African Library: The Yacoubian Building by Alaa al-Aswany

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Alaa al-Aswany: The Yacoubian Building (2004)

The Yacoubian Building (first published in Arabic in 2002 and in the English translation, by Humphrey Davis, in 2004) is one of the most acclaimed and persistently best-selling novels in modern Arabic literature, going through many editions as well as having being turned into a widely praised film and also a television series. To an extent this is surprising, given the text’s frankness in exposing the dark sides of Egyptian social and political life and its stark class divisions. Ostensibly the text is set during a slightly earlier period (the beginning of the 1990s, at the time of the first Gulf War), but this is a very thin disguise for its actual account of 21st-century Egyptian conditions. The novel is, in one respect, a vivid portrait of Cairo, using a small area around the Yacoubian Building (one which actually exists, although the author changed some details regarding the building’s appearance and the location of surrounding places) which allows him to depict the many layers of Cairene society, from the hugely wealthy and powerful to the extremely poor and struggling folk who occupy a sort of “rooftop slum’ – though cleanly kept – on the top of the building. Alaa al-Aswany, who like his father before him had an office in this very building, is an Egyptian novelist, short story writer, essayist, columnist and public commentator. He earns his living mainly as a dentist, and is a respected public intellectual in the more “progressive” circles in Egypt. The novel has an interesting structure in that it has certain quite “old-fashioned” structural and stylistic qualities – such as a list of characters’ names along with brief sketches of their personalities and social roles; a narrator that seems to act as a commentator on the characters and what happens to them as if directly and orally addressing the reader; and the mosaic-style deployment of the experiences of some of these characters, only some of whom connect directly with the others – but the reader soon sees that this is an extremely clever, well-constructed and sophisticated text. Al-Aswany’s ability to interest us in his characters without either sentimentalising or romanticising any of them allows the opinions and pronouncements of these characters to build up a compelling composite map of modern Egyptian life as we weigh their various opinions, ideas and experiences against one another. The result is a complex, balanced evocation of this North African society.

In giving us fully rounded portraits of its large cast of characters the novel enters into the political, social and public aspects of their world as much as into their sexual lives, much of which is (as if from the perspective of an intelligent but gossipy observer) laid bare before us. We also get fascinating accounts of how the characters negotiate their circumstances and how they interact with those they live among or have to deal with – some in cunning and conniving ways, others through ruthless manipulation and a few in friendliness, or in religious fervour. One harsh pronouncement declares the Egyptian people an easily cowed lot; compliant to power and biddable:

[W]e’ve studied the Egyptian people well [declares one politician, a sort of master manipulator in and behind the official structures of government]. Our Lord created the Egyptians to accept government authority. No Egyptian can go against his government. Some people 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. Any party in Egypt, when it makes elections and is in power, is bound to win, because the Egyptian is bound to support the government. It’s just the way God made him. (84–5)

A comment like this seems at one and the same time uncomfortably predictive of the mid-2014 set-up in Egypt, although a brutally one-sided exaggeration, and blindly oblivious to the resentment and rebellion against power abuse and state corruption, of which both recent actual events in Egypt and numerous passages in Al-Aswany’s text speak.

One type of oppositional perspective emerges in a conversation like the following response to an elderly, well-off character’s conventional remark, “If you can’t find good in your own country you won’t find it anywhere else.” A much poorer and younger person, a woman who lives with her family in one of the rooftop “storerooms”, stands up in response to the aforementioned remark and states with considerable bitterness:

You don’t understand because you’re well-off. When you’ve stood for two hours at the bus stop or taken three different buses and had to go through hell every day just to get home, when your house has collapsed and the government has left you sitting with your children in a tent on the street, when the police officer has insulted you and beaten you just because you’re on a minibus at night, when you’ve spent the whole day going around the shops looking for work and there isn’t any, when you’re a fine sturdy young man with an education and all you have in your pockets is a pound, or sometimes nothing at all, then you’ll know why we hate Egypt. (138)

The speaker here is Busayna, a cheerful young woman with a tertiary qualification in commerce who had hoped for a financially comfortable future, but was forced to abandon these hopes when her father unexpectedly died and her mother had to go out and toil for slave wages and requested that her daughter contribute to the family income and the educational expenses of her three younger siblings. Attractive as she is to most men, even her own mother conveyed to her that she needed to trade on her sexuality to keep her bosses happy and to earn “something extra” beyond the low wages of her official salary in a menial job. She had been a virtuous young woman, sworn to marry her sweetheart, a studious and highly intelligent young man with ambitions of becoming a police officer. It is to his experience that Busayna is alluding at the end of the quotation above, although at this stage their relationship has inevitably been ended by her. The young man in question, the son of the old doorkeeper in the Yacoubian Building (and a fellow rooftop dweller there), had passed all his examinations brilliantly and performed exceedingly well in the final interview that should have led to his admission to the police college (easily available as is well known to sons of wealthy parents who can pay the huge bribe required), but was then turned down because his father’s position as a “mere” doorkeeper was considered too lowly to allow his brilliant son to fulfil his lifelong dream.

