Friday, September 22, 2017

Alaa Al Aswany: 'The Yacoubian Building' (2004)

Allaa Al Aswany, The Yacoubian Building. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2004. Originally published in 2002 as 'Imarat Ya'qubyan.

Egypt is in "the news" every single day, usually a piece about some violent incident presented with little context. The Yacoubian Building goes a long way in providing a better context to understand what's going on -- historically and socially. (It was, by the way, an international best-seller and has been made into a movie and TV series.) 

The novel's interweaving plot is cleverly constructed around a building in Cairo financed by an Armenian and completed in 1937 (eighty years ago), giving Aswany, a dentist originally, a literal architectural framework with which to consider changes in time, socio-economic structure, and individual arcs. 

Egyptian society (the "present" being mostly during the Gulf War, 1990-1991) is depicted as corrupt and rough, with huge disparities between the super-rich and powerful and the vast majority of Egyptians. It is a police state with some freedoms, but not many. There is an Islamist alternative that is pitted against the generally Islamic status quo, providing a tight, competing structure for the down and out.

The rich use their power to get their way with luxuries, people and property. The military and police enforce the status quo, using violent suppressive force, including torture and intimidation. Islamist militants counter in kind. 
Even though it's now 2017, the basic dynamic of Egypt today seems about the same as when The Yacoubian Building first came out, despite the fifteen intervening years of upheaval.

One thing has changed, adding more pressure to all systems. If in 1991 Egypt had a population of about 59 million people, as of this post, it has risen to 98 million! Median age in Egypt is about 25 years old. By comparison, the median age in the USA is about 38. Think about the implications.

Another interesting facet: Egypt is socially conservative by layers. The dominant society looks askance at alcohol, recreational sex, etcetera, and Islamists are even stricter and more Puritanical. The layered culture is riddled with hypocrisy and most "non-conformist" activities continue, albeit often in a distorted way, underground, in the shadows or under cover of the night. The richest and most conservative are, not surprisingly, usually among the biggest hypocrites. Within this framework, what hope for the average person?

Curious about modern Egypt? Check it out!

Today's Rune: Strength. 


Charles Gramlich said...

as usual in the human world, it's not religion versus religion but the haves versus the have nots

t said...

I remember this film and book. Wish I had the book here to read again.