The Yacoubian Building – Alaa Al Aswany

[This is a journal in three sections. I didn’t start reading a new section until I’d finished writing about the one before, so I didn’t know how any of it would turn out until I got to the end.]

23 February 2016
Part 1
How to describe the whole of Egyptian society in the late 20th Century, but with a cast of characters that is small enough to handle? Answer: like this. The Yacoubian Building, based on a real apartment block in Cairo but given a fictitious makeover in this novel, is a microcosm. There are shops and offices on the ground floor, a mix of apartments ranging from the original high-spec suites to the cheap lets of later years – and, on the roof, a near shanty-town of metal hovels, originally for storage but now available to live in. Of course, you’ll need enough money to bribe the right lawyer – bribery very quickly becomes the main engine of business in Aswany’s Cairo – but it’s a good address.

Aswany sets a lot of different stories running. Not that we know that there are going to be four, five, six stories when we read the first short chapter. (Almost all the chapters are short.) We first read of Zaki Bey el Dessouki, ageing playboy with an office in the building. He is putting the finishing touches to his long-planned assignation with a voluptuous young woman in that same office, helped by his faithful factotum, Abaskharon. Like so many things in Part 1, there’s something ridiculous about it. Zaki Bey’s pride in his reputation as a womaniser, Abaskharon’s blithe acceptance of the fact that his best policy is to flatter his master shamelessly, whilst designing little scams that will allow him to cheat the bey. He’s a poor man, doing what he can to look after himself.

That’s what all the men in Aswany’s Cairo are doing, and most of them are a lot more ambitious (and crooked) than Abaskharon. Then there are the women, trying to make their way in a society not at all designed for them and their needs. So far, they’ve only played minor roles in the novel as well – only one of them has a chapter or two to herself. This is Busayna, recently having lost her father and now having to work. She fails to keep any job for more than a few weeks, until she learns from a less innocent friend that the only way to do so – and make a little extra money on the side – is to service the sexual needs of the boss. You don’t have to go the whole way, the friend tells her, but it’s what all the girls do. Cairo is that sort of place. Busayna hadn’t expected things to turn out like this. Her father had the sort of job that sent enough money his way for the family to live comfortably, and she had expected university and marriage to Taha, another character we’ve met. She had been as sure has he was that his hard work for the police exams would land him a nice job on the force…

…but no. We’re not a bit surprised that all of Taha’s earnest efforts, his good marks and determinedly respectful manner lead to nothing. By now, some chapters in, we know the rules. At the final ‘character interview’, which he expects to be a formality, he has nothing to offer the panel. At the very end, one of them chooses not to believe his lie about his father’s occupation. Our boy is worldly-wise enough to have realised that the truth, that his father is the door-keeper at the Yacoubian, simply wouldn’t do, and when he is forced to admit it his application is dismissed. We know, already, what he doesn’t, that only a bribe would have helped them to believe him. He’s as naïve as Busayna used to be, and is surprised that something about her seems to have changed recently. It’s only later that we learn of her unsentimental education in the rules of employment whilst he, on the other hand, still thinks that principle counts for something. He writes a letter to the President – I’m not making this up – which gets the reply we expect even if he doesn’t.

Is he a sort of Candide? He decides that applying for a particular university course will give him the leg-up he seeks – he doesn’t understand that the graduates who get jobs already have money behind them – but soon the only other students who will talk to him are also from poor backgrounds. By the end of Part 1 his best friend has introduced him to a radical Sheikh, one who uses the language of Islam to criticise, in secret, the corruption we’ve seen everywhere. It’s easy to see why Taha would be attracted to his mix of high-minded condemnation and hope for a future in which Islamic principle will supersede so-called Democratic Socialism. We watch Taha being taken in and… despite this novel having been published over ten years ago it all seems desperately familiar. In Aswany’s presentation of the world, there was nowhere else for an honest young man to go.

This is only one thread among many, almost all of which consist of Aswany satirising the venality of Egyptian society. Zaki Bey’s adventure has turned into farce – it was never far from it in the first place – as he realises that the woman has drugged and robbed him. Worst of all, she has taken the ring that his sister had given him to have repaired, and when he gets home, hours late and with a terrible headache, we begin to understand his dismay. His sister berates him for his lateness so incessantly that he locks himself in his room. But she has a key, wheedles out of him that the ring is lost, and puts on such a show – shouts, obscenities, fists – that the whole apartment block hears it. Women rarely come off well in this novel. Maybe Aswany is making the point that there are only certain routes available to them: impoverished widow (Busayna’s mother), unofficial sex-accessory or harridan. Maybe.

