Friday, June 01, 2012

The Yacoubian, an Art Deco-styled apartment building constructed in the 1930s in downtown Cairo, originally served as apartments for Egypt's elite. Since that time, the Yacoubian's tenants have taken a decidedly down-scale turn: storage units on the roof have been converted into slum apartments and the silver showroom on the ground floor has devolved into a mere clothing store. Alaa Al Aswany, who operated his own dental practice from the Yacoubian, recognized its potential as a setting for his international best-selling The Yacoubian Building, a novel that highlights the corruption that permeates contemporary Egyptian society by focusing on the lives of a disparate group of Yacoubian tenants.

Zaki Bey, a Paris-educated aristocrat whose family lost most of its wealth during the Revolution, and the Hagg, the immigrant shoeshine boy turned drug dealer who's now wealthy enough to bribe his way into the government, have offices there. The elderly Zaki uses his to romance an unending string of women, enduring vitamin injections in the buttocks and consuming coffee, opium, whisky and salad before every sexual encounter. Outwardly-religious Hagg marries a second wife, one kept secret from the first, and hides Souad away in an apartment in the Yacoubian. Newspaper editor Hatim Rasheed patronizes the gay bar below street level in the Yacoubian, then quietly brings his current lover upstairs to his opulent, Bohemian artist-inspired rooms. On the roof, Taha, the doorkeeper's son, pines for childhood sweetheart Busayna and a position on the police force. Busayna, forced to support her family after her father's death, dreams of escaping Egypt altogether, or at least the sexual advances of her employers. Malak, a shirtmaker who upsets the rooftop inhabitants by daring to open a shop among their homes, connives to expand his holdings into the actual apartments below.

But it's nigh impossible to get what you want in contemporary Egypt unless you're rich enough to pay the necessary bribes or know the right people. After being turned down by the police interview, a humiliated Taha falls in with the poor Islamic fundamentalists at the college, among whom he regains his self-respect. Beaten and raped by soldiers following student protests of the Gulf War, Taha moves to a jihad training camp, thereby sealing his fate. In an effort to regain her own self-respect and improve her status, Souad defies the rules of her marriage and becomes pregnant. When she cannot be convinced to willingly have an abortion and remain nothing more than a sex toy, the Hagg sends in thugs in the middle of the night to overpower her, drug her, and take her to the hospital for the procedure. Afterwards, the Hagg sends a son by his first marriage to tell Souad she's been divorced and dismissed.

I was slow to warm to The Yacoubian Building. I find books that start with a discussion of a character's sex life off-putting even when I'm not trying to find my bearings in a tale placed in a culture I'm pretty ignorant of. I had to keep returning to the Cast of Characters at the front of the book to keep everyone straight. I hated reading about Souad, who seemed so fake. Why hadn't the author bothered to make her the least bit believable? Taha and Busayna were the only characters I cared about.

Then I gradually lost the need to flip to the Cast of Characters. I realized itt wasn't the author who'd failed with Souad, but the Hagg himself, who was oblivious to the fact that the situation he'd placed her in required all her dealings with him to be faked. And Souad was hardly the only one needing to pretend and bluff her way through; that's what it took for anyone to survive.

Zaki, who I'd hated at first, then sort of came to love because of his basic kindness, cannot understand Busayna's intense desire to leave Egypt.

"If you can't find good in your own country, you won't find it anywhere else."

The words slipped out from Zaki Bey, but he felt that they were ungracious so he smiled to lessen their impact on Busayna, who had stoood up and was saying bitterly, "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."

Zaki recognizes that "Egypt's curse is dictatorship and dictatorship inevitably leads to poverty, corruption, and failure in all fields." He puts the blame on Abd el Nasser, "the worst ruler in the whole history of Egypt," who "taught the Eqyptians to be cowards, opportunists, and hypocrites."

I'm intrigued enough by Al Aswany's characters to have placed the movie version at the top of our Netflix list.


Rohan Maitzen said...

Your description of gradually warming to the book certainly resonates with me. I really like your insight about Souad: pretending and bluffing is a survival mechanism for so many characters, though in the worst ones (like Zaki's sister), there's also bullying.

I watched the movie (found it coincidentally in a bargain bin at the video store!) and it's very good, very intense.

Rebecca H. said...

I like your point about figuring out that it's Hagg who messes up with Souad, not the author. Her story ended up being heartbreaking, and I can't help but feel that the author wanted us to feel that way.