aw
The Telegraph . 18/2/2007 Chandrahas Choudhury
TLS . 12/8/2005 Maria Golia
Die Zeit . 8/3/2007 Iris Radisch


  Review Consensus:

  Very favourable

  From the Reviews:
  • "(N)o other Egyptian, or Arab writer for that matter, has so boldly broken through the literary stagnation of the last 50 years by addressing these themes, except perhaps Naguib Mahfouz" - Saad Eddin Ibrahim, Foreign Policy

  • "If the characters, good and bad, educated or not, have a quality in common, it is a sort of big-city sophistication. The plotting is neat, the episodes are funny and sad, and there are deaths and weddings aplenty. For all the Mahfouzian decor -- prostitution, hashish, homosexuality -- there is none of the oddity, even clownishness, of character or the intensity of savour and texture of Midaq Alley. Aswany's is an altogether more worldly Egypt, and one that is in a hurry to get somewhere or other." - James Buchan, The Guardian

  • "Yet despite dealing with serious subjects, the experience of reading the novel is more akin to a guilty literary pleasure than a civic duty. Al Aswany's interwoven narratives of the diverse inhabitants of a once grand, now dilapidated, apartment block in downtown Cairo marry the humanist realism of Balzac with the hyperbolic momentum of Egyptian soap opera. (...) (T)he most emotionally compelling Egyptian novel published in English since Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy." - Alev Adil, The Independent

  • "Immer wieder stellt al-Aswani dabei innere Bezüge her, welche durch die gekonnt organisierte Erzählstruktur des Romans noch akzentuiert werden. (...) In diesem breit angelegten Bilderbogen fehlt es nicht an fein gestalteten Vignetten und ironischen Glanzlichtern. (...) Insgesamt jedenfalls schreibt al-Aswani mit so viel Tempo, Witz und Herz, dass man diese Bestandesaufnahme aus dem heutigen Ägypten begierig wie kräftigen Mokka schlürft -- und erst nachher realisiert, dass man auch den dunklen Bodensatz aus Zorn und Hoffnungslosigkeit absorbiert hat." - Angela Schader, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Aswany's shifting searchlight brings out the far-reaching effects of abysmal governance on the most intimate corners of everyday life -- for everyone. (...) Let's hope Humphrey Davies's fine translation helps win the wider audience both the novel and the film deserve." - Lorraine Adams, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The Yacoubian Building is more old-fashioned melodrama than snappy sociopolitical critique. It has few formal or intellectual pretensions and al Aswany's prose remains resolutely affectless -- critics say 'flat' -- throughout. This is not a fashionable quality either here or in Egypt, but it allows al Aswany to manoeuvre neatly through controversial waters." - Rachel Aspden, The Observer

  • "Everyone is scheming in The Yacoubian Building, giving this novel the shape and tone of a soap opera. (...) Ranging widely around his Cairo, Al Aswany describes the many ways his characters scrabble against one another in this struggle to be human. (...) If the novel makes any political point, it is that the restrictions that such religious and cultural police put upon the bodies of Cairo residents are just another slight against their humanity. (...) Al Aswany can manage these soapbox asides because his narrative style is digressive, and in confidence." - John Freeman, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "It is this rich mixture of characters that makes the novel far more than a simplistic examination of old versus new. (...) In spite of the underlying message and its ultimately bleak outlook, there is little proselytising and much humour in this novel. (...) The urgency and sadness of the novel is saved by the numerous other observations of a culture and country in transition." - Tash Aw, The Telegraph

  • "Recounting the experiences of characters living in (or on the heavily populated rooftop of) the now dilapidated building, it scathingly indicts a society riddled with corruption. (...) With its multiple storylines and accusatory indignation, the novel could have got stuck somewhere between soap opera and soapbox. In fact, itís far more fascinating." - Peter Kemp, Sunday Times

  • "It is this rich mixture of characters that makes the novel far more than a simplistic examination of old versus new. (...) In spite of the underlying message and its ultimately bleak outlook, there is little proselytising and much humour in this novel. (...) The urgency and sadness of the novel is saved by the numerous other observations of a culture and country in transition." - Tash Aw, The Telegraph

  • "The many languorous descriptions in The Yacoubian Building of the pleasures of the flesh, and the subtly ironic renditions of religious rhetoric, might be taken as evidence that the author too is a sensualist, prizing the good things of this life over those of the one after" - Chandrahas Choudhury, The Telegraph

