Just now, the obvious country to turn to for a 2011 Global Challenge read is Egypt. What insights are offered by Alaa Al Aswany, and the intertwined lives of those who live in the Yacoubian building, Cairo?
In a helpful introduction, translatorHumphrey Davies notes that the building exists at address given in the novel, but much is blurred, including the setting which appears to be around the first Gulf war but "reflects the Egypt of the present."
For some, the Yacoubian is an office block, a place of work, but for others home is a shack on the roof. First we meet Zaki Bey, a wealthy and aging playboy who has an office in the Yacoubian, who considers himself an expert in "the science of women. " Zaki has slept with "all classes - oriental dancers, foreigners, society ladies and the wives of the eminent and distinguished, university and secondary school students, even fallen women, peasant women, and housemaids. Every one had her special flavor..." Experience has led him to believe how a woman pronounces the letter 's' - specifically - is a clue as to how ardent she will be when making love.
(Zaki is aided in his adventures by his servant Abaskharon, of whom Al Aswamy acknowledges a sparsity of information: "We don't what he did before the age of forty or the circumstance in which his right leg was amputated").
The doorkeeper's son Taha el Shazli, a devout Muslim, who is determined to become a police officer, lives on the roof. So too, does his sweetheart, Busayna, and Hamid Hawwas, a persistent letter writer who "considers himself responsible to some degree for the proper performance of all public utilities in any area in which he may be residing."
In the basement is a bar. In Cairo, they are often badly lit poorly ventilated hangouts for hooligans and criminals, but Chez Nous, run by Aziz, known as "the Englishman," is an exception. His regular customers, include Hatim Rasheed, editor in chief of Le Caire, a newpaper published in French and a "conservative homosexual". "Homosexuals, it is said, often excel in professions that depend on contact with other people, such as public relations, acting, brokering and the law. Their success in these fields is attributable to their lack of that sense of shame that costs others opportunities..."
Richness of description and characterisation helps make The Yacoubian Building a first-class novel. One minute you want to buy a plane ticket, the next you are horrified - or terrified.
For it it is not long before vicious jealousy, class prejudice, political corruption and very unpleasant police brutality bring into sharp focus quite why so many thousands flocked to Tahrir Square.
Towards the end, Zaki tells Busayna: "If you can't find good in your own country, you won't find it anywhere else."
She replies with an eloquent description of the poverty and brutality that shapes her own life: "Then you will know why we hate Egypt."
- Thanks to Kimbofo whose Reading Matters review inspired me to buy The Yacoubian Building