These stories interweave amongst… how many others? Aswany chooses to use a deadpan worldly-wise voice to describe the realities of life in the Yacoubian and beyond. The language of Islam is there too, but almost always inserted by a character as a tag or formula. In the story of Hagg Azzam – these men use their religiously-conferred titles as though they meant something – a successful contract with a celebrated political fixer ends in prayers. They ‘closed their eyes, held their hands before their breasts in supplication, and set to reciting the Fatiha under their breath.’ This follows a squalid little scene, echoing an earlier, more farcical one, in which Azzam has unsuccessfully attempted to hand over less than the required million Egyptian pounds. The fixer, El Fouli the lawyer, has just assured Azzam that his longed-for place in parliament is assured, and the chapter ends with the prayer. Aswany doesn’t say any more about it because he doesn’t need to.

We met Hagg Azzam much earlier. He’s the successful middle-aged businessman with a holier-than-thou attitude who, embarrassingly, realises that he is having wet dreams about nubile young women. What to do? He can’t possibly take a mistress or visit prostitutes, he’s far too pious for that…. And Aswany takes us through the increasingly absurd steps of the advice he takes, the religious conversations he has, that lead to the perfect solution: Islam not only permits but applauds the taking of an extra wife, so long as she is treated honourably (etc. etc.). So this is what he does, after what seems like weeks of vetting the candidates. And she seems like a good one. Of course, the first wife mustn’t know, but otherwise it’s all above board and well within the teachings of the Qur’an. The narrator tells us all this in his usual bland, flat tones. But the subtext is a dismantling of the hypocrisy of Egyptian men. If it isn’t to do with women, it’s to do with money. Or, as we soon realise with Azzam, it’s both. Plus a pious wish to do good for his countrymen by gaining political influence. Hah.

There’s another vice, blandly introduced in a description of the bars of the local area. The Chez Nouz – the long-standing French influence is apparent in a lot of the upper-middle class milieux – is the one in the basement beneath the Yacoubian and, unlike many of the others, has survived the regular culls that different regimes have inflicted. It’s run by Aziz, known as ‘the Englishman’ because of his light colouring, and he’s ok about letting the local gays hang out there. The ‘homosexuals’, always called that in this translation (and perhaps the equivalent word in the original), have to be discreet. Aziz, like them, is what the narrator calls ‘a victim of that same condition’ – no political correctness here, Aswany seems to want to remind us. And into the Chez Nous comes another character whose fortunes we’re going to follow, Hatim Rasheed. He’s a stylish, influential journalist, and from an ‘aristocratic’ family. So the other men in the bar don’t make any comments on the young man with him, clearly a ‘kudyana’. We’re in another world now, or underworld, and in later chapters we are taken through the process of pick-up and introduction to the secret rituals of gay life in Cairo. It’s as ugly as the straight scene.

Who else lives or works in the Yacoubian? There’s Malak the shirt-maker, who has decided that to convert one of the former store-rooms on the roof would give him somewhere both to manufacture and sell his products. This is where we get the farce of the paying over of the necessary bribe. Abaskharon, helping him, is delighted to save a thousand pounds by shamelessly playing the impoverished amputee card. (He lost a leg long before anybody knew him.) But there are objections to the purchase, in a parody of local objections to any change of use in a neighbouring building. And…

…and so on, and on. Aswany’s Cairo is a hellish place, and I’ll be interested to see what he’ll do with the stories he’s set up.

5 March
First half of Part 2…
…and I’m stopping for a while because so much is going on. And what was I saying about women only having minor roles? They play a much bigger part now – although, Egyptian society being what it is, all their choices and motivations are defined by their relationships with men. That isn’t Aswany’s fault. And aren’t the lives of the men just as circumscribed? Usually, I would say yes – I’ll get back to that – but there are exceptions. El Fouli the lawyer is one of them, the one who has fixed it for Azzam to get into politics. There seems to be nothing beyond his reach… although, ultimately, he is beholden to ‘Mr Big.’ I’m not worrying for now who Mr Big might be, but I assume he’s the President.

