'The Yacoubian Building' Review

The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany is set in 1990 Egypt. It starts, however, with an account of post-revolution Egypt in the '50s, with all the characters holding some connection to the Yacoubian Building. Built by an Armenian millionaire, it is occupied by military officials, the elite and later rural migrants. It expresses disappointment at the failure of the revolution of 1952 to bring any meaningful change by showing the ways in which society is corrupt or broken.

Reading this book, I felt angered by the treatment of women. One of the lead characters, Busanya, has left job after job due to sexual harassment. Her mother and other women are dismayed, telling her that it is simply something she must accept. They encourage her to use this to her advantage to get more money, which her family needs desperately after the death of her father. Yet, there is still the expectation that she must keep her “purity.” Busanya comes to see her body as a tool with which she can collect favors from men, showing the lack of support for women in the workplace. Furthermore, women's bodies are far more policed, with religious leaders calling upon them to dress more modestly, ignoring the ways in which men themselves have been lewd towards women, unpunished.

There is also the struggle between secularism and religion in the book. The state claims to be democratic, but the elections are rigged in favor of whoever pays the largest bribe. Those who resist are shamed or punished with imprisonment or death. The book details why Taha, a young man who had aspirations to become a police officer, becomes a fundamentalist. Rejected because of his class, he becomes part of an Islamist group dedicated to overthrowing the secular government, which it believes has forsaken Islam in favor of corrupt western values. The brutality with which he is treated by the state only solidifies his hatred for the government and loyalty to the group, whatever the cost.

The Yacoubian Building is a story of class, sex, tyranny and the ways in which the characters react to the oppression they face. Some accept it, seeing no other way and therefore trying to benefit from a corrupt system. Others, feeling greatly wronged, are determined to eradicate it entirely or flee Egypt, where democracy exists only in name and dissent is punished. The book is an excellent portrayal of the failure of the 1952 revolution to bring any real change, whether for the poor and women or in terms of gaining political rights for the Egyptian people.

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