The controversial, best-selling Egyptian novel, "The Yacoubian Building" describes a country that is corrupt, unfair and thuggish. It follows the lives of residents, both rich and poor, of the Yacoubian, an actual apartment building in downtown Cairo. In essence, the novel airs Egypt's dirty laundry, from sex, religion, and greed, to abject poverty, hypocrisy, oppression and rampant corruption of Egypt's contemporaneous society. 

In the footsteps of Naguib Mahfuwz, `Ala' al-'Aswaniy is essentially disturbing the rock of our polite society to uncover beneath it an ugly world teeming with parasites.  It is a cruel world where ordinary Egyptians find themselves hopelessly trapped.  While many barely survive in it, there are those who thrive in such an environment by preying upon the weak and the vulnerable elements of the society. Yesterday's whispers are now a loud burst of poignant screams in the wide open.  Despite that there is a silver lining, in the character of those whose good breeding still survives, and the manners and humanity that go with it. If you haven't read the book and seen the movie, I whole heatedly suggest both to you. 

Ishinan 



The following are excerpts from The Yacoubian Building by Egyptian author Alaa Al Aswany. (Note: Contains adult language.) Copyright© 2002 by Alaa Al Aswany. First published in Arabic in 2002 as Imrat Ya'qubyan.:

In 1934, Hagop Yacoubian, the millionaire and then doyen of the Armenian community in Egypt, decided to construct an apartment block that would bear his name. He chose for it the best site on Suleiman Basha and engaged a well-known Italian engineering firm to build it, and the firm came up with a beautiful design-ten lofty stories in the high classical European style, the balconies decorated with Greek faces carved in stone, the columns, steps, and corridors all of natural marble, and the latest model of elevator by Schindler. Construction continued for two whole years, at the end of which there emerged an architectural gem that so exceeded expectations that its owner requested of the Italian architect that he inscribe his name, Yacoubian, on the inside of the doorway in large Latin characters that were lit up at night in neon, as though to immortalize his name and emphasize his ownership of the gorgeous building.

The cream of the society of those days took up residence in the Yacoubian Building-ministers, big land-owning bashas, foreign manufacturers, and two Jewish millionaires (one of them belonging to the famous Mosseri family). The ground floor of the building was divided equally between a spacious garage with numerous doors at the back where the residents' cars (most of them luxury makes such as Rolls-Royce, Buick, and Chevrolet) were kept overnight and at the front a large store with three frontages that Yacoubian kept as a showroom for the silver products made in his factories. This showroom remained in business successfully for four decades, then little by little declined, until recently it was bought by Hagg Muhammad `Azzam, who re-opened it as a clothing store. On the broad roof two rooms with utilities were set aside for the doorkeeper and his family to live in, while on the other side of the roof fifty small rooms were constructed, one for each apartment in the building. Each of these rooms was no more than two meters by two meters in area and the walls and doors were all of solid iron and locked with padlocks whose keys were handed over to the owners of the apartments. These iron rooms had a variety of uses at that time, such as storing foodstuffs, overnight kenneling for dogs (if they were large or fierce), and laundering clothes, which in those days (before the spread of the electric washing machine) was undertaken by professional washerwomen who would do the wash in the room and hang it out on long lines that extended across the roof. The rooms were never used as places for the servants to sleep, perhaps because the residents of the building at that time were aristocrats and foreigners who could not conceive of the possibility of any human being sleeping in such a cramped place. Instead, they would set aside a room in their ample, luxurious apartments (which sometimes contained eight or ten rooms on two levels joined by an internal stairway) for the servants.

In 1952 the Revolution came and everything changed. The exodus of Jews and foreigners from Egypt started and every apartment that was vacated by reason of the departure of its owners was taken over by an officer of the armed forces, who were the influential people of the time. By the i96os, half the apartments were lived in by officers of various ranks, from first lieutenants and recently married captains all the way up to generals, who would move into the building with their large families. General El Dakrouri (at one point director of President Muhammad Naguib's office) was even able to acquire two large apartments next door to one another on the tenth floor, one of which he used as a residence for himself and his family, the other as a private office where he would meet petitioners in the afternoon.

The officers' wives began using the iron rooms in a different way: for the first time they were turned into places for the stewards, cooks, and young maids that they brought from their villages to serve their families to stay in. Some of the officers' wives were of plebeian origin and could see nothing wrong in raising small animals (rabbits, ducks, and chickens) in the iron rooms and the Vest Cairo District's registers saw numerous complaints filed by the old residents to prevent the raising of such animals on the roof. Owing to the officers' pull, however, these always got shelved, until the residents complained to General El Dakrouri, who, thanks to his influence with the former, was able to put a stop to this insanitary phenomenon.