Men and women. I’ll start with Taha and Busayna, no longer together. As he has become more involved in Islamist politics, with all the necessary Qur’an-quoting baggage that comes with it, she has become ever more pragmatic. The final split comes after yet another row in which he tells her to live and dress more modestly. She tells him she’s had enough, and he is left being persuaded by the sheikh that it’s fine, his feelings for her are a throwback to a time before he saw the light. There will be more suitable women… but that’s not the next exciting thing. Taha, with others from the mosque, are at a demonstration. The Sheikh never goes to such events, always spinning the line that his work is too important for him to risk putting his head above the parapet, but Taha is fine with it. He is arrested, and beaten, and tortured. Aswany pulls no punches at all, until the chapter closes on the first of what Taha later calls ten ‘violations’. A very physical place, Aswany’s Egypt, and intimate body parts are often in the frame. As Taha talks to the sheikh, now in western clothes following a spate of arrests, he says he feels so defiled he can’t even contemplate going to the mosque. The sheikh’s sympathy only extends so far, and he tells Taha to pull himself together.

Why am I telling you all this? It’s a story that seems to be following a well-trodden path as older men groom younger ones to do the dangerous work. And meanwhile Busayna is being groomed in a different way. The things she used to do with her boss in the shop is small beer compared to what she’s up to now – although she still insists on retaining her virginity. She’s now become the ‘housekeeper’ of Zaki Bey, and we think we know where this story is going. We’re right – he expects more for the high salary he pays, and we see her having to come to terms with the old-man smell emanating from him as he leans closer…. But she’s also got a job to do for Malak. As Part 2 progresses, his territorial ambitions are growing. Aswany has been having fun describing the parts of the roof he has now commandeered for his own use, but his eyes are on Zaki’s six-room office apartment. He has forged a partnership agreement that would make the apartment his when Zaki dies – not long, surely – and it is Busayna’s job to get a signature.

No problem, you might think. In fact, she starts to feel terribly guilty. It would be easy if he was no more than a dirty old man, but he isn’t. He’s charming, treats her with old-world courtesy, and tells her captivating stories about high society in Paris and Cairo before Nasser’s rise to power. She feels bad about cheating him, even if he’ll be dead when Malak takes over. In contrast with the almost comical venality of most of the male characters, women’s feelings are always less straightforward, and often more genuinely Muslim. But only up to a point… and at the point I’ve reached, Busayna has decided she’s going to get that signature after all. She is getting Zaki, who is very drunk after too much whiskey, to sign some bogus loan agreement she needs countersigning, and has slipped Malak’s document in with them. But before he finishes signing all of them he goes to the bathroom and she hears a loud crash. I don’t know the outcome of this yet…

…or of the plans of a woman who seems more determined than Busayna to get everything she can from Zaki. Dawlat, the harridan-like sister who made such a big thing of the loss of her ring, is turning into a fully-formed monster. She has thrown Zaki out of the apartment they share, and has changed the locks. At some point during these chapters Aswany describes how in Cairo the occupation of a property counts for a lot. Time, and bribes to the right officials, ensure that whatever the rights and wrongs, the occupier gets to stay. (Malak’s occupation of more and more roof space is a downmarket version of exactly this.) It’s looking as though the office-apartment in the Yacoubian is all that Zaki has left in the world.

Meanwhile we get a sordid little row between Hagg Azzam and his so-called second wife. They had agreed that she would never have children, but she’s just told him she’s pregnant. What comes next is a long satirical riff on Islamic pragmatism. Azzam, having had several of his attempts to persuade her to have an abortion end in big rows, resorts to the big guns. He persuades his favourite sheikh (probably the one who first suggested the marriage to him) to come and speak to her. It is within Islamic law, according to ‘trustworthy jurisprudential opinions’, for a foetus to be aborted in the first three months of pregnancy. This is exactly what Azziz wants to hear, but not his wife. When she continues to refuse, the sheikh resorts to telling her to mind her manners as a woman, and Azzam slaps her face and calls her a filthy bitch. They leave, slamming the door, and she is pleased to have asserted her rights in Islam and Egyptian law. But later that night she is set upon by four intruders and drugged into unconsciousness….

Azziz has already shown himself up as the hypocrite he is in an earlier episode. El Fouli, the fixer, has got through the usual nonsensical formalities of a meeting with him when he drops the bombshell. Yes, God is to be praised for Azziz having become a member of parliament, and for having just pulled off a huge contract. (Azziz tries to pretend it isn’t a done deal, but El Fouli slaps him down.) Anyway, the Big Man will be expecting his 25% of all profits. Azziz is, or pretends to be, dumbfounded. It’s as though the Qur’an-quoting side of his personality really does believe that blessings come from God while the pragmatist pays over the money like everybody else. But he vows to himself that he isn’t going to take this one lying down. Oh dear. People in this novel who don’t do what powerful people tell them… well, we know how things usually turn out.

