The Yacoubian Building by Alaa al Aswany was originally written in Arabic. The novel is translated from Arabic by Humphrey Davies. The Yacoubian Building centres on characters that live in the old and quaint Yacoubian Building. Their lives intersect and connect in so many different strands that are unknown even to them.
The many characters that weave in and out the narrative of The Yacoubian Building is the highlight of the novel. These characters show the city’s diversity, its class divisions and the problems the different classes face because of belonging to that particular class. Their narratives touch upon the history of the city, particularly its colonial past and how Cairo became a city that was open to several communities and people of different ethnicity. The building itself has a unique history of its own. It was constructed by an Armenian millionaire, Hagop Yacoubian, to mimic a kind of colonial European grandeur.
Among the colorful characters are Zaki Bey, who is the oldest resident of the building; Hatim Rasheed, a closet homosexual who is also the editor of a French language newspaper, Le Caire; Hagg Azam, Taha el Shazli, Busayna and many others.
Hagg Azam is a businessman who ventures into politics.
Taha el Shazli is a hardworking student who aspires to join the police but his aspiration is thwarted because of class: his father is a doorman which is unfairly used as a yardstick to judge Taha’s ability. Thwarted by an unfair system, Taha gets demoralised and influenced by extremist movements which leads to his bitter end. Taha’s story was a nuanced criticism of the failure of the systems that allows young ambitious individuals to perish by providing space to terrorist elements to mushroom.
The depiction of the homosexual relationship between Hatim and his partner along with showcasing the underground gay scene depicts Cairo in a different light: a city that is trying to free itself from the shackles of strict religious morality.
The opening of The Yacoubian Building reveals that Zaki Bey is the oldest resident of the building and speaks of him as a legendary figure. But by the third page, the novel depicting him as a womaniser was a complete let down of the cosmopolitan and nostalgic opening. This could be overlooked too as being only one character’s flaw. However, majority of the male characters are shown lusting over women (except the homosexual couple). The women also are shown as considering this male lust as a norm, accepting it as how things are between men and women. This deprives both male and female characters of any humanity or individuality.