The Yacoubian Building

By Alaa Al Aswany

Apparently when this book was published there was a huge outcry by Egyptians claiming that it depicts a life so far removed from actual Egyptian life as to be slanderous. There were also rave reviews exclaiming how wonderful it was to finally see life in Egypt, Cairo in particular, how it actually is rather than how it pretends to be.

I cannot imagine that the stories told in this very readable and entertaining book are very far removed from actual lives. I fear the reaction that it was lies, lies, all lies, may have come primarily from the more conservative sections of the religious societies portrayed who still like to pretend long sleeves and social disapproval actually remove all sexual behaviour in individuals.

We all know that’s a load of crap, don’t we?

Anyway – this book centres on a building called the Yacoubian Building (funny that) in Cairo. It takes place around the time of the invasion of Kuwait but considering the slight change in the Iraqi, Iranian, Palestinian type situation since, it could be happening right now really.

The 10 stories of the various characters are woven around each other without a great deal of connection. All the characters are connected to the building, but do not always even know of each other. The book follows each story for a while before moving onto the next story. This makes reading the book very easy as it almost seems like a tv series or soapie with short, manageable bits of information about each situation. You could read this book over a period of time, reading small chunks every evening, or read it like it did – in two sittings.

The stories include all of the major life issues  – sex, love, romance, money, greed, religion and faith. The characters are all very believable and as the reader I got involved in each one’s life. As a new story would recommence I would be glad to ‘see’ the characters again and find out what had happened.

In no ways can this book be assumed to be a reflection of all of Egyptian life. No intelligent reader, surely, ever believes any work, even non-fiction, to be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Surely!

This book in no way claims to be a true and complete representation of life in Egypt, or in Cairo. It is a work of fiction after all. But let’s also be honest about the fact that poverty and religious zeal leads people to do odd things, things that the religious and political leaders may rather no one discussed.

As a work of fiction written by an Egyptian and set in Egypt, The Yacoubian Building is an interesting look at a slice of life that I believed to be completely possible.

Translated books also have their own challenges. Some lines sounded really daft but I have no idea what they may have sounded like in the original and so I was forgiving of the author.

Worth a read I’d say