Alaa As Aswany, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Egypt, Fiction, Fourth Estate, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Yacoubian Building’ by Alaa As Aswany


Fiction – hardcover; Fourth Estate; 272 pages; 2007. Translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies.

The Yacoubian Building
has been a best seller in its native Egypt and throughout the Arabic world since publication in 2002. It was translated into English in 2004 but has come to more prominent attention because it was made into a film of the same name last year. This hardcover edition was published in 2007.

Set in downtown Cairo at the time of the 1990 Gulf War, this intriguing novel shows modern Egyptian life through the eyes of a diverse range of characters, all of whom live in an apartment block called the Yacoubian Building.

Similar in style to Nicholas Rinaldi’s Between Two Rivers, which is set in a Manhattan residential building, it charts the struggles of a wide cross-section of society, from the underclass that live in cramped conditions in converted storage rooms on the roof of the building, to the wealthy residents who inhabit the building’s individual apartments.

There are so many characters in the book that a list is printed at the front for reference. The main ones include: a wealthy and elderly playboy (Zaki Bey el Dessouki); a bright and ambitious young man who wants to enter the Police Acadamy but joins a militant Islamist organisation instead (Taha el Shazli); a beautiful girl who supports her family by taking a poorly paid job in a clothing shop which is run by a man who expects sexual favours (Busayna); a shirtmaker and petty schemer (Malak); the gay editor-in-chief of a French language newspaper (Hatim Rasheed); and a self-made millionaire who has a secret second marriage to satisfy his ever-present libido (Hagg Muhammad Azzam).

Each of these characters are incredibly interesting in their own right — with secrets to keep and struggles to overcome — but Aswany makes things more intriguing by having some of them bump into each other in often surprising and unpredictable ways. While this helps drive the narrative forward, it also allows the reader to appreciate the apparent contradictions in Egyptian society where people with different religious, political and moral viewpoints live side by side, not always in harmony.

In fact, Aswany’s book is a highly political one, showing as it does a society rife with bribery and corruption and riddled with poverty and violence, the result of a political system dominated by a single party. Here, the disenchanted populace dream of escape to foreign lands to live better lives. Some also see Islamic extremism as a viable method of creating a better society.

Western readers may also be shocked at the role that women are forced to play in this culture. They are not only objectified but they are conditioned to believe that it is up to them to modify their behaviour in order to meet the sexual demands of the male population. If that means you need to put up with your boss’s advances at work, then so be it, there’s no such thing as sexual harrassment here.

There’s no doubt that The Yacoubian Building is a powerful, thought-provoking and controversial read, but it’s also an entertaining and enlightening one, and I was sad when it came to an end. I very much recommend it, particularly if you want to experience an eye-opening glimpse of a culture not widely written about in western literature.

10 thoughts on “‘The Yacoubian Building’ by Alaa As Aswany”

  1. Looks interesting. Found this online;
    “Born in 1957, Alaa al Aswani is a dentist-turned-writer who has was written prolifically for Egyptian newspapers on literature, politics and social issues.
    “He was made famous by The Yacoubian Building (Imarat Yaacoubian), published in 2002, which for several years was reputedly the best-selling novel in Arabic.”
    The Yacoubian Building is his second novel.
    According to Wikipedia:
    “Chicago, a novel set in the city in which the author was educated, was published in January 2007.”
    Moroccan blogger Laila Lalami posted a review of The Yacoubian Building in July 2005:


  2. I am very interested in this book. I have just been over to The Book Depository and seen that they have lifted your review (probably via the Amazon site)! It was very disconcerting 😉


  3. Dean, thanks for the Laila Lalami link. Her review is awesome. I have to be honest and say I read this book about 6 weeks ago now, but didn’t know how to review it — the task seemed too difficult. I think it’s one of those books that has universal appeal, because it’s full of characters that could be found in pretty much any city in any country around the world. But there’s a slight edge to this one, because of the religious extremism it covers…
    nutmeg, I think the Book Depository is being very naughty ripping the reviews off Amazon. To be honest, I’m a little annoyed — there’s not even an acknowledgement that I wrote it. I can feel an email complaint coming on…


  4. Go for it girl! I will second the motion if you need!!!! An acknowledgement, is first and foremost, simply good manners, I would have thought (putting aside the legal ramifications – of which I would know absolutely nothing about).


  5. I’m so pleased to know you liked it. I’ve been talking this book up for awhile now and no one seems to have embraced it in quite the way I expected. Perhaps the tide is turning…


  6. Callie, the book got a bit of publicity here in the UK earlier this year: the author was a guest on Simon Mayo’s book show and everyone was raving about it, so I went out and bought it the very next day!! I wasn’t disappointed. A great read. Very insightful.


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