41 pages • 1 hour readAlaa Al Aswany
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Published in 2002 in its original Arabic edition, The Yacoubian Building is a novel by Egyptian author Alaa Al Aswany. It tells the story of life in Cairo through several interwoven narratives. The edition used in this guide was translated by Humphrey Davies.
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The Yacoubian Building is set in Cairo around 1990, the time of the Gulf War. It follows the stories of several characters who live in the Yacoubian Building, a once-luxurious building that houses rich residents inside and a shanty town on its roof, creating a clear divide between the building’s rich and poor.
Zaki Bey el Dessouki, a man with a reputation as an aging womanizer, has an office in the Yacoubian Building. As the story opens, he is anticipating a date with a woman named Rabab. Zaki Bey awakens after his evening with Rabab to discover that she has robbed him. She has taken his sister Dalwat’s ring. Dalwat, infuriated, kicks Zaki out of the house.
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One of the Yacoubian’s poor residents, the teenage Taha, is preparing for an interview to enter the police academy, a lifelong dream. Taha’s girlfriend, Busayna, who is also poor, finds work in a clothing store where the owner pays her to endure sexual harassment. She becomes bitter and wants to leave Taha. Taha fails his police interview and is inconsolable. He goes to university and makes friends with religious students who introduce him to Sheikh Shakir, who preaches gihad. Taha becomes increasingly religious under the tutelage of Sheikh Shakir. He and Busayna end their relationship.
Zaki Bey’s one-legged servant, Abaskharon, schemes with his brother, Malak, to open a clothing store on the roof, bribing the building agent to win the lease. Malak sets up his new clothing store but faces hostility from the building’s residents. He expands his business and enlists Busayna to help him take Zaki Bey’s apartment by fraudulent means. Zaki, worried that his sister is trying to steal his assets, hires Busayna as his secretary. Busayna tries to enact her plan but feels too guilty after she develops an affection for Zaki. She tells Malak that she can no longer be a part of his plan.
Beneath the building, a bar named the Chez Nous is a renowned meeting place for homosexuals. Inside, a rich newspaper editor named Hatim meets his young lover, Abduh. Hatim grew up with absent parents; the only love in his childhood came from a servant named Idris. Hatim pays Abduh to make him stay the night. He later buys Abduh a kiosk to run as a business, allowing Abduh to bring his wife and child to Cairo. Abduh begins to resent his wife as he spends more time with Hatim.
Hagg Azzam is a powerful businessman who takes a second wife, Souad, to satisfy his increased libido. Intending to run for political office, he meets a man named Kamal el Fouli and agrees to pay millions of pounds to win a political position. He is victorious, but in turn, Kamal tells him that the “Big Man” is demanding a cut of Hagg Azzam’s profits. Souad informs Hagg Azzam that she is pregnant and refuses to get an abortion, no matter how much Hagg Azzam insists. Men arrive in the night and kidnap her. Souad awakes in the hospital to discover that she has been given an abortion. Hagg Azzam divorces her.
Each of the flawed main characters meets a distinctly different end, as their stories come together to create a portrait of a corrupt society that is difficult for both the rich and the poor. Sheikh Shakir introduces Taha to a terrorist organization, and Taha begins to train in the desert. Still wishing for revenge against the police, Taha is given a mission to kill a police officer. He is killed during the mission. Abduh’s wife arrives at Hatim’s apartment with their baby, who is sick. The rush to the hospital. Abduh’s son dies, and Abduh breaks up with Hatim, fearing God’s punishment. Hagg Azzam meets the Big Man, who reveals how inconsequential Hagg Azzam really is. In the novel’s sole happy ending, Busayna and Zaki Bey get married, and they celebrate in a local restaurant as the novel ends.