Monday, February 07, 2011

The Yacoubian Building

"Egypt? What? Really?" I like to think I'm reasonably well-informed but the protests in Egypt definitely surprised me. If only I'd read the novel The Yacoubian Building by Cairo dentist, activist, journalist, and - oh yes - novelist, Alaa Al Aswany. It is a perfect example of a work of fiction being able to give context to fast-moving current events.
The New York Review of Books said the novel (2002 Arabic, 2004 English translation) is "an amazing glimpse of modern Egyptian society and culture". The novel focuses on the lives of the residents of the decaying Yacoubian apartment in downtown Cairo, during the Gulf War of 1990. Each character is a thread in the colourful carpet that is modern Egypt, "where political corruption, ill-gotten wealth, and religious hypocrisy are natural allies, where the arrogance and defensiveness of the powerful find expression in the exploitation of the weak, where youthful idealism can turn quickly to extremism..." (from the book's cover).
Al Aswanny is a modern-day version of Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz. Both are social realists, using fiction to point out the problems of Egyptian society. Both have a strong dislike of Islamic fundamentalism and its Egyptian home in the Muslim Brotherhood. In books like his classic Cairo Trilogy (Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, Sugar Street) Mahfouz was writing about the malaise of Egypt under colonialism from the 20s to the 50s. Al Aswany writes of the malaise of Egpyt under born-in-Egypt oppression.
Al Aswany's latest novel, Chicago (2007 in English) is about the life of young Egyptians living in Chicago, with Egyptian and American lives colliding on a college campus, post-9/11.
A bit of a media star, here's Aswany talking to Charlie on the Charlie Rose show in 2008:

The New Yorker suggests The Yacoubian Building and some more fiction (plus the memoir Persepolis to help understand the Egyptian crisis.


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