Busayna is also drawing on what she was told early in her experience as a salaried female employee by a friend and colleague in whom she had confided her aversion to giving groping bosses sexual favours, and who had then, as this passage shows, “shouted in her face in disbelief”:

“Don’t be a fool, girl!” Fifi had explained to her that more than ninety percent of bosses did that with the girls who worked for them and that any girl who refused was thrown out and a hundred other girls who didn’t object could be found to take her place. When Busayna started to object, Fifi asked her sarcastically, “So Your Ladyship has an MBA from the American University? Why, the beggars in the street have commercial diplomas the same as you!”

Fifi explained to her that going along with the boss “up to a point” was just being smart and that the world was one thing and what she saw in Egyptian movies was another. She [Fifi] explained to her that she knew lots of girls who had worked for years at the Shanan store and given Mr Talal, the owner of the store, what he wanted “up to a point” and were now happily married with kids, homes, and husbands who loved them lots. “But why go so far afield?” Fifi asked, citing herself as an example. She had worked in the store for two years and her salary was a hundred pounds, but she earned at least three times that much by “being smart”, not to mention the presents. And all the same, she had been able to look after herself, she was a virgin, and she’d scratch out the eyes of anyone who said anything against her reputation. There were a hundred men who wanted to marry her, especially now that she was earning and putting her money into saving co-ops and setting money aside to pay for her trousseau. (43)

A passage such as this one can serve as an example of the author’s convincing uncovering of the decent social surface to show the pitiless, sexually predatory sphere in which poorer young women have to operate, as well as demonstrating his compassionate sensitivity to their plight. The sordid sexual encounters to which Busayna is forced to submit for her family’s sake harden and embitter this once idealistic young woman.

One could say that the trajectory of Busayna’s youthful lover Taha’s life traces both a parallel and divergent route with her story. The doorkeeper’s son, after the ruination of his plans to become an officer in the police force, starts his tertiary studies in the Faculty of Economics and Political Sciences of Cairo University, portrayed as the most snobbish part of the institution, in which the students who are poor, pious and of rural origin form a mutually supportive group. Here, Taha is impressed with one fellow fresher’s deep piety. He and this young man become very good friends. Not long after, the friend persuades Taha to join him in attending the Friday service at a particular mosque. There, Taha finds that most of the worshippers, all “devotees and followers of Sheikh Muhammad Shakir”, are dressed in “Pakistani dress – a white or blue gallabiya that reached to just below the knees with trousers of the same colour”. The mosque, its balcony (set aside for women worshippers) and even the adjoining square are all “filled to capacity so that the traffic was brought to a standstill”. As if to convey Taha’s sense of awe at this scene, the narrator states that “The atmosphere was fabulous, authentic, and pure, the ascetic, homespun primitive scene bringing to mind the first days of Islam” (93), so that, in addressing his rapt audience, Sheikh Shakir’s passionate, powerful plea for a recommitment to the gihad (more often spelt “jihaad’) as the “most important pillar” of Islam falls on ready ears. It is, he says, the “corrupt rulers dedicated to the pursuit of money and the pleasures of the flesh” who, by excluding gihad “with the help of their hypocritical men of religion” have “transformed” Islam into “a collection of meaningless rituals”. It was “[w]hen the Muslims abandoned gihad [that] they became slaves to this world, clinging to it, shy of death, cowards,” he pronounces. “Thus,” he adds, “their enemies prevailed over them and God condemned them to defeat, backwardness and poverty.” The sheikh denounces their state, declaring that the government “itself benefits from gambling and the sale of alcohol” and that this “supposedly democratic state is based on the rigging of elections and the detention and torture of innocent people” (95).

While the narrator or author does not necessarily espouse the sheikh’s sentiments, Al-Aswany in the course of the narrative confirms every one of his criticisms of the state, helping us to understand how ripe for persuasion to Islamic martyrdom young people smarting under the humiliating yoke of poverty and state oppression would be to such rousing words, which promise them the martyr’s honour and the opportunity to venture courageously against corrupt tyranny. The state needs to be told, the sheikh concludes, that “We do not want our Islamic Nation to be either socialist or democratic. We want it Islamic-Islamic”, for, he reasons, “Democracy means people ruling themselves by themselves”, whereas “Islam knows only God’s rule” (96).

