Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Yacoubian Building

I bought this book a while back for reasons I can't remember now, but it's the most recent choice for the Slaves of Golconda book group and so high time I read it. The novel tells the stories of multiple characters, none of whom could really be called the protagonist, since the narrative spends similar amounts of time with each story. It's the Yacoubian building that holds all the stories and the novel itself together. The Yacoubian building contains apartments that house people of many different backgrounds and classes, so through their stories we get a glimpse into various parts of Egyptian culture and experience.

There's more than the building that holds the novel together; there is also a simmering frustration with Egyptian society and government that plays a part in many if not all of the stories. Taha, for example, finds himself unable to fulfill his dream of entering the Police Academy because of favoritism and corruption and soon joins a militant Islamic group. Busayna discovers that the only way she can support herself and her family is by allowing male employers to take sexual advantage of her. Zaki falls victim to his conniving sister who evicts him from his own apartment by getting the police on her side. Money, family, and connections are everything, and without them, there is little one can do to change one's fate. It helps very much not to be a woman as well.

I admired the range of stories (not that there are all that many main narrative threads, maybe a handful) and subject matter they explore, from political corruption to workplace exploitation, religious devotion, family dynamics, sexuality, con men, drug dealing, torture, and falling in love. It's a lot to cover in 250 pages, and Al Aswany does it admirably, giving us a feel for life in Cairo. I was grateful for the list of characters and their descriptions included right before the novel's opening because the frequent switching from story to story got distracting at times, and the guidance was helpful.

I was never fully immersed in the novel, another function, I'm sure, of the jumps from character to character. But there were rewards to compensate for this, especially the overview of Egyptian society the multiple stories offered and the economy with which Al Aswany captures a rich sense of his characters' lives. The narrator seems to withhold judgment, portraying the characters' virtues and failings with equanimity. He seems interested more in understanding why people are the way they are rather than in judging them for what they do. It's possible to find this narrative style flat and affectless, but I felt an undercurrent of compassion that at times is powerful.

Yacoubian Building Fail

The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany takes place in Cairo in the 1990s during the first Gulf War when Iraq invaded Kuwait and the U.S. attacked Iraq in return. But the war is not the focus of the book, it is pretty much background. The center of the book is the various stories of some of the people who live and work in the Yacoubian Building.

I wanted to the like the book but I just haven't been able to. I read a few reviews in the book papers to try and figure out if I missed something. They mention how funny parts of the book are but I didn't find anything funny. I found the book to be rather sad and depressing. The book portrays a society that gets along on corruption and bribes, where nearly everyone is using everyone else to get whatever they can to make a better life for themselves or gain power and influence.

There is Taha, a young man who has done well in school and scored high marks on all the entrance exams for the police force, he just has to pass the entrance interview. But at the interview he quickly learns that unless he has money to pay bribes, he is not going to get a job as a police officer. Disillusioned, he gets recruited into the Muslim Brotherhood and ends his life a martyr for the cause.

There is Busayna, a young woman engaged to Taha. Her father dies and the family has no money. She has to work in order to help feed her mother and siblings. But she gets fired from every job after only a few days because when the boss makes sexual advances she refuses to play along. A friend eventually tells her that if she wants to keep a job she has to go along and explains to her what to do, how to give the boss what he wants while still remaining a virgin and making a little extra on top of her regular salary. She quickly becomes bitter and resentful and says cruel things to Taha who tells her she needs to put her trust in God who will provide for her.

There is a large cast of characters I won't go through them all but you get the idea from Taha and Busayna what the book is like. What I had a really hard time with, and why I didn't like the book, is the way women are portrayed and treated as well as the way Hatim, a gay man is portrayed.

The women are all pretty much prostitutes in one way or another or they are older and angry. None of them want an education or look for any way out of their situation other than being attached to a man. Their position mainly is to provide sex on demand. Early in the book women are described as loving sex "enormously" but
They do not love it simply as a way of quenching lust but because sex, and their husbands' greed for it, makes them feel that despite all the misery they suffer they are still women, beautiful and desired by their menfolk….Do these brief hours of pleasure not furnish her with proof that her wretched life is somehow, despite everything, blessed with success?
Being desirable makes everything ok. And Busayna, she gets a happy ending in the book because she gets to marry the old man for whom she is a "secretary."

