Tag Archive: middle east

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

This book follows four generations of one family through the Palestinian/Israel conflict. From 1948 when, it seems according to this book, Israel decided that Palestine was a land without people (that must’ve been a shock to the people living there already, the Palestinians) and declared statehood, to 2003 when an unlikely trio of people learn to live together this book follows the lives and deaths of a family of Palestinians and their loved ones in the refugee camp at Jenin.


The story is about the humanness if not the humanity, of people on both sides of the divide. Told mostly through the eyes and experience of Amal, the granddaughter of the first generation included, and the mother of the last, this story is very personal. While the Abulheja family may not have ever really existed, thousands of families like it do exist; both Israeli and Palestinian.


Amal (hope) grows up in the refugee camp, knowing bombings and bullets as most children know party balloons and swimming pools. Her friendships are forged in bomb shelters and smeared with dust and blood. That there are millions of people with this shared experience, on both sides, must be part of why it is so complicated to end. Anger, pain and fear cause the desire for vengeance to run deep and thick within the veins. It is almost understandable when a boy who watched his 12 year old twin shot to death by soldiers grows into a man with anger in his soul.


Amal’s brother is stolen from her mother during one of the attacks on the refugee camps the family has been forced into, and taken by an Israeli soldier to his barren wife. Raised as a Jew this boy and then man fights against the Palestinians and raises a son filled with anger and hated from the people who by birth are actually family. This side of the story is not laboured but for me it was the essential crux of the whole story. What we are and what we believe is an accident of birth or raising, rather than some divine rightness.


Both sides of this conflict believe in their own rightness 100%. In fact, beyond believe, they KNOW themselves to be right. And so mothers will continue to bury sons and children will continue to be orphaned.


This book made me angry and sad. And very curious about the whole situation. I understand it is written from a Palestinian point of view and I want to gather information from the other side. Because if what this book says happened really happened, I am really going to struggle not to develop quite anti-Israel sentiments.


A book that is well written and so easy to read, but not an easy read. It will make you think – always a high accolade from me for a book.


Now to find a similar story told from the Israeli point of view.


I am reading a book at the moment that has rattled my cage and set me to some serious thinking

It is a book written by a Palestinian and is really about the Israel/Palestine ‘situation’

I do not know very much about the situation to be honest. I am shamefully ignorant in fact. But what I find so interesting is my struggle with maybe actually thinking Israel is wrong. Phosphorous bombs that set babies alight for days? Really – how is that not a war crime I wonder?

And yet it is very hard to conceive of being anti-Israel and by extension anti-Jews and by extension again anti-Semitic when the other option is to be anti-Arab and anti-Muslim

Being anti-Semitic is something no one wants to be called – I certainly do not. But anti-Muslim – well since 9/11 and the ‘with us or against us’ speech – anti-Muslim is kinda almost expected

Why is that okay? Why is anti-Semitism so not okay but anti-Muslim practically applauded? In what way are they different at their core?  How is anti-any group more ‘okay’ than any other prejudice?

And how does any group who was massacred for who and what they are even contemplate doing the same to another group.


I think maybe I am just anti-human. We are a disgusting species.