06.09 The Yacoubian Building

The Yacoubian Building byAlaa Al Aswany
June 2009 Meeting

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  1. Sarah

     /  August 1, 2009

    Maddie – This is only in the nature of a personal opinion but I recall that it was the endearments which irritated most. They sounded extraordinarily British, and it was jarring. I would have preferred those words to have been left in Arabic; the meaning would have been contextually clear, and endearments tend to be just so much gibberish in any case!

  2. madeleinebbc

     /  July 26, 2009

    I really enjoyed this book, bringing to life as it did a cast of interesting characters and their struggles to survive and better their lives. I agree with Moira that the women got a particularly bad deal.

    I am interested to know more about Sarah’s suggestions to leave some Arabic in the text. What phrases do you think could be left untranslated? I can’t think of many (any) that are part of the average reader’s lexicon, and I think there would have to a translation somewhere, otherwise it would only irritate.

  3. michelebbc

     /  June 29, 2009

    I think I must be turning into a lazy reader. There was a time when I couldn’t leave a book unfinished but this one defeated me. I found it fairly interesting to start with, but then gradually more and more hard work till i finally gave up.

  4. Sarah

     /  June 22, 2009

    Thank you, Richard and Moira, for two excellent reviews, which illuminated my own ambivalence about The Yacoubian Building perfectly. Richard expressed what I would have liked to have perceived in the book, and Moira’s review is what I would have liked to have written.

  5. moirabbc

     /  June 21, 2009

    In addition to the glossary of Egypt-related terms used in the novel, I would have appreciated a brief chronological outline of the main historical events from pre-Suez to the present day. My imperfect understanding is that the pro-Western regime of Sadat, mutated into a very repressive (but still pro-Western) country following his assassination. In the recent ‘war on terror’ Egypt has been one of the rendition venues of choice for the CIA. It also bolstered Israeli interests during the cruel assault on Gaza by refusing humanitarian pleas to open its border.

    I found the political message of the book, as revealed in the twee ending, fairly unsatisfactory. The writer, a practising dentist (terrifying phenomenon!) seems to believe that if Egypt could be restored to a western-style liberal meritocracy then all would be well. If Taha had been accepted into the police then he would not have been radicalised, tortured and martyred. Everything that is wrong with the regime is represented by the rising, corrupt politician who uses and disposes of his mistress, Souad. How much nicer to have a regime as represented by the fantastically libidinous playboy, Zaki, who is decent enough to marry the object of his incontinent desire. And for the ladies, you too can be plucked from poverty as a young woman to satisfy the insatiable demands of a rich ageing playboy. So much nicer than being widowed by a young jihadist husband.. The author leaves the gross inequality and inferior position of women in Egypt completely unscathed.

    Actually, it wasn’t until I started writing this that I realised quite how irritated I was by this tame attack on his country. However, I found it readable with some interesting descriptions of Egyptian society and Islamic fundamentalism. I was struck by the parallel between poverty/lack of opportunity for Taha and the British/US soldiers sent to die in Iraq and Afghanistan. I saw a powerful TV programme, ‘The Fallen’ last week about British soldiers who have died in the Iraq occupation. This showed that most of these soldiers and their loved ones believed in an afterlife in the same way that jihadist martyrs believe in paradise. The radicalising preacher in this novel tells his recruits that they will defeat the enemy because the infidel is too attached to this life, his belief in the afterlife is less strong so he will not fight so bravely. So religious belief and poverty ensure a continuous supply of ‘cannon fodder.’

    I realise my comment reads like a bit of a tract rather than a book review but I think, ‘The Yacoubian Building,’ deserves it.

  6. richardbbc

     /  June 21, 2009

    Sarah your comments are fascinating. I saw the novel as a description of a system of economic exploitation in which everyone is exploited in some way or other by his or her need, or greed for, money, right up to the invisible ‘Big Man.’ Religious fundamentalism stands alongside as just another system of exploitation.

    What I did find interesting was the way this was used for a discussion about whether the individual is able to control their own destiny or not and how this society, based on such economic and religious power structures, is unable to satisfy the individuals legitimate aspirations.

    This novel does have many faults particularly in the way the plots are resolved, but I did find it very readable. It reminded me though of Rohinton Mistry’s Indian novel ‘A Fine Balance’ which covers much of the same ground in a far more successful and harrowing way.

  7. Sarah

     /  June 20, 2009

    I was sorry to miss this meeting, but looking forward to reading the comments here. C’mon folks!

    I was expecting to hugely enjoy this book by the time I reached the end of page one; the colourful, flamboyant, descriptive passages appealed. By page eight I was fairly sure that I hated it, replete as it seemed with prurient descriptions of sex. And so it went.

    The colour remained, the sex became less intrusive, equating to a more or less enjoyable read.

    However, there were a few facets of the book which I found troubling. As usual feeling compelled to read the blurbs, stumbled upon a worrying quote from the Daily Mail “blah blah Islamist threat.” If the Daily Mail said it, it must be wrong. Certainly the book addresses the ways in which religion can be subverted in an atmosphere of poverty and corruption. Also we see how religion is used to victimise portions of society, ie women. I could not find any explanation within the book for this latter phenomenon, (which, it should be recalled, is, neither historically nor currently, the province of Islam alone.) The Daily Mail is only correct in that there is very little to give a positive perspective on any religion.

    Whilst my personal feeling is that religion can exist usefully as a spiritual (and voluntary) code of conduct within an economically successful and secular democracy, the book only illustrates the catastrophic potential of a religion lacking these safeguards.

    I was also concerned by the depictions of homosexuality which struck me as stereotypical to the point of offensiveness.

    My last gripe; I felt that the novel had been over-translated, primarily in the area of dialogue. Had some of the original Arabic been left in situ, to be understood in context, it would have avoided the occurrence of disconcerting anglo-expressions.

    Some positives: the physicality of the Yacoubian building, with its levels of social strata was very appealing, and probably successful as a microcosm of Egyptian society, (yes, that was in the blurbs too.) You would expect the author to have done this; I regret being insufficiently informed on Egypt, past and present, to fully appreciate how well it did, or didn’t, work.

    The characters (for the most part) I found well-drawn and appealing, and the ending, where love triumphs and creates unity was, er, nice, if a little over optimistic.


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