First published in Arabic, Alaa Al-Aswany’s 2002 novel “The Yacoubian Building” revolves around the lives of people in a modern society at Cairo, where greed for wealth, social and political power is presented as the main problem facing the people of Egypt, several years after independence and revolution.
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Although the book was published in English two years after its first publication in Arabic, it has become one of the best selling novels in its English series. Alaa Al-Aswany, a physician who once occupied the Yaocubian Building in Cairo, sets his story in “The Yaucoubian Building”, an actual architectural landmark in Cairo.
Though built for Armenian tycoon Hagop Yacoubian in 1934 to accommodate government ministers, rich businesspersons, European technocrats and visitors, Al-Aswany describes how a community of corrupt, immoral and power-liking individuals has replaced this former class of dignified people (Al-Aswany 23).
Using these people occupying and visiting the building as an example, the author attempts to describe how immorality, corruption and poor political and socioeconomic leadership have affected the entire society of Cairenes and Egypt after the 1952 revolution. The author shows how Hosni Humabarak’s regime has instilled corruption and immorality in Cairo to an extent that it is difficult to find a morally straight individual.
Clearly, the author’s perception of his society is largely negative, as displayed by his description of necessity as the mother of corruption, sexual immorality and greed for power displayed by the characters.
The Plot: A Brief Summary
Al-Aswany’s novel first describes the Yacoubian Building as one of the most magnificent and luxurious building in the city, having survived in its status since 1934. After the 1952 revolution, in which Abdel Nasser replaced King Farouk, most of the occupants in the building flee the country. Military officers, their families and relatives as well as other officials of the new regime occupied the vacant rooms.
On the roof of the Yacoubian, fifty small rooms make each floor. Originally, they were used as storage areas by rich foreigners, but are now occupied by poor people as residential areas or business rooms (Al-Aswany 36).
This makes the roof of the building into a slum, a representation of the entire city. In the lower sections, a number of businesses occupy some larger rooms. Among them is a club, where much of the characters visit for their drinks and immoral sexual acts.
Necessity as the mother of sexual immorality, political evils and corruption
Moral corruption, sexuality and the greed for money and wealth are intertwined. Characters, due to necessity for wealth, are ready to destroy their dignity. Women, for instance, are ready, though unwillingly, to sexually satisfy rich men for money.
Homosexual men, mostly the poor and the young, readily but unwillingly involve themselves in indecent anal sex with older and rich men (Al-Aswany 73). On the other hand, rich men willingly dish out money when pursuing sexual partners.
The author’s idea of a corrupt society and regime is based on his analysis and description of the persons occupying the building. In fact, the author uses the house to describe how the regime has moved from a government of technocrats, noble and morally straight people to a government led and supported by immoral, non-visionary and corrupt persons whose main purpose is to gain political and economic power.
The ethically questionable characters and their actions illustrate the moral decline arising from a corrupt political regime in Egypt (Al-Aswany 67). The author introduces the characters do define his themes.
First, the reader is introduced to Hatim as he is walking into Chez Nous, a famous club occupying one of the larger rooms in the lower floor of the Yacoubian building. The reader is surprised to learn that the club is famous for a large number of homosexuals who frequent there. His male lover, Abd Rabbuh, accompanies Hatim.
A well-known editor, Hatim is highly respected in the city, as shown by the silence that is suddenly observed and maintained by the drunken customers (Al- Aswany 37).
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The author describes Hatim as a professional and respectable character, although everyone in the building seems to know of his sexual orientation. Hatim is not dating Abd Rabuh alone, but the reader comes to learn that he is actually pursuing rough young men for sex, dishing money to ensure he gets the best man he comes across.
Apart from gay behavior exhibited as a form of immorality in Cairo, Al-Asawny also introduces the reader to the immoral act of men like Zaki Bey, an elderly person who operates an office at the Yacoubian Building, but spends much of his time pursuing women and dope. He is portrayed as a man with all manners of pre-revolutionary Cairo.
Hagg Azzam, a self-made billionaire and a suspected drug dealer, signifies the corrupt class of Egypt that is doing anything possible to corrupt their way to power.
In addition, the reader is introduced to Malak, a shirt maker who occupies a small room in the upper section of Yacoubian Building. However, despite having a humble business, we learn that he has a hidden agenda- he has a secret plan to capture all the apartments downstairs.
Taha, the young son of the building’s door attendant, is presented as a young and ‘too honest’ person. Taha is too honest to an extent that he cannot fit the police force. He is also a bright and ambitious person. However, the reader learns that apart from being Buhayna’s boyfriend, he is actually heterosexual. In addition, he joins Muslim militancy, leaving his girlfriend (Al-Aswany 123).
Women are also not spared when considering the immoral acts of people in Cairo. Buhayna, once Taha leaves the building, is left coning men but ‘smartly’ without losing her virginity. However, she cannot escape practicing immorality because she needs some money to support her mother and siblings (Al-Aswany 143). In fact, the plight of women in the city is well presented in the novel.
For instance, Souad Gaber is literally ‘sold’ for marriage to Hagg Azam by her elder brother. The older brother briefly meets Azzam the tycoon, and, without even knowing his intentions, willingly gives away his sister in exchange for a large sum of money. In fact, the author compares the meeting between her brother and Azzam with a “business transition” in which Souad, the commodity, is offered for sale (Al-Aswany 126).
Al Aswany’s characters are clearly used to display how people are in need of money, wealth and better lives. While rich men are chasing the poor people for sexual satisfaction, the poor are ready to destroy their dignity in exchange of money.
Al-Aswany, Alaa. The Yacoubian Building. Cairo: The American University in Cairo, 2002. Print