Peel away the outer layer of an apartment building and you’ll find a microcosm of life: people living in within a small space with their joys, sorrows, triumphs and despair, just a few feet away from each other. Sometimes the lives become tangled with each other, but more often than not they run on parallel tracks. Alaa Al Aswamy uses the lives of a group of people in an apartment building to provide a glimpse into Cairo’s society.
The Yacoubian building (which actually exists) is art deco building in downtown Cairo that started out for the upper classes: spacious apartments with small rooms on the roof that were used for storage. After the coup of 1952, the aristocrats fled and were replaced by army officers and their families, who moved their domestic staff into the storage rooms. When the story begins, downtown Cairo has become outmoded and the apartments in the Yacoubian building are being rented as offices. (It was also where the author, Al Aswamy, first practiced dentistry.) The little rooms on the roof are rented to newcomers to the city.
The book has a large cast of characters. Zaki Bey is an aristocrat who loves women and drink. He lives with his embittered sister, Dawlat, and uses his “office” in the Yacoubian building for his romantic assignations. Hagg Muhammed Azzam is a shady businessman with political ambitions, who takes a second wife, Souad, without the knowledge of his first wife. Although he has married Souad, he keeps her in the Yacoubian building like a secret mistress. Hatim Rashid is a respected newspaper editor who looks for love among rough young men. He thinks he has found it in Abduh, a policeman. But Abduh has a wife and child and uses the money he gets from Hatim to support them. And then there is Taha el Shazli, the son of the doorkeeper who is brighter than several of the children whose families his father serves. Taha fails the exam to get into the police and becomes a fundamentalist. His love, Busanya el Sayed, is a young woman who lives in the rooms on the roof and works to support her mother and family, which she can only do by compromising her principles. This moves her away from Taha, and the couple break up. And finally, there is Malan, ambitious and determined to acquire one of the apartments for himself, so he can move out of his room on the roof.
Gradually, the decisions that the characters take have serious consequences. Souad becomes pregnant and refuses to have an abortion; Azzam gets involved in business dealings with “The Big Man”, who demands 25 percent of his business; Taha is arrested by the police for his involvement with the fundamentalists and tortured; Busanya finds love in the most unlikely place; and Hatim’s obsession with Abu takes a nasty turn.
This is primarily a novel about power: those who are powerless try to survive by manipulating the powerful. People like Busanya, Souad, Abduh and Taha want to have a decent life but find it is impossible to do so honestly. Taha’s slide into extremism is extremely well-drawn—you can see how a bright, ambitious and decent mancould be lured into fundamentalism and violence. My one criticism is that not all the stories are resolved, which I realize is not always necessary, but in this case it makes the book feel unfinished. But it is definitely worth reading. Alaa Al Aswamy paints a scathing picture of Egyptian society and of a government has betrayed its people.