Next. The gay relationship is going all right. Almost. The stylish Hatim Rasheed has bought a sales kiosk for his boyfriend, Abduh, who is now at the end of his national service. Abduh brings his wife and child down from the provinces, and she pretends not to know the basis of his relationship with their generous benefactor. Abduh wants her to forgive him, but that can’t happen as long as she persists, against all the evidence, in believing that nothing is going on. Abduh understands why she pretends not to understand – she’s a simple Muslim from the Upper Nile region – but he’s dissatisfied with the situation. We await developments.

Anyone I haven’t mentioned – I know Abaskharon is in there somewhere, for instance – I’ll come back to when I’ve finished. Aswany has a lot of stories to bring to some kind of conclusion in the final 70 pages or so.

7 March
The rest of Part 2 – to the end
Some of the stories definitely come to a kind of conclusion. It happens for Taha and Busayna, living their separate lives… as far as they go. Other stories end more ambiguously. Perhaps Taha’s and Busayna’s aren’t conclusive, not really.

Taha. The sheikh finally makes him calm down enough for him to be chosen for an Islamist training camp. He’s a good student – he always was – and does well in everything from religious studies to sharpshooting. But it never stops being personal with him. In his first conversations with the sheikh after his torture, he vows revenge on the perpetrators of the sexual violations on him, and he holds one man particularly culpable. He only knows him by his voice, but… but what? In the camp, he can’t do anything for months, chafes at the slowness of the process of planning an attack in which he feels he could play a big part. A wife is found for him – at least a chapter is given over to the introductions, the courtship, her religious credentials, the feelings of desire that he feels ashamed of – as though it is part of the grooming process. Political Islamists, Aswany seems to be saying, are like all the other sheikhs and imams in Egypt, pandering (literally) to the sexual needs of the men who are useful to them. As though to remind us of this, Taha’s new wife, right from the start, speaks to him of how proud his martyrdom would make her. If it should come to that.

It does come to that. Aswany describes the operation and Taha’s death in detail. The attack, it transpires, targets the very man he hates – and once he realises this he goes off-script. He lingers long enough to witness the man’s death throes… which gives the guards enough time to open fire on him. His death, described from his point of view, really does seem like the fulfilment of a dream of martyrdom. The pain the bullets bring ‘was vanishing little by little … distant sounds came to his ears – bells and sounds of melodious murmurs – repeating themselves and drawing close to him, as though welcoming him to a new world.’ Aswany couldn’t make it any clearer, so that’s where he ends Taha’s story, with only one chapter of the book remaining.

He ends with a different take on sex and love, with a perhaps surprising development in the relationship between Zaki and Busayna. But I need to rewind first, to the time when Busayna first begins to realise that there’s more to this old man than she originally thought. They begin to talk of love, and she begins to imagine a life with this man who treats her like no other man ever has. They seem to be finding real fulfilment in each other…

…but it turns out that Malak isn’t the only one plotting to do the dirty on him. Aswany has let that storyline come to nothing – Busayna is as surprised as the reader when he quietly accepts her decision not to carry on with his plan – but another one has been simmering on. Dawlat, the monstrous sister, bribes enough people in the police force to get him and Busayna caught in flagrante in the office, and to be forced to spend a night of insults and threats at the station. Dawlat is bringing a case of diminished responsibility against him, and with the police on her side she looks unstoppable. With power of attorney she’ll get what she really wants, the flat in the Yacoubian. Aswany leaves it looking bleak for a time. Busayna, humiliated by the taunts of the police officers, is pessimistic: ‘She began to cry and said in a low voice, “All my life I’ve had bad luck in everything.”’ Some characters – Taha is another one – have a fondness for the old fatalism line. Neither of them – or Abduh and his wife, in a different storyline – have learnt yet that in this country it isn’t the hand of fate they should be blaming. And maybe Zaki has more clout than she realises….

Meanwhile lot happens in the story of Hatim and Abduh. Aswany has already been sounding alarm bells about the way Abduh’s wife can never really come to terms with what her husband does. He has the kiosk, he has the flat on the roof… but he’s a kept man in exactly the same way that Azzam’s second wife is a kept woman. Aswany needs to bring things to a head, and he does it by having their son become critically ill. Hatim feels for them both but – and he only recognises this later – not enough for it to get in the way of his work. He has paid for hospital treatment but, crucially, he isn’t there when the child dies. Ah. Abduh and his wife, grief-stricken, disappear after the funeral. Hatim begins to understand how things have changed when he receives the keys to the kiosk and rooftop flat, and he quickly goes into a decline. He can’t face the prospect of going through the whole process of grooming a new, pliant lover – this isn’t the way he presents it to himself, of course – and he begins to drink, to neglect his work….

