The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany
Publisher: Fourth Estate (an Imprint of Harper Collins Publishers)
Release Date: 2002 (Arabic)
Translation: by Humphrey Davis, 2004
Setting: Cairo, Egypt
Rating: 4 Stars
Some live in squalor on its rooftop, other inhabit the faded glory of its apartments and offices – here a womanizing aristocrat, there the secretly gay editor of Le Caire newspaper. Religious fervor jostles with promiscuity; bribery and exploitation with joy and elation; modern life with ancient culture. Taha, the son of the building’s doorman, has aspirations and dreams for himself and his childhood sweetheart Busayna. But when those dreams are dashed on the rocks of corruption, hope turns to bitterness – with devastating consequences… (Source: Book blurb)
The Yacoubian Building, a once opulent apartment complex in downtown Cairo, built originally for Egypt’s upper echelon; now dilapidated and slowly decaying, is home/office/business premises for the multitude of Egyptians who live and rent rooms there. It is here where their lives cross, where they dream and have these dreams shattered. It is where they dare to love and lose and also where their hopes and aspirations meet.
The book tells the lives of the people who live in the Yacoubian Building, which is in essence a metaphor for the Egyptian society, as they try to find their place in their ever changing socio-political and economic environment. Aswany tackles a myriad of characters and does it beautifully. He is able to tell their individual stories and how circumstances morphed them from optimistic individuals to cynical and disillusioned people, bitter about their Society.
The Yacoubian Building, Cairo, Egypt.
Aswany does not shy away from exploring ‘taboo’ themes for a conservative society such as Egypt and this speaks to his strength and prowess as a writer. Homosexuality is a central theme in this book as played out by the Newspaper editor Hatim Rashid and his gay closeted and married lover, Abd Rabbuh. Other strong themes that come out in the books are Sex and Sexual Relations, Religion and Radicalism, Politics, Disillusionment with the State, Gender & the Depiction of Women and it is the latter that I am keen on focusing as this is for me a case of concern with Male authors in the continent and beyond.
Aswany’s female characters are all depicted from a patriarchal point of view as either sex objects, economically exploited for personal gain (Busayna) or whose existence is for the sole purpose of the fulfilment of sexual desires of men (Souad Gaber). If a woman is strong, they are depicted as bitchy and unreasonable (Dawlat) or tools to further men’s objectives (Radwa).
I would like to say that is is an isolated case with The Yacoubian Building, but it is seemingly a recurring flaw in most male-authored books. A case in point is in Dance of the Jakaranda by Peter Kimani. Women in his book are dwarfed and shadowed to almost non-existent levels and their contribution seldom acknowledged.
Is this a case of a patriarchal society shaping our male authors to only think from a patriarchal POV? Is it that male authors are unable to envision a wholesome and balanced female character without sexualizing them? I am curious, have you read a book by a male author that does some justice to the depiction of women?
Let me know in the comments, I’d love to add some to my TBR.