May 8, 2012

The Yacoubian Building (Book Review)

The Yacoubian Building is a rich and multi-layered examination of the intersections of sex, race, class, and state violence in modern Egypt. The building's complex and morally ambiguous tenants rise, fall and scrabble to their feet again from various circumstances. On the one hand, this novel is a brilliantly executed tapestry of interconnected stories--Taha's lost love Busayna gets used by another character, Malak to trick a third character Zaki el-Dessouki, into giving up his lavish apartment. One common thread through the characters and their stories is, the cynicism with which people, particularly men, use others, to achieve happiness. On the other hand, The Yacoubian Building is a revealed archive of Egypt's layered pasts--the linguistic and cultural legacies of French and British colonialism, the contested figure of Gamal Abdel Nasser as hero or heretic, the multiple registers of Arabic language, and the rising influence of Islamist organizations on Egyptian society. Aswany, as a secular intellectual, is obviously quite skeptical of how far the newfound piety in Egypt really penetrates, but his faith is nevertheless strong in the "everyday goodness" of Egyptians. It is this flexibility that allows people like the closeted gay newspaper editor Hatim to flout certain social conventions within well-defined limits. The elasticity of this commonsense piety is what Aswany seems to admire, in contrast to the more austere piety of the Islamists. Nevertheless Aswany refuses to caricature Islamists. On the contrary, he gives the reader a very moving and convincing portrait of how a young Egyptian becomes radicalized, and the instrumental role of state violence in that process. This fictional portrayal shows, far better than most policy reports I have read, the step-by-step process by which the lower-class Taha is denied access to the traditional routes to respectability and begins to be pulled into the ambit of the Islamists at his university. Aswany shows how Islamist rhetoric works on the young man, pulling at his desire for Busayna. We can symphathize with how Taha becomes an activist, and we understand his desire for revenge, not as a brainwashed youth marching into Paradise, but as someone who has experienced very real torture at the hands of state security forces. It is this factor of torture that proples him into the violent act that ends the novel. There are numerous clues that he, (like his first love Busayna and others) is a victim of cynical manipulation by those who were supposed to be his closest compatriots. Finally The Yacoubian Building is a heartbreaking commentary on the venality of everyday life, and a look into the heartbreaking choices that people must make in these conditions. Aswany's book is a critique of power and the raw urge to dominate and use others that lies at the core of violence. When Hatim tosses racist slurs at his lover Abduh, when Hagg manipulates his mistress into an abortion, we see that the Islamists are not the cause but a symptom of a society profoundly sickened by corruption and greed. Women and men wear masks over their feelings, performing a lie, just as the state wears a mask of piety and order cloaking its brutal forms of repression, hypocricy and violence. Aswany ends the novel on a note of optimism--the wedding of Zaki and Busayna, the old aristocrat and his young lover. In spite of evil, Aswany seems to be saying, love, fragile but persistent, can bloom out of degradation and humiliation.


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