The Yacoubian Building

The Yacoubian Building

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060878139
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 08/01/2006
Series: P.S. Series
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 355,623
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.61(d)

About the Author

Alaa Al Aswany is the internationally bestselling author of The Yacoubian Building and Chicago. A journalist who writes a controversial opposition column, Al Aswany makes his living as a dentist in Cairo.

Read an Excerpt

The Yacoubian Building

A Novel
By Alaa Al Aswany

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2006 Alaa Al Aswany
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060878134

Chapter One

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 . . .

Continues...


Excerpted from The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany Copyright © 2006 by Alaa Al Aswany. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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The Yacoubian Building 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 34 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
For years I lived in Cairo and was surrounded by what could be called the Yocoubian Building culture. Upon opening this volume I was transported back to the former elegance of the downtown area, its transformation as the old elites changed and were superseded by the the new classes who moved across the river and then,most recently,away from the city itself and into the new suburbs. The individual's memory of the former grandeur and the country's saddness at the passing of the golden era of thier city is not confined to the pashas and the beys who lost much after the revolution. Even the upper Egyptian doormen and garage men believe that much as been lost. When asked what has been gained, they shrug their shoulders but say little. The author feels it all and tells it in a manner which depicts the strength of a sociey, the sadness and the endurance. His characterrs personify a certain stocism , the qualtiy which has managed to be the glue of the entire society. This book can teach us the value of ambivalence. This is a work which touched my deepest memories and impressions of a quarter century of being a guest in and a student of Egypt.
Guest More than 1 year ago
With characters from various backgrounds peppering the novel, this was a great 'slice of life' of modern Egypt. It was fascinating to see the characters, linked by this one place, how they interconnected and how culture and religion impacted their lives. The reader is instantly transported into another world in reading the novel, and it is truly a memorable journey.
presto on LibraryThing 2 days ago
Set in Cairo around the time of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, The Yacoubian Building covers the lives of the varied assortment of residents of the decaying Art Deco apartment block of the title. The residents range from the wealthy who live in the apartment building proper to the poor who inhabit the cabins on the roof. The wealthy include a self made business man who courts political success, a gay editor in chief of a French language newspaper passionately in love with a policeman, and an aging yet virile playboy. The residents on the roof include young devout Muslim who as a very able student who aspires to join the police, his attractive and initially naïve girlfriend who lives with her mother, and a shirt maker who eventually sets up business on the roof.One or another of this varied collection of humanity engage in or suffer deceit, corruption, illegal dealings, domestic strife, rejection, fundamentalism, torture, and sexual desire, harassment and fulfilment. For some the outcome is frustration or even tragedy, for others unexpected joy and satisfaction. Altogether this provides a very colourful picture of life in Egypt during a difficult period. An engaging read.
TheBookJunky on LibraryThing 2 days ago
what a story! the plot lines of a soap opera, action, sex, violence, good pace, and all brushed with the exotic flavor of the different world of Egyptian life.
fieldnotes on LibraryThing 2 days ago
Al Aswany prefaces his novel by explaining that it is a novel about place, about the Yacoubian Building and what it reveals about Cairo over time. I am pleased to report that this claim is misleading: "The Yacoubian Building" may contain brief forays into the past and various asides about certain establishments and customs; but it is primarily concerned with the nuances of infatuation, courtship and transactional sex in age disparate Cairo relationships.Three affluent and independent men (all at least fifty years old and all, conveniently, apartment holders in the Yacoubian Buildnig) create drama by exercising their power to initiate relationships with much younger Egyptians, whether male or female. The novel is pleasantly villain-free; though there are plenty of misled, meddling and ill-intentioned characters."The Yacoubian Building" is interspersed with Al Aswany's contribution to the "What makes them do it?" sub-genre of humanizing jihadists. This sub-plot, while slightly predictable and a little grim, is balanced, detailed and not particularly manipulative. The only other young man in the novel (who doesn't want to shoot the infidels) is a poor Nubian with wife and child who serves to illustrate the vaguely tragic plight of sensitive and cultured Cairo homosexuals. Al Aswany deals with gayness in Egypt in an unabashed and almost affectionate way, going out of his way to explain how the larger community adapts to the presence of homosexuals in their midst.The whole composition works quiet well and is propelled by a series of creative and comical power grabs and sexual stratagems set against the struggle between secularists and fundamentalists, wealthy power holders and aspirants. Al Aswany's careful attention to the psychology of his characters sustains the novel and prevents