Finally, after weeks or months, it occurs to him to take Abduh’s background and ethnicity into account. I hadn’t realised until now the importance of these in this society, probably because they don’t feature on the radar of men of the world like Hatim. But, eventually, Hatim looks for him in a café popular with Sa’idis. The dark-skinned Abduh now looks and dresses like a typical Sa’idi. This community from the Upper Nile is far from sophisticated, and now Abduh agrees with his wife: his son’s death was a punishment for his own sinfulness. Hatim thinks he’s found Abduh, doesn’t realise that he’s lost him forever. He does his best to tempt him back with promises of an easy job – things have been hard for him since he abandoned the kiosk – and a better flat. It’s the old power relationship again, and Abduh seems to along with it….

But not for long. He agrees only to spend one night with Hatim – who cannot believe that Abduh won’t be tempted back permanently. He has made no attempt to see things from his former lover’s point of view, and pays for it. All he sees is his ‘black lover,’ but a new element has come into play in this novel of power and sex. The sex is violent and painful, and Hatim thinks this is Abduh’s passion showing itself. But we know about the meaning of such violations and Abduh, having made his point, gets up to leave. When Hatim, almost hysterical, tries to force him to stay, Abduh beats his head against the wall ‘with all his might, till he felt the hot blood spurting over his hands.’ As the chapter ends, it isn’t clear whether Hatim has even survived the assault. And we never hear of him again.

Power relationships. If it isn’t to do with sex, it’s to do with money. With Azziz’s second wife it’s both: she wakes up in hospital and realizes what’s happened and. After some minutes or hours raging against her former husband – he’s disappeared from her life, having already divorced her, with the sheikh’s blessing – she can’t do a thing about it. We never hear anything more of her, either, because men like Azziz get it all their own way, yes…?

Well, not exactly. For weeks Azziz holds out against El Fouli’s demands, and finally insists on a meeting with the Big Man himself. It ends in one of my favourite moments in the novel. After being taken by limousine to a palatial residence, and having been checked by security guards three times, thoroughly and insolently, he is left waiting. And there is no meeting. What there is instead is a disembodied voice coming from a hidden speaker… and it could be the voice of a God grown cynical. The Big Man, asked to reduce his cut from a quarter to an eighth, is forthright in his derision. ‘Bottom line is, you deal in hard drugs and we know all about it.’ He tells Azziz to look in the file on the desk, and at the incriminating documents held against him. ‘We are the ones who have put a hold on them and we’re the ones who can activate them at a moment’s notice to destroy you.’ The chapter ends with the Big Man’s ‘derisive laugh’ before his voice is cut off.

So, humiliation, or death, or both. But that isn’t how Aswany ends the novel. He has thrown Zaki a lifeline in the police station, and he has been able to make a call to an old crony high up in the force. That chapter ended ambiguously, with Zaki failing to persuade Busayna that things will be all right, but in the final chapter – guess – they are getting married. Aswany makes it feel like both a celebration and the defiant last gasp of an outmoded and obsolete way life. We are in the French-style bar that the men in power – they are never mentioned in this context – have allowed to survive from pre-revolutionary days. How has the ancient, French-speaking Christine managed to keep going, with her lounge piano and songs by Edith Piaf? I presume because it wasn’t in anybody’s particular interest to get rid of her. Just like her most faithful customer – it’s where he always takes Busayna – Zaki Bey.

We never know how he and Busayna get from the police station to the happy event of the final chapter. But maybe there really is hope. Christine’s rendition of La Vie en Rose is the only song she’s allowed before the demand for Middle Eastern music wins the day. Even Zaki, the diehard Francophile, finds it irresistible: ‘little by little, raising his arms aloft, he joined her in the dance, amidst the joyful laughter and cries of the others.’

Don’t ask me why Aswany ends it like that. In the Egypt he’s been showing us, the end of colonialism (or Zaki’s sentimental Europeanism, or whatever it is) hasn’t led to anything good. If this is Egypt looking for its own identity – we remember Abduh in his Sa’idi dress – does that lead to any happy endings?