  • "(T)he book owes its success primarily to the archetypal verisimilitude of its characters and the author's ability to paint a portrait of the city, its theatricality, heroism and tragic flaws. (...) In the novel, he uses the building as metaphor to show how history has marked the city, a collective countenance on which the contours of age and loss are lovingly traced. (...) Alaa Al Aswany is a courageous, outspoken social critic. His novel transmits the reassuring intimacy of the city's rhythms alongside the familiar treachery of its predators and the machinations of the power structure that produced them." - Maria Golia, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Der vielleicht allzu verständliche Realismus dieses arabischen Bestsellers korrespondiert mit den nur allzu verständlichen elenden Existenzbedingungen, die er lebendig werden lässt." - Iris Radisch, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Yacoubian Building of the title is a microcosm of much of Cairo, and in telling the stories of various of its denizens Alaa Al Aswany offers a colourful picture of contemporary Egypt. Built in the 1930s, the building was an "architectural gem" that housed "the cream of society", but it underwent considerable change over the decades that followed. Beside the large, fancy apartments a second separate community developed on the roof, where what had originally been rooms for storage and laundry were eventually converted into (tiny and Spartan) residential units. These, along with the store on the ground floor, made the Yacoubian a place where many levels of society crossed paths.
       The Yacoubian Building follows the lives of several of the residents. Among them is Taha el Shazli, the son of the doorkeeper, whose great ambition since childhood has been to join the police. He's done everything to ensure that he'll get a spot in the Police Academy, with only one final hurdle standing in his way, the formality of the character interview. All goes well until the final question -- "Your father -- what's his profession, Taha ?" -- and then his world and all his hopes come crashing down to earth. Not for the first or last time it's shown that money and connexions are what counts, not abilities or diligence.
       Taha doesn't despair completely at first and enrolls at university, but it's not surprising that Al Aswany has him marked for a downward spiral that leads him to Islamic radicalism and, ultimately, violence. Along the way, he is beaten and humiliated by the police, his ideals and any possible last belief in the integrity of the Egyptian state and system shaken beyond repair -- though even in the final confrontation it is the personal affront that drives him to action (and that also leads him to fail in the larger objectives, as Al Aswany offers a man driven to militancy for personal reasons, not Islamic ideals).
       Taha's failure to become a policeman also marks the beginning of a growing rift between him and his beloved, Busayna. While more concerned with everyday survival and comforts than the faith Taha begins professing, she too is affected by the prevailing corrupt conditions -- in her case, the way men treat women. She learns that if she wants to keep her job she has to put up with the very unwanted attentions of her boss; after getting repeatedly fired, she finally gives in, letting shopkeeper Talal rub up against her and play with her body ..... Not surprisingly, it affects her personality and outlook, as she's overwhelmed by guilt but knows there's nothing she can do.
       Other characters include Hagg Azzam, who runs for and wins a seat in the People's Assembly -- believing that this will give him even greater power (and the opportunity to make an enormous amount of money) without realising that by accepting the help of those who put him in this position he has essentially sold his soul to the devil and is at their mercy.
       There's the sex-obsessed Zaki Bey, and his servant Abaskharon -- and Abaskharon's brother Malak, who gets a toehold on the Yacoubian roof and underhandedly manages to take hold of other bits and pieces, with designs for even more. And there is Hatim Rasheed, the homosexual newspaper editor, whose lover Abduh has a wife and child and is torn between the money being Hatim's boy-toy means and the guilt of sinning in this way.
       Corruption -- moral and otherwise -- is endemic, and the authorities, in particular, do not come off well. It's not just the state that is a failure, however: when Hagg Azzam wants to convince his second wife to get an abortion a sheikh -- a man of religion -- readily steps in to help him.
       There's moral decay throughout The Yacoubian Building, but Al Aswany does not so much condemn immorality per se, but rather the double standards, especially where money and influence are involved.
       There's a lot of sex in the novel, too -- including such colourful descriptions as:

Their intercourse on the first night was simple and spontaneous, as though she had been his wife for years. The rose opened to the touch of his fingers and he watered it more than once till it was quenched.
       (Maybe that sounds better in the Arabic original .....)
       In fact, The Yacoubian Building is arguably oversexed, too many of the characters too simplistically driven by lust, such as Hatim:
This is why he is always looking for a stable relationship with a permanent lover so that he can satisfy his needs safely and restrict his homosexuality to his nighttime hours in bed, for when he is alone, without a lover, temptation seizes him and his importunate lust pushes him into ignominious situations. He has had days of pain and distress when he was driven to defile himself with criminal types and the scum of society in order to pick out from among them a lover with whom to satisfy his need for just one night, never to be seen again.
       Some of the stories also are a bit too simple, but Al Aswany writes engagingly enough, and he cuts back and forth effectively between the various and varied lives, making for an gripping read. It's a solid picture of this society (if, again, far too simplistic in many regards) and isn't tendentious or too obvious in its critique. Aside from those regarding sex ("As for the women, and without regard for their degree of religiosity or morality, they all love sex enormously and will whisper the secrets of the bed to one another") there are only a few sweeping statements too obviously placed -- generally regarding the state of this society, such as the cynical:
Our Lord created the Egyptians to accept government authority. No Egyptian can go against his government. Some peoples are excitable and rebellious by nature but the Egyptian keeps his head down his whole life long so he can eat. It says so in the history books. The Egyptians are the easiest people in the world to rule. The moment you take power, they submit to you and grovel to you and you can do what you want with them.
       Al Aswany is more interested in showing a broader picture of Egyptian life, a sort of realistic panorama -- but the conditions, of course, allow him to point out the many flaws of contemporary Egypt in doing so.
       The Yacoubian Building is entertaining and does offer a good overview of contemporary Cairo life, but with its many stories and its simplifications can feel more like it skims the surface than truly explores the many hidden depths (even as it shares so many intimacies). Still: worthwhile.

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Links:

The Yacoubian Building: Reviews: The Yacoubian Building - the movie: Other books by Alaa Al Aswany under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Egyptian author Alaa Al Aswany (علاء الأسوانى) was born in 1957. He is also a dentist.

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© 2006-2009 the complete review

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