it from becoming an overblown parade of stereotypes. His ability to slow down and pinpoint, often with a pleasantly dark humor, the precise motivations and tactics of his characters is what elevates this from story-telling to literature.For instance, "Right now, in bed with Hagg Azzam, she is playing out a scene--that of the woman who, taken unawares by her husband's virility, surrenders to him so that he may do with her body whatever his extraordinary strength may demand, her eyes closed, panting, and sighing--while in reality she feels nothing except rubbing, just the rubbing of two naked bodies, cold and annoying."And, "There lay between the two old people all the irritability, impatience and obstinance that go with old age, plus that certain tension that develops when two individuals live in too close a proximity to one another--from using the bathroom for a long time when the other wants it, from one seeing the sullen face the other wears when he wakes from sleeping, from one wanting silence while the other insists on talking, from the mere presence of another person who never leaves you day and night, who stares at you, who interrupts you, who picks on everything you say, and the grating of whose molars when he chews sets you on edge and the ringing noise of whose spoon striking the dishes disturbs your quiet every time he sits down to eat with you."I find it easier to be patient with an author who is constantly introducing new characters if he will at least take the time to put them forward in such a clear light. I will read Al Aswany's subsequent novel. (And this is definitely one of the two best Arabic language novels that I have ever read.)
mojacobs on LibraryThing 2 days ago
A very interesting contemporary Egyptian novel about the lives of the inhabitants of one of Cairo's old appartement buildings. Aswany paints some lovely characters - and some disgusting ones. A very readable book, but also very informative and rather disturbing. It treats blatant corruption, injustice, hypocrisy, and fundamentalism without any reservations, and in a very matter of fact way. The style reminded me of Mahfouz a lot. I think it very encouraging that this book has won the Best Arabic Book of the Year award: our media would have us believe this kind of writing to be impossible in a Muslim country. ¿
laytonwoman3rd on LibraryThing 2 days ago
I could neither like nor care about any of the characters in this book. For me, that is a fatal flaw, preventing me from engaging with the story, and more importantly, preventing me from seeing any of the characters as representative of a given segment of Egyptian society. The author gave us all these people corrupted by power, or greed, or fanaticism, or lust--but he never showed us a worthy alternative. Everyone seemed to give in to "the way it is" without a struggle, and became victims of the toxic society almost willingly. It makes me wonder about the author's purpose in writing the novel (which, after all, must have been something of a risk for him). If he hasn't any hope of improvement, why write? And if he DOES have hope for the future, why don't we see any of it reflected in his work? If the author's intention was to convey that living in Egypt is a matter of survival, no matter what your social status, and that there is no real opportunity for fulfillment or happiness under current conditions, he succeeded, but not in a particularly artful way, in my opinion. Part of the reason I wanted to read this book was to get a "feel" for another culture. But when I was finished, I didn't even have the impression that the characters themselves had a feel for their culture. Perhaps that was part of the author's intent, and of course, a book shouldn't be judged by the reader's pre-conceived notions. I wish just one of the characters could have been admirable, or even likable despite his/her faults. As it was, I was happy to be quit of the lot of 'em. (Review written in 2007.)
teunduynstee on LibraryThing 2 days ago
Was recommended to me by several people when I travelled in Egypt. And rightly so: this is a magistral novel. It combines many narratives sketching the complex social structure of Africa's largest city. I really liked my stay in Cairo, dusty and noisy as it may be, and this book made me understand the city at a deeper level (or so I think).Escaped from the Egyptian censor, this book deserves to be read by the world.
tracyfox on LibraryThing 2 days ago
The Yacoubian Building is a melange of stories revolving around a commercial building in Cairo. I selected the book just to read something contemporary translated from Arabic. For me, this ended up being the most enjoyable aspect of the read overall. I liked getting a feel for how Egyptians use names -- from formal full names to first names to endearments. I liked going to a map and puzzling out the geographies of the various Cairo neighborhoods and surrounding communities. I liked the way the Koran was quoted, giving me a sense of how it might be interjected into everyday life.The cast of characters seemed to run the gamut of Egyptian stereotypes ¿ from the aging debonair playboy and his sister the shrew-like crone to the poor student-turned-fundamentalist and his too-practical less-conservative girlfriend. Thrown in were a few scheming servants, greedy businessmen, corrupt politicians and semi-closeted homosexuals. The predictable dramas ensued as the characters scratched out a living, confronted bigotries of various kinds, and searched for love. The novel was fast-paced, laying out the circumstances for a particular character, and then moving to another. To me this organization made it easy to stay interested in the various people moving in and out of the Yacoubian building even if they were a bit two-dimensional. This book may not be what people typically think of as an "African" read, but it is nonetheless an enjoyable introduction (albeit with a very Western-leaning worldview) to a vibrant African culture.
Pummzie on LibraryThing 2 days ago