It needs to be noted that the sheikh is portrayed as a sincere and principled person and not as a vulgar rabble-rouser who keeps safe while consigning others to fatal risks and martyrdom. Nor is Taha’s gradually deepening immersion into the Islamic opposition ascribable primarily to the sheikh’s influence. What happens is that there is a huge student demonstration against Egypt’s participation in war with the USA and Israel against fellow Islamic people (in Iraq). Taha manages to escape arrest when police storm the demonstrators. He takes home a “compromising” booklet and works to make posters for a further demonstration the next day. During the night his room is violently invaded by police goons and he is taken into custody and severely assaulted. When he refuses to divulge any information useful to the state, the goons rape him with a piece of wood and make him play the role of a woman. Eventually released, Taha is in a state of humiliated and vengeful fury against his torturers so intense that he puts his life on hold, refusing to go back to his family or to resume his studies. After seemingly discouraging him from thinking that he stands any chance of achieving the vengeance he seeks against such powerful men (who have the weight of the entire state behind them), the sheikh, seeing that he will not relent, takes him to a secret training camp. So assiduous is Taha that he soon masters all the military and stalking skills taught there, as well as the doctrines backing the Islamic oppositional undertaking. While occasionally still hankering after Busayna, the love of his youth, he now manages to turn against her memory on Islamic grounds. Yearning for the opportunity to go out and do battle, he chafes under the enforced delays and is amazed when he is called in by the camp commander and told that he has the opportunity to marry a young widow with a son whose husband was earlier martyred to their cause. Surprising himself, he ends up falling in love with the sweet-natured and good-looking woman and has happy days with her, but reverts to anger at being “kept behind’ and not sent into battle. Late in the novel he is selected for an attack on one of the regime’s especially vicious torturers, who turns out to be the man who oversaw his own degradation. After killing him, Taha and his cohorts are shot down in a hail of gunfire by this man’s guards.

Taha’s story is not told at once as I have done here, but is interwoven with those of other characters in the balancing plan of construction of Al-Aswany’s narrative that was mentioned earlier. Nevertheless, Taha’s brief life is clearly exemplary of one of the ways in which the Egyptian system can be seen as forming and/or deforming young men of the poorer classes.

Before his own death, Taha’s wife tells him how her first husband met his end:

“They [the police] knocked on the door and as soon as he opened it they fired several rounds with automatics. He was martyred immediately and three brothers with him. They killed them deliberately, and if they’d wanted they could have taken them alive.”

Taha’s face registered sorrow and he commented bitterly, “The new instructions are for them to kill as many Islamists as they can. They call it the ‘blow to the heart’ policy. If this infidel regime had dealt with the Jews that brutally, Jerusalem would have been liberated long ago.” (217)

Points like those made above outline a state system that is bringing implacable, religiously fuelled hatred upon itself and its representatives; as so often happens, a brutal insistence on “security” is a manifestation of actual insecurity. Not long afterwards, the camp commander brings Taha and two fellow chosen operatives the news that they are being deployed (at last, Taha feels): “Youth of Islam, this is your day. The Gamaa’s Consultative Council has chosen you to go out on an important operation.” Following the announcement,

[a] moment of silence passed. Then the brothers shouted “There is no god but God!” and embraced one another in happiness, the most joyful of all being Taha, who shouted out “Praise be to God! God is great!” The sheikh’s smile widened and he said, “Bravo! God bless you and increase you in faith! This is why the enemies of Islam tremble in fear of you – because you love death as they love life!” (238)

This elation at the likely prospect of violent martyrdom is a vivid evocation of Islamic fervour, but Al-Aswany’s portrayal of the Islamist’s camp life also evokes the beautiful, life-embracing attitude that is registered in a wedding song performed by the women at the camp on the earlier occasion of Taha’s marriage. It is sung while “the ululations rang out loud” and accompanied by the “sisters […] beating on tambourines”:

We’ve come to you, we’ve come to you
So you greet us and we greet you.
If it weren’t for the red, red gold
She’d have stopped at some other wold.
If it weren’t for the brown brown wheat
Your girls wouldn’t be nice and sleek. (219)

