Alaa Al Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building (2002), which became a bestselling Egyptian and Arab novel worldwide in the past decade, owes its title to the ambition of an Armenian millionaire who wanted immortality through a building that bears his name. Erected in the mid 1930s in Cairo’s newly Europeanized centre, the building is an architectural jewel, and was then the home of a multitude of Egyptian pashas, wealthy Europeans, and star artists. Al Aswany uses a set of characters and crucially the space—the building and its surroundings, Cairo’s downtown—to dissect society at the beginning of the twenty-first century, and how it became what it is.
Al Aswany’s judgement is uncompromisingly clear. As Egypt moved from its cosmopolitan, liberal age in the 1930s and 1940s towards the tumult of Arab nationalism in the 1950s and 1960s, the original residents of the architectural jewel quietly leave, mostly for self-imposed exile in Europe and the United States. A new elite drawn from the new cadres of power replaces them. These residents effect a gradual but conspicuous change in the look and feel of the building: less European, less cosmopolitan, and though Al Aswany does not spell it out, less refined.
By the 1980s and 1990s, Egypt’s arriviste ruling classes also leave for the new suburbs and gated communities far away from Cairo’s pulsating center. A melange of different social groups moves into the Yacoubian building: from affluent traders, to migrants from Upper Egypt and the Nile Delta who live in small “nests” on the building’s roof. The remains of a bygone era’s refinement struggle to survive in that crowded social hive.
Al Aswany strips down the contrasts between that marginalized, barely existing old refinement, and the now ubiquitous “monstrosity” through two specific characters: Zaki Bey, the Paris-educated son of a pasha, who even in his old age relishes the joys of life, and “Hajj” Azzam, a man who had started his life shining shoes close to the Yacoubian building and rose to own several commercial enterprises in downtown Cairo, including in the building itself. Apart from his self-gratifying exploits, Zaki has no real work. He lives his life in and around the Yacoubian building; he breathes the memories of his youth in the paradise lost of downtown. Azzam, on the other side, does not indulge in this downtown. It reminds him of his humble beginnings; he avoids old memories, disconnects time from space And as we come to know, he is in fact a drug dealer. One is idle, the other a criminal.
A key reason why the novel resonated so strongly with hundreds of thousands of Egyptian readers was that its characters were instantly recognisable. We all knew of a few Zakis, and many Azzams. Rather than being a journey, or even a tale where we (the readers) want to know the ending, the novel was a confirmation of what we have felt for years about our own society.
But Al Aswany is not a simple writer. He laments the liberalism and beauty that were; he abhors the fake religiosity, ugliness, and uncouthness that are. But he does not merely confirm what his readers already feel. When it was published, The Yacoubian Building expanded the way society looked at its recent past, transforming the narrative from one in which the people blame authority (power, the regime, recent political heritage, etc.) for society’s decline, to one in which the people reflect on the present they have created.
Al Aswany, however, doesn’t absolve the political elite that controlled Egypt at the time. He gives us El-Fouli: a symbol of oppression and corruption, and the sleazy blur between power and wealth. But El-Fouli is not there to take the blame. In the novel, he is hardly responsible for any of the ugliness, injustice, and chaos that Al Aswany unfolds in front of us. Al Aswany downgrades El-Fouli from being the villain, to being merely a product of the culture of decline that dominated Egypt in the second half of the twentieth century.
The real culprit is society—us, the readers. We have lost what was there and replaced it with what exists now. In this sense, The Yacoubian Building is not a struggle between good and evil, morality and depravity, or right and wrong. It’s a rich novel that shows us the beauty and ugliness within ourselves, as Egyptians. And, with quiet coldness (Al Aswany is a dentist), condemns us as the real culprits of what has happened to our society.
Reading The Yacoubian Building in 2016 feels different to reading it when first published. Egypt’s 2011 uprising could be seen as an expression of anger at the inheritance of the second half of the twentieth century. Today the picture is different. Now, a reader would inevitably contextualize the novel in the events and polarizations of the past five years. An optimist might look at that as evidence that large segments of Egyptians, especially within its youth, are acutely dissatisfied with their society’s recent history and its trajectory.
But reading the novel in 2016 could lead to another conclusion. The Yacoubian Building, and the novel’s bestselling success, could be a barely disguised condemnation of society. Death dominates the last section of the novel, and crucially none of the novel’s key characters arrives at a happy ending or even contentedness. This could mean that the anger that many felt towards their present and past, and the hope that sprang from that anger—to shape a vastly different future – have evolved into despair.
Ambiguity enriches the experience of reading any novel. The beauty of literature lies in the boundaries it opens for our minds to interpret a narrative, fall in love with a standpoint, or vehemently reject a view. What was certain about The Yacoubian Building when it was published over a decade ago, and remains true today, is that it forces us, as Egyptians, to think about ourselves and what we have done (and continue to do) to our society.