Archive for December, 2010

Alaa Al Aswany The Yacoubian Building

December 5, 2010

In The Yacoubian Building, Alaa Al Aswany follows events in the lives of different residents of the Yacoubian Building in Cairo. This approach is particularly interesting because the Yacoubian building contains a series of quite nice apartments with well-off residents and also houses many poorer people in a series of make-shift rooms on the roof. The stories often center around sex in all its variations—married, unmarried, straight, gay, etc. Also on display are the fall into violent, fundamentalist Islam, various forms of corruption, and family quarrels.

Whether Alaa Al Aswany’s narrative accurately portrays life in modern Cairo (many claim it does), the book is a deep look into why people make what appear to be bad choices. Taha, who becomes a terrorist against the state, does so for understandable (if not justifiable) reasons. Busayna falls in a love with a man more than twice her age at least in part because of how she has been treated by others. Alaa Al Aswany doesn’t try to make any of this okay, but he does offer the back story.

In addition to more positive moments, The Yacoubian Building relays a series of quite awful scenes, such as sexual assault, death, and torture. Yet the book ends on a happy note—with a wedding. Why? Is there an ultimate optimism in this story of modern Cairo, or does the cycle of good-and-bad just keep rolling on?


I’jaam: A Look at Saddam’s Iraq

December 5, 2010

I’jaam is a novella that details the story of a young man in Saddam’s Iraq who struggles in his own minor way against the regime and pays a heavy price. The book tells his story in fragments, going back and forth between past and present with some hallucinations thrown in. The fragmented narration style captures something of the broken life of this young man and so many others. The writing is quite direct, very painfully so in some of the harsher scenes. It’s a quick read that makes a very strong impression.