[diary] 18 – egypt

Salam everyone !

When I began to inquire about Egyptian literature, I quickly found a title that appeared regularly as a crucial one : The Yacoubian Building, by Alaa El-Aswany. Considered as an essential piece, strong and revealing of the African society of the 1990s, this work immediately tempted me and I went to borrow him from the library. No regret about this, because I adored discovering this history which draws an entire branch of the contemporary Egyptian reality.


The Yacoubian Building is first and foremost a real place : it is an Art Deco construction, built in the 1930s by an Armenian millionaire and condemned to decay when its wealthy inhabitants fled during the 1952 Revolution. The novel is theorically taking place in the 1990s and focuses on the lives of some occupants of the building (either living or working in it). What I liked in this text is the realism with which the author depicts his characters : without biaising our point of view, simply by describing their ambitions and acts, Alaa El-Aswany lets us see and understand some incredibly authentic and truthful protagonists. At the beginning, we may get the feeling that they are endlessly multiplying, because the different narratives constantly chain and we follow each character successively. But, in the end, we realize that the panel is well defined and significant : here is offered a representative sample of the Egyptian society – men and women, young and old, Muslims and Christians… I particularly attached myself to Taha, a young man disappointed by his country’s injustice and who falls progressively into extremism. His path, like that of all the other characters, is neutrally and humanly told ; we can read in it his doubts, his anger, his incomprehension.

Because The Yacoubian Building is also a naturalistic view of modern Egypt : it is disenchanted, it is straightforward and unvarnished. Between corruption and inequality, the novel illustrates a changing country in which everything is struggle. Political struggle controlled by the powerful leaders with Azzam and his shenanigans and Kamel el-Fawli, legal struggle with Hatem who wants to love and assert his sexuality, struggle against oppression with Taha… These characters get mired in their troubles and never seem to be able to escape a general feeling of desperate fatalism (Boussaïna, for example, sees her situation worsen but does not act because she is much too resigned).

I loved this novel, and the proximity it gives us with the inhabitants of this Cairo building. This read transported me to Egypt, thanks to its amazing details and the pragmatism of its depictions ; I felt directly immersed into this other world and into the characters’ thoughts, unfiltered. The writing style is precise, visual and lively, crude when it is needed, always realistic. It made me want to read more, to know more, to inform myself – the historical and religious references are present and well-explained, which allows to fully understand what is going on without getting out of the story. Definitely a great piece telling us Egypt as it is, and inviting us to look at it critically : the author never judges, he shows us things from a native’s perspective and let us question it. A formidable key book, do not hesitate !

> The next review will be about Dojnaa, by Galsan Tschinag.

> EL-ASWANY, Alaa – L’Immeuble Yacoubian, Actes Sud – translated from Arab Gilles Gauthier.
> written listening “Biladi, Biladi, Biladi” .

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