Al-Aswany’s portrayal is thus far from either crude demonisation or romantic idealisation of the Islamists, but scrupulous and complex, as is true of the other aspects of his depiction.
An important character in the novel who functions as the embodiment of ruthless power and wealth and whose respectable, even venerable, appearance belies both his humble beginnings and his deep, well-hidden corruption is Hagg Muhammad Azzam – a millionaire Cairene businessman with political ambitions. The Assembly seat he acquires through bribery and string-pulling (chiefly by another, far more powerful politician) is intended to help him secure the hugely lucrative international business deals he lusts after. Hagg Azzam (the title showing that he has done the pilgrimage to Mecca) can be read as illustrating many of the behavioural and other qualities that the Islamists rage against, and his suave unpleasantness justifies their moral indignation. It is not that the author crudely villainises Azzam; his revelation of the true timbre of his personality emerges only very gradually in the course of the text. Initially, for instance, he seems a decent enough man, if lacking in human warmth. Upon finding himself undergoing an inexplicable late reawakening of his sexual appetite (an inclination not shared by his elderly wife, mother of his three early middle-aged sons), Azzam consults (as he does in everything of a personal nature) his sheikh. He is advised that his “problem” is no problem at all; although his wife would be extremely displeased at his taking a second wife and his sons would be a bit embarrassed (in view of his age), he can find a respectable younger woman and marry her secretly. Azzam chooses a woman named Souad, a divorcee from Alexandria who works for a small salary as a secretary, an attractive and respectable woman with one young son. What he stipulates, though (in a contract, for this man does everything carefully), is that her son may not live with her; she may visit him “when convenient”; as Azzam’s wife she must be totally at his disposal (mainly for the ritual of daily, lengthy, fumbling sex sessions every afternoon). She is furthermore advised that the marriage must be childless as well as kept secret; should Azzam’s wife find out, divorce will be immediate. In return, she gets a dowry of 20 000 pounds and jewellery of half that value; in the event of divorce no more than 5 000 pounds will be paid in settlement.

One strand of Azzam’s story is the course of this second marriage, which at first runs smoothly. Yet Souad gradually feels more and more lonely, living alone in the luxurious flat, and pines for her son. She also finds it harder and harder to disguise her impatience with Azzam’s sexual incompetence and her disgust at his decrepitude. But then she falls pregnant; a hope (on her part) that becomes a certainty soon after Azzam’s election. Believing that Azzam is by now so dependent on and in love with her that he will be as delighted as she is, Souad is dismayed to be confronted with Azzam’s demand that she abort the pregnancy. Nevertheless, she feels she has a hold on him and that as the child of so hugely wealthy a man, its future is assured along with her own. Azzam brings his sheikh along to help persuade Souad to undergo an abortion, but she does not for a moment fall for the sheikh’s suspect if “religiously” authorised arguments (the same sheikh is used by the government to provide Islamic backing for Egypt’s participation in the war against Iraq). What then happens is really awful. Four thugs come into the apartment that night, drug and kidnap Souad and take her to the hospital, where the unconscious woman’s pregnancy is medically terminated. The doctor and nurses (obviously all in Azzam’s pocket) tell her that she was haemorrhaging. She is sent back to Alexandria with her brother and paid some money, but never sees Azzam again. He coolly erases her from his life as if he had never set eyes on her.

The story of Azzam’s political and business dealings has a slightly different trajectory. Immediately after his election he lands an enormously lucrative contract with a Japanese car company – the first in Egypt. But it’s payback time, his political backers decide. He is summoned to a meeting with the chief string-puller and informed that he has to pay them 25 percent of his profits. Balking at this, Azzam attempts to play for time, but really he is playing with fire, we are made to see. His final plea is to be allowed an interview with the (never named) “Big Man” of Egyptian politics. Intimidatingly taken through multiple security screenings at a palatial dwelling, he is made to twiddle his thumbs and wait for ages. When he is eventually “called’ as he was told would happen, no one physically enters the room he is in – rather, a voice speaks to him through an intercom and tells him that he is being observed. Suitably frightened by now, Azzam splutters, pleading for a halving of the percentage demanded, but the Big Man’s voice “rang out irritably”, informing him that 25 percent is the “set rate” and is payment for the protection he is afforded from being exposed for all the legal and other corners he has cut. “And anyway,” the voice then adds, “you especially should thank God that we’re willing to work with you because you’re in a dirty trade.” When Azzam gasps in dismay and pretended objection, the Big Man (or his ventriloquist) tells him:

Your basic profit comes from a dirty trade that has nothing to do with the Japanese agency. […] [Y]ou deal in hard drugs and we know all about it. […] [O]pen the file with your name on it. You’ll find copies of the reports on your activities – investigations by National Security, the Narcotics Squad, and Central Criminal Investigations. […] We’re the ones who have put a hold on them and we’re the ones who can activate them at a moment’s notice to destroy you. (230)

It is at this point that the text “abandons” Azzam. He is not a ruined man, but he is now acutely aware of how, despite his apparent increase in power and wealth (which in his formerly complacent view he thought he had so cleverly acquired), he is deeply enmeshed in a power web in which he does not wield the controls. The racketeer has been outmanoeuvred by people much more cunning than he.

