EGYPT (***)

Alaa Al-Aswany — The Yacoubian Building (2002)

Setting: Cairo, 1990

What it’s about: Through the lives of a cast of characters in one Cairo building, Al Aswany documents the transformation of Egyptian society, as the last vestiges of a colonial state die away with the novel’s heroes.

The most powerful story is the radicalisation of the diligent doorkeeper’s son, Taha, who turns to the Muslim Brotherhood and extremism after he is denied any other route to success by corruption and snobbery, and later tortured by the police.

Individual characters and small incidents have a wider significance.

The biggest character is corruption…an all-encompassing presence who’s mastery is essential to success and crushes those who don’t — the optimistic youth or the naive gentile old elite who fail to adapt to a harsh world of oligarchy.

The building as portrayed in the movie.

In this world, the characters who succeed tend to have a dark side. There is Mr. Hamid Hawwas the “major writer of official complaints”; Kamal El Fouli, the fixer of elections, who draws a rabbit (a million pounds) to signify how much he wants to secure a seat for a candidate and who tells a client “The Egyptians are the easiest people in the world to rule”. And there are the business people who thrive thanks to secret deals and drugs behind a facade of decency and charity.

Tahrir Square — 2011. “Some peoples are excitable and rebellious by nature, but the Egyptian keeps his down his whole life so long as he can eat.” The belief of the ruling class that created the uprising. Photo credit: flickr_Mona.

And there is Malak the wheeler-deeler who “comes and goes, talking and shouting, laughing and wheedling, swearing a hundred false oaths and making deals” and turns one shirt shop on the roof of the building into a small empire.

A delightful detail is the New York Times article recommending his tailoring, but even that cannot be trusted:

The truth of the matter is that Basyouni, the photographer in Araba Square, can run anyone up a newspaper piece talking of his skill for any newspaper on demand. It takes Basyouni no more than the name of the newspaper and a picture of the client plus a ready-made article that he has in which the writer speaks of his great surprise at coming across in the streets of Cairo the workshop of a brilliant tailor so and so, or the establishment of the great kebab cook so and so.”

This definitive Egyptian novel? This joins Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy as the major Egyptian novel of the 20th century. His next book, the Automobile Club, is a natural sequel, essentially built around another, nearby part of the city that is already mentioned in this book. It will be interesting to see whether he issues a third novel to complete a new, fin-de-siecle Cairo trilogy of sorts.

Above all, this is the book to understand the 2011 revolution, even if it is set two decades before. I was in Tahrir Square just a few months after the 2011 revolution, and still remember the optimistic smiles of street vendors selling “Facebook Revolution” t-shirts — the spirit that has since been crushed.

That spirit is eloquently expressed in this novel, as when one woman forced to sacrifice her dignity tells the young lover Taha who will soon go a different way:

The country doesn’t belong to us, Taha. It belongs to the people who have money.”

to make ends punctures the naive patriotism of her elder suitor, who cannot believe she does not love her country:

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.”

The old man simply responds by playing her Edith Piaf, and when they embrace we only know they kiss because she feels “the acrid taste of whiskey in her mouth”.

Read this if you liked: Anything about the end of an era, or an ageing class coming into conflict with a new rising generation, such as Parade’s End, The Remains of the Day or, with the hindsight of 2011, we can even see the fading glory of colonial Cairo and the Yacoubian Building (and its sordid underbelly) shadows of The Great Gatsby. The lecherous older characters also have a touch of Saul Bellow/Philip Roth.

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