Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Thoughts on Alaa Aswany's The Yacoubian Building

While reading Alaa Al Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building I was reminded of Robert Altman’s movie Short Cuts. Altman is famous for his ensemble movie making, and in Short Cuts, he weaves Raymond Carver’s short stories into a web of intersecting lives. The result is an eclectic mix of personalities, each carrying his or her personal conflict, but appearing, often inadvertently and peripherally, in the trajectory of some other character. This technique, while disorienting since it shifts focus often, is able to portray a diversity and complexity not possible in more conventional methods.

In The Yacoubian Building too, Al Aswany uses a number of intertwining Egyptian characters assembled from all walks of life – the son of a doorkeeper; a rich businessman with political ambitions; a well-off elderly man with an incurable weakness for women; the daughter of a poor family, living in cramped quarters; a lonely newspaper editor yearning for a lasting relationship. All these characters are tied, one way or the other, to the Yacoubian Building in downtown Cairo: they either have their office space there, or live there, or visit the building to meet someone who lives there.

Through this cast of characters and an ever-shifting third person omniscient narrative, Alaa Aswany manages to convey the political and social changes Egypt has witnessed in the last fifty years: the move from monarchy to an authoritarian regime; the pull towards socialism and radical Islam; the struggle to eke a living amid the corruption that pervades society, where it matters who knows whom. Aswany does this not through a narration of facts, but instead through the actions, thoughts and the conflicts of the people in the novel.

Much is revealed, strikingly, through the frank sexuality that runs through the book. If we look closely, though, we see that Alaa Aswany doesn’t really dwell on the details of the lovemaking. Instead in the moments before an intimate encounter, or the contented moments after, we learn a lot about the characters – through their thoughts or the conversations they have with their partners. The author must surely believe we reveal ourselves the most when overcome with desire or when satiated.

Aswany also makes plenty of other astute observations. How, for instance, might a servant with an amputated leg cleverly use his handicap to appeal to the emotions of the most hard-hearted? (“…with a special move, suddenly bending his torso backward and pulling his worn, dirty gallabiya upward with both hands so that his truncated leg, attached to the depressingly dark-colored prosthesis, was displayed.”) How might a woman who has decided to use her body for some financial gain change in her attitudes?
“She had lost her compassion for people and thick crust of indifference had formed around her feelings – that disgust that afflicts the exhausted, the frustrated, and the perverted and prevents them from sympathizing with others. She had succeeded, after repeated attempts, in ridding herself of thoughts and feelings of remorse and buried forever the guilt that had afflicted her when she took off her dress in front of Talal and washed off his defilement, then put her hand out to him to collect ten pounds. She had become crueler, more bitter and daring, and no longer cared what the residents of the roof told one another about her reputation.”
Aswany seems especially adept at this sort of insight. The best one in the book, though, pertains to a young man, Taha, the son of the doorkeeper to the Yacoubian building.

Taha is studious and intelligent and is much better at school than the sons and daughters of more well off residents. But because of his father’s occupation – lowly in the eyes of those around him – he never gets the credit he deserves. He is looked upon condescendingly. He bears these implied insults and soldiers on, studies hard. His ambition is to become a police officer, and leave behind the life of squalor, poverty and humiliation in the Yacoubian building. He clears the required exams, and the last step – a mere formality – is to go through an interview process. He gets to the end of the interview successfully, but the presiding general, who up to then had admired Taha’s well rehearsed answers, looks through some papers, and asks him:

“Your father – what’s his profession Taha?”

“Civil servant, sir.”

“Civil servant or property guard?”

Taha is silent for a while, before he says in a low voice: “My father is a property guard, sir.”

Taha is not offered the job. He is frustrated and unable to get over it. But he eventually joins the university to study economics and political sciences. There, he meets a group of poor students of rural origin, and slowly through them gravitates towards Islam. He becomes close to Sheikh Shakir, the immensely popular leader of the Islamic political movement. Shakir becomes his spiritual mentor.

Taha is transformed after this experience. He was always religious but he is more ardent and serious now. He begins to see everybody around him in binaries: his worldview begins to absorb the absolutes of the faith. But the most striking transformation is how he feels within. He now has a dignity he never had before. Gone is the perpetual undercurrent of humiliation he felt because of his father’s occupation. One of the best passages of the book in my opinion is the following where Alaa Aswany describes this change in Taha:
“Those who knew Taha el Shazli in the past might have difficulty in recognizing him now. He has changed totally, as though he had swapped his former self for another, new one. It isn’t just a matter of Islamic dress that he has adopted in place of his Western clothes, nor of his beard, which he has let grow and which gives him a dignified and impressive appearance greater than his real age….All these are changes in appearance. Inside, however, he has been possessed by a new, powerful, bounding spirit. He has taken to walking, sitting, and speaking to people in the [Yacoubian] building in a new way. Gone forever are the old cringing humility and meekness before the residents. Now he faces them with self-confidence. He no longer cares a hoot for what they think, and he won’t put up with the least reproach or slight from them. He’s no longer interested in those small banknotes that they used to give him and which he used to save in order to buy his new things, in the first place because of his firm faith in God will provide for him and secondly because Sheikh Shakir has got him involved in the sale of religious books – small errands that he undertakes in his spare time and which bring him in a reasonable amount.”
This vital fact, this new sense of dignity we see in Taha, is not something we could have necessarily gleaned had Alaa Aswany not expressed it so well, with such clarity. The book is full of such moments, and Aswany's directness seems well rendered in Humphrey Davies’ translation. Not surprisingly The Yacoubian Building was a massive success in Egypt and now abroad as well.

Pankaj Mishra recently wrote about Aswany and his political views recently in the New York Times. Here you’ll find links to other reviews of the book. And The Yacoubian Building is now a movie as well.