While necessarily omitting many other aspects and details of this compelling text, space remaining will allow the outlining of two other social forms of Egyptian urban life as Al-Aswany depicts them.

Somewhat moving, though starkly told, is the tragic story of the sophisticated, intellectual newspaper editor Hatim Rasheed, son of a famous Egyptian jurist and a French mother, who cherishes a deep homosexual affection – of addictive intensity – for an unsophisticated, strapping dark-skinned Sa’idi named Abd Rabbuh (or Abduh). The latter is married and has a child, but Rasheed seduces him with his wealth, refined manners and luxuries so that for a long time their passionate, though somewhat fraught, relationship proceeds – necessarily in secret, since homosexual practices are forbidden in this society. For Rasheed, Abduh recalls his first love; the Nubian servant who first made love to him and who was the main companion of his lonely single child’s existence. Abduh, on the other hand, is plagued by feelings of guilt because he is a sincere believer and Islam condemns homosexuality as a sin – and also because of his wife and son. Matters come to a head when Abduh’s wife unexpectedly, in the middle of the night, knocks on Rasheed’s apartment door; the boy is grievously ill and all three of them rush with him to hospital, but the child dies soon thereafter. Abduh goes into hiding; Rasheed, after a desperate search, tracks him down, bribes Abduh (by now deeply in debt) with a job opportunity and a large cheque, asking in return for “one last night together”. When Abduh attempts to leave before it is quite morning, Rasheed snaps and starts threatening as well as insulting Abduh – who erupts in violent fury and attacks Rasheed, possibly killing him. Even if he is not dead, this outcome will effectively destroy both men’s lives.

Another sphere of social life is portrayed in the account of Zaki el Dessouki’s one-legged Coptic servant Abaskharon – Zaki being the fairly elderly and kindly womaniser for whom the beautiful but poor Busayna (mentioned early in this account of the text) ends up working as “secretary” and soon as his mistress. Abaskharon is a very shrewd man with an even more cunning brother, with whom he works in close alliance. As a team, they manage to acquire rooftop space in the Yacoubian Building, where the brother opens his tailor’s shop. This is the first establishment he owns and, despite initial opposition from other rooftop dwellers, the business soon flourishes. But Malak (Abaskharon’s brother) has bigger plans: he wants to occupy and so effectively acquire one of the large, luxurious apartments in the building itself, and the elderly woman obsessed with Zaki (his brother’s employer, to whom he had “suggested” employing Busayna to comfort him after Zaki’s sister had vindictively ejected him from the flat in which the siblings lived in disharmony) seems the “ideal’ candidate to allow such a manoeuvre once he dies. Malak offers Busayna a hefty commission to Zaki to sign a document ceding ownership of the apartment to him. She finds herself inexplicably reluctant to do this and when Zaki falls ill on the evening when he seems sufficiently inebriated for her to pull a trick on him to make him sign Malak’s document (pretending it’s a loan application for herself), she admits at last to herself that she has come to care too deeply for – indeed, to love – Zaki to pull such a trick on him. She tells Malak that she is no longer prepared to go along with his plan. Although the narrator makes no clear suggestion of the kind, it may be Malak who then, vengefully, gets Zaki’s embittered sister to burst in on Zaki and Busayna, in bed together one night, with a posse of policemen who take the two of them to the police station on a morals charge.

Here, too, things seem destined to end badly – both Zaki and Busayna are terribly humiliated by the policemen’s foul and disrespectful language and manner towards them. However, Al-Aswany ends the text on an unexpectedly cheerful note: the wedding celebration of Busayna and Zaki, surrounded by their friends and well-wishers of all classes. It may be a tad fairy tale-like, but somehow, following on the rather grim accounts of the other characters’ lives, there is something emotionally satisfying about this one union seeming set to endure and be relatively happy.

This is evidently the point at which to conclude this profile of Al-Aswany’s important text, which has so powerfully retained its relevance as well as being memorable and finely written in its own right.



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