A quick read but frustratingly unsatisfying. I think I had a problem with the bitty style. The novel weaves in and out of a a host of lives tenuously linked by occupancy in the Yacoubian building. Via these various characters, we're given a picture of the disparate characters that inhabit the city, from the aging playboys, the reluctant terrorist, the corrupt politicians, the social-climbers, the destitute, the homosexual, the young women who shed their romantic ideals for gritty realism of the monetary value of acquiescence....While each of these characters are interestingly drawn, I felt that ultimately, if the cast had been less numerate, i may have learnt more from each of them. The conglomerate made the novel feel episodic and short storyesque. I think, at base, my main issue is - and this could be as a result of reading in translation - that I didn't find it particularly well written. At base, despite the seriousness of some of the subject matter, it read like a trashy read. One of those books where I think I would probably prefer the film, and that's really not something that I say very often.
debnance on LibraryThing 2 days ago
I¿ve been reading on this book for months and months. Did I drag the read out too long? Is that why the book did not captivate me as I¿d anticipated? The book follows the lives of several people who all have in common one thing: they all live in the same building in Cairo. Though the story intertwines a bit of politics of the time, the book never felt distinctively Egyptian; the lives of the people could just as easily have been the lives of people in New York City or London. Maybe that is why the book disappointed me.
JimElkins on LibraryThing 2 days ago
This would be just another well written kaleidoscope of life in an unfamiliar place (¿Cairo in a microcosm,¿ as Maria Golia says on the back cover -- quoted from the TLS) except that al Aswany has a characteristic of a genuinely good novelist: real, unexpected psychological insight.I hope his next novel to be translated ("Chicago") spends more time on individual characters instead of flitting from one to the next (this novel sometimes seems right in is frantic pacing and fuilletons, but other times it seems that the author becomes nervous when he spends too long on one character); and I hope it gives up politics, which is inadequately represented; and I hope it doesn't try to describe the place (the social-mapping impulse is never enough, unless the author is truly encyclopedic--and why do that, after Perec?); and I hope it lingers, as he doesn't allow himself to do here, on the strange perceptions and slowly developing inner thoughts of its characters. If I were his teacher, I would recommend a novel with just one or two characters.
JadeBeecroft on LibraryThing 5 days ago
Reading the cast of characters listed at the front of this book I was initially crestfallen. How on earth was I going to remember all those details for all those people? Especially with such foreign-sounding names that I couldn¿t commit easily to memory.I needed have worried. Despite the fast pace and short snappy nature of this book, with each mini chapter jumping to a different scene with a different character much like a soap opera, one of its strengths for me was how vivid the personalities were and how easy it was to follow the web of stories that were woven around them.Another thing that I really liked about this book was there were no ¿good guys¿ and ¿bad guys¿, and in this way I found it very true to life. In so many books you are presented with flat, uninspiring characters that are clearly intended to be either loved or hated by the reader. But in The Yacoubian Building every one of the main characters was flawed, and yet at the same time I found that they were each likable in their own way.This was a romping read, fascinating from the first chapter and brutally honest in its portrayal of sex, religion, relationships, politics and cruelty. A `warts and all¿ look at human nature that as well as being an insight into Egyptian life was surely relevant to every culture. I would recommend it to anyone.Finally, I found the references to scent intriguing. The smell of death, the scent of an old man, the perfume of a woman preparing for the arrival of her lover. An interesting thread that ran through the book and helped give the narrative an evocative extra layer.Great stuff!
pokarekareana on LibraryThing 5 days ago
Hmm, well, where to begin? At least I made it to the end of this one, but I didn't particularly enjoy it. None of the characters were particularly likable; almost all of them are motivated wholly by sex (especially the women) money or religious fundamentalism. By the end of the book, I found I just didn't care what they did, or what happened to them. Two of the male characters were engaged in a homosexual relationship which didn't work out well; without spoiling the plot, I felt this was quite a negative depiction and wonder why Al Aswany chose to do this when it might have been more powerful to just leave it as it was earlier in the book.The premise of the book - to describe the interlinked lives of people living and working in a particular building - was a really great idea but I don't think it was executed very well. It took a long time for the story to get going, the characters' lives remained quite insular, and when I turned the page and discovered it was the end of the book, it all felt very anti-climatic and as if the story had just fizzled out to nothing.
CharlotteN on LibraryThing 5 days ago