Poor Souad is not so lucky. A widow, she leaves her child in the care of others in order to marry Azzam, a wealthy heroin dealer and politician. She is Azzam's second wife and a secret, even though more than one wife is legal. Souad's only purpose is to provide Azzam with sex whenever he wants it, keep quiet, and don't get pregnant. In return, Azzam pays for her son to attend school. But Souad gets pregnant and when Azzam finds out he demands she have an abortion. When she refuses he has her drugged and forcibly aborted.

Then there is Hatim, a successful journalist who is gay. But homosexuality is unacceptable in Egyptian society and picking up anybody is always risky. Eventually Hatim finds Abdu who is married with children. Abdu is probably not himself gay, but because Hatim pays for his family's upkeep and buys Abdu presents and a small business, Abdu does whatever Hatim wants. The relationship ends, however, when Abdu's small son becomes sick and dies. The reviews I read called the Yacoubian Building a groundbreaking book for portraying a homosexual character as being just like anyone else. And this is true and good. However, I could not help but notice that Hatim is the only one who gets a childhood backstory. And in this backstory he is molested over a number of years by Idris, the manservant who essentially raises him because Hatim's parents are wealthy workaholics. While it is never said outright that Hatim is gay because of Idris, I have heard too much anti-gay rhetoric to be able to overlook the implications of Idris having sex with Hatim, who very quickly enjoys Idris's attentions even though he suspects it is wrong.

I tried really hard while reading the book to take into consideration cultural differences but when it came down to the way women were treated and what their roles were assumed to be and to what Hatim's backstory seems to imply, I couldn't let it slide. I don't require vocal feminists in my cross-cultural reading, but I cannot accept women being portrayed as good only for sex. Nor can I accept the implication that a character is gay because he was molested as a child.

Taha's story was the most interesting and well-done part of the book but it was not enough. Even without the objections mentioned above, I found the dialogue to often be stilted and the tone flat. Whether this is Aswany or the translation, I don't know, but it was at times distracting. A book not having a plot is generally not a problem for me, but somehow this book's lack of plot made it feel more like a mash of stories with nothing holding them together other than a a setting.

The book was not a success with me. That happens sometimes. The Slaves chose this book for discussion and you can see what others thought of it at the Slaves blog and follow our discussion and even join in yourself at the forum.

Cross posted at So Many Books

The Yacoubian Building: Dignity and Love

I didn't realize until I finished The Yacoubian Building how its characters and stories had caught me up emotionally. The consistently flat narration--I'm not sure if this is a function of the translation or a genuine reflection of Al Aswany's style--and the dispersal of our attention across multiple plots conspired against any strong feelings except curiosity for much of the novel. But by the end I found that curiosity had turned into concern, even care, about how each person's story would end, and each ending was, in its own way, deeply moving. Some stories (Souad, Taha, Hatim especially) are heartrending; others (Abaskharon and Malak) wryly comic; others (Busayna and Zaki) are surprisingly beautiful and hopeful.

The Yacoubian Building (and the Yacoubian Building) is a microcosm of a world that comes across as chaotic, risky, bleak, yet shot through with a kind of wistful longing for dignity and love, the two things all of the characters are ultimately in search of. Even as you watch their mistakes, their compromises, their sacrifices, their sins, it's hard to sit in judgment, because the medium they move in is so relentlessly corrupt. The conviction that there's no winning against this system may account for the matter-of-fact tone and the absence of authorial commentary about even the novel's most depressing sequences, such as Taha's descent into extremism--inaugurated not by religious fanaticism or political commitment but by the injustice and prejudice of a bureaucracy that blocks him from his honorable dream--or the disastrous conclusion of Hatim's affair with Abd Rabbuh, for whose shame, guilt and resentment Hatim's sad love proves an unequal match. "I'm sure that Our Lord will forgive us because we don't do anyone any harm," Hatim reassures his lover; "We just love one another." If only that belief were reflected in the world around them.

Al Aswany's storytelling is so inexorable it feels fatalistic. But against the backdrop of cynicism and despair, Al Aswany sets the unlikely, unforeseeable--the "strange and unexpected"-- love story of Busayna and Zaki: "little by little, raising his arms aloft amid the joyful laughter and cries of the others, he joined her in the dance."

(cross-posted to Novel Readings)