In the seventies came the `Open Door Policy' and the well-to-do started to leave the downtown area for El Mohandiseen and Medinet Nasr, some of them selling their apartments in the Yacoubian Building, others using them as offices and clinics for their recently graduated sons or renting them furnished to Arab tourists. The result was that the connection between the iron rooms and the building's apartments was gradually severed and the former stewards and servants ceded their iron rooms for money to new, poor residents coming from the countryside or working somewhere downtown who needed a place to live that was close by and cheap.

This transfer of control was made easier by the death of the Armenian agent in charge of the building, Monsieur Grigor, who used to administer the property of the millionaire Hagop Yacoubian with the utmost honesty and accuracy, sending the proceeds in December of each year to Switzerland, where Yacoubian's heirs had migrated after the Revolution. Grigor was succeeded as agent by Maitre Fikri Abd el Shaheed, the lawyer, who would do anything provided he was paid, taking, for example, one large percentage from the former occupant of the iron room and another from the new tenant for writing him a contract for the room.

The final outcome was the growth of a new community on the roof that was entirely independent of the rest of the building. Some of the newcomers rented two rooms next to one another and made a small residence out of them with all utilities (latrine and washroom), while others, the poorest, collaborated to create a shared latrine for every three or four rooms, the roof community thus coming to resemble any other popular community in Egypt. 

The children run around all over the roof barefoot and half naked and the women spend the day cooking, holding gossip sessions in the sun, and, frequently, quarreling, at which moments they will exchange the grossest insults as well as accusations touching on one another's honor, only to make up soon after and behave with complete good will toward one another as though nothing has happened. Indeed, they will plant hot, lip-smacking kisses on each other's cheeks and even weep from excess of sentiment and affection.
 
 


Like the novel ostensibly set in 1990 at about the time of the first Gulf War, the film is a scathing portrayal of modern Egyptian society since the coup d'état of 1952. The setting is downtown Cairo, with the titular apartment building (which actually exists) serving as both a metaphor for contemporary Egypt and a unifying location in which most of the primary characters either live or work and in which much of the action takes place.

The roof top of the yacoubian building is effectively a slum neighborhood, is symbolic of the urbanization of Egypt and of the burgeoning population growth in its large cities in recent decades, especially among the poor and working classes. In the faded apartments of the main floors and on the building's teeming roof, the films's principal characters are introduced:

They are:

Zakiy Bey Al- Dissuwkiy (`Adil Imam) a wealthy and elderly foreign-educated engineer who spends most of his time pursuing women and who maintains an office in the Yacoubian, he personifies the ruling class prior to the Revolution: cosmopolitan, cultured, western in outlook, and not particularly observant of Islam 

Taha al- Shazliy (Muhammad Imam) the son of the building doorman, he excelled in school and hoped to be admitted to the Police Academy but found that his father's profession, considered too lowly by the generals conducting his character interview, was an obstacle to admission; disaffected, he enrolls at the University and eventually joins a militant Islamist organization modeled upon the Jamaa Islamya 

Buthaynah al-Sayyid (Hend Sabriy) initially Taha's childhood sweetheart, she is forced to find a job to help support her family after her father dies and is disillusioned to find that her male employer expects sexual favors from her and her female coworkers in exchange for additional money and gifts on the side, and that her mother expects her to preserve her virginity while not refusing her boss's sexual advances outright; embittered, she eventually comes to use her beauty as a tool to advance her own interests but finds herself falling in love with Zakiy Bey Al- Dissuwkiy, whom she'd been planning with Malak to swindle out of his apartment 

Malak (Ahmad Bidayr) a shirtmaker and petty schemer seeking to open a shop on the Yacoubian's roof and then to insinuate himself into one of the more posh apartments downstairs 

Hatim Rashiyd (Khalid al- Sawiy) the son of an Egyptian father who was a noted legal scholar and a French mother, he is the editor of Le Caire, a French language daily newspaper; more attention is paid to his private life, for he is a fairly open homosexual in a society which either looks the other way or openly condemns such behavior and inclinations .

Hagg Muhammad `Azzam (Nuwrr al-Shariyf) one of Egypt's wealthiest men and a migrant to Cairo from the countryside, in the space of thirty years he has gone from shoeshiner to self-made millionaire; he seeks an acceptable and legal outlet for his (temporarily) resurgent libido in a secret, second marriage to an attractive young widow, and also realizes his goal of serving in the People's Assembly (Parliament), but comes face to face with the enormous corruption, graft, and bribery of contemporary Egyptian politics. 

Christine (Yuwsrah) a world-weary chanteuse who advises Zakiy Bey on his love life and whose poignant singing of European songs like "La Vie en Rose" punctuates the film. 
 
 


 
 
 

 


 
 
 
 

 

The Egyptian Chronicles is a cooperative effort by a group of Egyptian authors pooling together their talents for the sake of Egypt's Future.  Articles contained in these pages are the personal views and/or work of the authors, who bear the sole responsibility of the content of their work. This Monthly Electronic Magazine is a non-profit, commercial free zone and is answerable to no one.
 

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