Thursday, May 31, 2012

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


Rohan Maitzen said...

I had a lot of questions about women in the novel as I was reading too. I think it's tricky (maybe because of the translation) when Al Aswany is using a kind of indirect discourse--that's how I read the passage you quote about the women who live on the roof and their sex lives, for instance, which I didn't take to be an authoritative comment. But I can't be sure I'm reading it "right." With Busayna and Souad, it's also tricky. Busayna does try to get ahead by working rather than using her body but she is so surrounded by people who expect that of her that she can't figure out a better way. Didn't you think that Souad's story is presented so that we can't help but feel sad and frustrated by the way she is hemmed in, even before the terrible forced abortion?

But the problem of authorial positioning was definitely there for me, also in the story of Hatim.

I'm interested that you say there's no plot: it's true in the sense that there's not really one plot that combines all the characters, but I felt that the idea of the microcosm of society gives us a kind of story about Cairo or Egypt at that moment that is unifying. And each individual story had quite a bit of plot.

Stefanie said...

Souad's story was very sad and really drove home how powerless the women in this book were. And in some ways many of the men were trapped too. But the men were able to exercise at least a limited freedom in all cases where the women were not. I would have liked one woman character who wasn't so completely powerless. Hatim's mother was a working professional, it would have been nice if there could have been a character like her to balance out the other women.

Each story had it's own sort of plot but the book as a whole didn't have a plot. Like I commented to Rebecca, I think the book's structure would have been better as a series of interlinking stories rather than a novel. I suspect I might have been able to enjoy the book more if it had been stuctured differently.

Rebecca H. said...

I think the portrayal of women and gay men is complicated, and I thought a lot about it as I read too. For me, the portrayal of women illustrated the injustices they suffer and how impossible it is for them to move beyond being sexual objects, and it seemed that the narrative stance served to point this issue out and perhaps get the reader's sympathies for the women. I saw the portrayal of women as part of the larger social critique of corruption and injustice. I do agree with you about the Idris story; that "origin" story is troubling.

Stefanie said...

You make a good point Rebecca, and maybe that is what Aswany was going for. But that he only portrayed women as sexual objects still makes it hard for me because, while it may be the fate of many Egyptian women, it is not the fate of all. I would have liked to get a glimpse of what it might be like for an educated professional woman in such a society.

Rohan Maitzen said...

Stefanie, one book that approaches Cairo from a very different perspective is Ahdaf Soueif's In the Eye of the Sun--there the focus is much more middle-class and professional (the protagonist is the daughter of university professors, for instance).

litlove said...

Stefanie, have you read Reading Lolita in Tehran? I've been doing a readalong with Jodie, and although we're talking about Iran here, not Egypt, the issue is once again with an Islamic culture. The memoir is written by a woman professor who was forced out of her job eventually, due to the intolerable difficulties of working under the religious regime. She sets up a reading group at home with her favourite women students and they read 'forbidden' books like Lolita. Daisy Miller and Jane Austen. The problems with women's sexuality are paramount. Islam has such terror and disgust for it. I think it's hard for us to believe what the women have to put up with in these countries, but it is no exaggeration.