Very well translated - the English flowed as though that was the original language and didn't sound like a forced vernacular. I sometimes got a little confused with the sheer number of characters, and had to occasionally keep flicking back just to check what a character had been doing the last time we encountered him/her, so as to keep the lines of narrative clear in my head. I also sometimes found the politics and social commentary a little bleak - the poor were almost always kept at the mercy of the rich, and the weak at the powerful. The poor characters were never (except perhaps one or two towards the end) allowed a just victory over their suppressors, only a violent or dishonest victory, or else a defeat. I think that this was the social situation that the author was highlighting, and as such has drawn a successful portrait. Whether or not it is realistic, I do not personally know, having no great knowledge of modern Egypt; however, reading the novel as a grim satire of the author's homeland, I did get pulled into the narrative and associate with the characters.
Litfan on LibraryThing 3 months ago
With characters from various backgrounds peppering the novel, this was a great "slice of life" of modern Egypt. It was fascinating to see the characters, linked by this one place, how they interconnected and how culture and religion impacted their lives. The reader is instantly transported into another world in reading the novel, and it is truly a memorable journey.
p_linehan on LibraryThing 3 months ago
Most Americans don¿t know much about life in Arab countries today. All we see in the news are the screaming crowds of angry fundamentalist Muslims. As the Yacoubian Building reveals in this thoroughly modern story, they lead lives as complicated as any of ours. They dream, love, suffer betrayal, and endure a corrupt government and leadership class. For me the corruption and how it destroys the lives of Egyptians is the main theme of the book. One of the saddest characters is the young man, Taha, whose dreams of entering the police academy are destroyed because of his poor background. The story shows how the best of Egypt¿s youth are being led to fundamentalism and terror. The Muslim power structure doesn¿t come off well in this book. The author must be an exceptionally brave man, since not many people like being told the truth about themselves. Almost no one has a happy ending in this story. The story does end on a happy note as two of the most unlikely people find love and marriage, and the Yacoubian building, itself a character in the story, continues to shelter its inhabitants.
lauralkeet on LibraryThing 3 months ago
Zaki Bey is an aging, wealthy playboy living in Cairo, and just one of the many colorful and interesting characters who have some association with the building that gives the book its name. Some, like Zaki, have offices in the building. Others live in luxury apartments. And there is an entire community living on the roof, in low-rent apartments that once served as storage. This diversity makes for an interesting account of contemporary Egyptian culture. The strength of this book is its characterizations. Zaki Bey is flamboyant and wealthy, and goes through elaborate rituals to prepare himself to entertain women in his apartment / office. His servant, Abaskharon, lives on the roof with his brother. Also living on the roof are Busayna, a beautiful young woman, and Taha, a devout Muslim man in love with Busayna. Hagg Muhammad Azzam is a rather slimy businessman and politician who manipulates everyone around him for personal gain, and Hatim Rasheed is a gay newspaper editor struggling to find happiness. For the most part, the characters' lives are not linked in any way, but each person's story progresses a few pages at a time, sometimes stopping at logical points and at other times with a bit of a cliffhanger.The people portrayed in The Yacoubian Buildilng are all ordinary people, living ordinary lives within their social class, and striving for self-actualization. This is important reading for Americans, to counteract the media's typical portrayal of all middle eastern people as evil.
kambrogi on LibraryThing 3 months ago
This story presents the daily lives of a group of Egyptians living or working in a high rise building in Cairo ¿ either in its sumptuous apartments and offices, or in the poor shacks on top of the building. It paints a clear and accurate picture of what I know of contemporary Egyptian city life on different socio/economic levels. We get a peek into government, business, the police force, domestic workers, working people of many types, educational and religious institutions and the struggles of women in various walks of life. Its many and varied characters are sharply drawn and believable, and they evolve in not-always predictable ways. Most of the characters begin with dreams and hopes with which we can sympathize, but each is corrupted or disappointed, and Al Aswan lays the blame for his characters¿ frustrations and failures clearly at the feet of a fraudulent government and a rickety social structure. People are not always what they seem; everybody has a back story, everybody has a dream, and people don¿t always behave as you expect them to.
jwhenderson on LibraryThing 3 months ago
Reading literature about a particular city gives you insight into the mores and character of that community. This is true of Alaa Al Aswany's novel from 2002, The Yacoubian Building (Imarat Ya'qubyan). I found the novel both well written and structured. Using the title building as his center Aswany portrays a diverse group of contemporary Cairenes to demonstrate the experience of living in the world of Egypt today. The author presents the issues of political corruption, class conflict and the "science" of love in a believable narrative; however, I found his portrayal of homosexuality less effective: sensitive at times but ultimately concluding with a stereotypically brutal end for the spurned lover. The difficulties of living in this society are highlighted as the novel moves smoothly from episode to episode building toward a climax that, while somewhat melodramatic, brings the story to an effective conclusion. Overall the complex narrative and view of the city of Cairo made this an engaging and satisfying read.
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Great story with no end.
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