The New York Times
The Yacoubian Buildingby Alaa Al Aswany, Humphrey Davies
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The Yacoubian Building holds all that Egypt was and has become over the 75 years since its namesake was built on one of downtown Cairo's main boulevards. From the pious son of the building's doorkeeper and the raucous, impoverished squatters on its roof, via the tattered aristocrat and the gay intellectual in its apartments, to the ruthless businessman whose stores occupy its ground floor, each sharply etched character embodies a facet of modern Egypt one where political corruption, ill-gotten wealth, and religious hypocrisy are natural allies, where the arrogance and defensiveness of the powerful find expression in the exploitation of the weak, where youthful idealism can turn quickly to extremism, and where an older, less violent vision of society may yet prevail. Alaa Al Aswany's novel caused an unprecedented stir when it was first published in 2002 and has remained the world's best selling novel in the Arabic language since.
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The Yacoubian BuildingA Novel
By Alaa Al Aswany
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Alaa Al Aswany
All right reserved.
The distance between Baehler Passage, where Zaki Bey el Dessouki lives, and his office in the Yacoubian Building is not more than a hundred meters, but it takes him an hour to cover it each morning as he is obliged to greet his friends on the street. Clothingand shoe-store owners, their employees (of both sexes), waiters, cinema staff, habitues of the Brazilian Coffee Stores, even doorkeepers, shoeshine men, beggars, and traffic cops--Zaki Bey knows them all by name and exchanges greetings and news with them. Zaki Bey is one of the oldest residents of Suleiman Basha Street, to which he came in the late 1940s after his return from his studies in France and which he has never thereafter left. To the residents of the street he cuts a well-loved, folkloric figure when he appears before them in his three-piece suit (winter and summer, its bagginess hiding his tiny, emaciated body); with his carefully ironed handkerchief always dangling from his jacket pocket and always of the same color as his tie; with his celebrated cigar, which, in his glory days, was Cuban deluxe but is now of the foul-smelling, tightly packed, low-quality local kind; and with his old, wrinkled face, his thick glasses, his gleaming false teeth, and his dyedblack hair, whose few locks are arranged in rows from the leftmost to the rightmost side of his head in the hope of covering the broad, naked, bald patch. In brief, Zaki Bey el Dessouki is something of a legend, which makes his presence both much looked for and completely unreal, as though he might disappear at any moment, or as though he were an actor playing a part, of whom it is understood that once done he will take off his costume and put his original clothes back on. If we add to the above his jolly temperament, his unceasing stream of scabrous jokes, and his amazing ability to engage in conversation anyone he meets as though he were an old friend, we will understand the secret of the warm welcome with which everyone on the street greets him. Indeed Zaki Bey has only to appear at the top end of the street at around ten in the morning for the salutations to ring out from every side, and often a number of his disciples among the young men who work in the stores will rush up to him to ask him jokingly about certain sexual matters that remain obscure to them, in which case Zaki Bey will draw on his vast and encyclopedic knowledge of the subject to explain to the youths--in great detail, with the utmost pleasure, and in a voice audible to all--the most subtle sexual secrets. Sometimes, in fact, he will ask for a pen and paper (provided in the twinkling of an eye) so that he can draw clearly for the young men some curious coital position that he himself tried in the days of his youth.
Some important information on Zaki Bey el Dessouki should be provided. He is the youngest son of Abd el Aal Basha el Dessouki, the well-known pillar of the Wafd who was prime minister on more than one occasion and was one of the richest men before the Revolution, he and his family owning more than five thousand feddans of prime agricultural land.
Zaki Bey studied engineering in Paris. It had been expected, of course, that he would play a leading political role in Egypt using his father's influence and wealth, but suddenly the Revolution erupted and everything changed. Abd el Aal Basha was arrested and brought before the revolutionary tribunal and, though the charge of political corruption failed to stick, he remained in detention for a while and most of his possessions were confiscated and distributed among the peasants under the land reform. Under the impact of all this the Basha soon died, the father's misfortune leaving its mark also on the son. The engineering office that he opened in the Yacoubian Building quickly failed and was transformed with time into the place where Zaki Bey spends his free time each day reading the newspapers, drinking coffee, meeting friends and lovers, or sitting for hours on the balcony contemplating the passersby and traffic on Suleiman Basha.
It must be said, however, that the failure that Engineer Zaki el Dessouki has met with in his professional life should not be attributed entirely to the Revolution; it stems rather, at base, from the feebleness of his ambition and his obsession with sensual pleasure. Indeed his life, which has lasted sixty-five years so far, revolves with all its comings and goings, both happy and painful almost entirely around one word--women. He is one of those who fall completely and hopelessly into the sweet clutches of captivity of the female and for whom women are not a lust that flares up and, once satisfied, is extinguished, but an entire world of fascination that constantly renews itself in images of infinitely alluring diversity--the firm, voluptuous bosoms with swelling nipples like delicious grapes; the backsides, pliable and soft, quivering as though in anticipation of his violent assault from behind; the painted lips that drink kisses and moan with pleasure; the hair in all its manifestations (long, straight, and demure, or long and wild with disordered tresses, or medium-length, domestic and well-settled, or that short hair à la garçon that evokes unfamiliar, boyish kinds of sex). And the eyes . . . ah, how lovely are the looks from those eyes--honest or dissimulating and duplicitous; bold or demure; even furious, reproachful, and filled with loathing!
So much and even more did Zaki Bey love women. He had known every kind, starting with Lady Kamla, daughter of the former king's maternal uncle, with whom he learned the etiquette and rites of the royal bed chambers--the candles that burn all night, the glasses of French wine that kindle the flames of desire and obliterate fear, the hot bath before the assignation, when the . . .
Excerpted from The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany Copyright © 2006 by Alaa Al Aswany. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Alaa Al Aswany was born in 1957. A dentist whose first office was in the Yacoubian Building, Al Aswany has written prolifically for Egyptian newspapers across the political spectrum on literature, politics, and social issues. Humphrey Davies earned his doctorate in Near Eastern Studies from the University of California, Berkeley. He is the translator of Thebes at War by Naguib Mahfouz (AUC Press, 2003). He was awarded the 2010 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation for his translation of Yalo by Elias Khoury.
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