Those rooms had life

Sameer Rahim

  • The Yacoubian Building by Alaa al-Aswany, translated by Humphrey Davies
    Fourth Estate, 255 pp, £14.99, February 2007, ISBN 978 0 00 724361 7

Last October, on the evening of Eid-ul-Fitr, hundreds of men gathered outside a cinema in downtown Cairo. When they discovered the film was sold out, they began ripping down posters and wrecking the box office. Then they turned their attention to women on the street. They shouted ‘Saudi! Saudi!’ at one woman and pulled off her black veil. Other women had their clothes and underwear ripped off; at least one was forced against a wall and raped. The attacks lasted five hours. The Egyptian state security service was only five minutes from the scene, but the authorities – who usually flood the streets with police during political demonstrations – did nothing (later, the police claimed that they hadn’t received any complaints of abuse). It was left to shopkeepers and taxi drivers to pull women to safety. When someone asked a policeman to intervene, he was told: ‘What do you want us to do? It’s Eid. Happy Eid to you too!’

At first, none of this was reported in the Egyptian media, although bloggers posted eyewitness reports and pictures (some of which can be seen at www.misrdigital.com). When Dream TV, a satellite channel, broke the story, it became the subject of debate in newspapers and on television; but three weeks later, Rami Siyan, a blogger who had criticised the police, was arrested. This was part of a crack down on internet subversives: in February this year, another blogger, Abdel Kareem Soliman, was sentenced to four years in prison for calling al-Azhar, the oldest and most prestigious Islamic university in the world, a ‘university of terrorism’ and Hosni Mubarak a ‘dictator’. Faced with such open criticism – even in a medium that only 4 per cent of Egyptians can access at home – Mubarak’s government was sure to act.

In books and films, however, there is more room for freedom of expression. Egypt is proud of its cultural heritage. Last summer, the government gave a state funeral to Naguib Mahfouz, despite the controversy over his novel The Children of Gebelawi – published in 1959, it was banned for causing religious offence – and his opposition to Gamal Abdel Nasser’s regime. Cinema is more strictly censored, but the esteem and wealth Egypt’s film industry generates – it’s the largest in the Middle East – makes it difficult to control. The film adaptation of Alaa al-Aswany’s bestselling novel, The Yacoubian Building, which exposes sexual harassment, police brutality and political corruption in modern Egypt, released last year, quickly recouped its $3 million budget (the highest ever for an Arab movie). The film’s portrayal of a homosexual character was condemned by parliamentary deputies (less was made of its inclusion of a politician who fixes an election) but it wasn’t censored, largely because the director Marwan Hamed cut al-Aswany’s most daring scenes, and also perhaps because the book was already too well known.

The novel itself was published in 2002. (Humphrey Davies translated the book into English in 2004: the film’s success is what has drawn British publishers’ attention.) Al-Aswany was born in Cairo in 1957. He was educated at a French school and learned English at an early age. A graduate course in dentistry took him to Chicago for three years in the 1980s, where he also studied Spanish so that he could read his favourite South American novels in the original. He became politically active on returning to Egypt, writing regularly for opposition newspapers. He published a novel, a novella and some short stories (collected in 2004 under the title Friendly Fire), none of which made much of an impression. Meanwhile, he practised as a dentist in Cairo. The stories his wealthy and influential patients told him while sitting in his chair became the basis of The Yacoubian Building, which he began writing in 1998. He wrote for three hours before going to his clinic and two hours before bed. He knew the book would be controversial; later, he said that ‘I felt I had a bomb in my hands.’ Extracts appeared in Akhbar al-adab, a magazine sympathetic to the liberal opposition, and the novel was first published by Merit, an independent publishing house. Its impact was immediate: 7500 copies sold in the first week, an unprecedented number in Egypt, and in 2002 and 2003 it was the bestselling novel in the Arab world.

All the novel’s characters live in the Yacoubian Building on Suleiman Basha Street in Cairo. Although the address is a real one (al-Aswany had his clinic there for some years), the building itself is different in the novel. The real Yacoubian Building is designed in a restrained Art Deco style and has no balconies or carvings; in the novel, it is ‘in the high classical European style, the balconies decorated with Greek faces carved in stone’. Al-Aswany made his fictional building an emblem of what he regards as Egypt’s golden age: the time before the 1952 revolution when Hagop Yacoubian, an Armenian millionaire, used Italian engineers to create an apartment block in which Cairenes mixed freely with foreigners and Jews. After Nasser came to power, in al-Aswany’s account, the Yacoubian Building, like Egypt, went into decline. (After Suez, Nasser expelled 25,000 Jews; today only two hundred are left in Cairo.) In the novel, Zaki Bey, a 65-year-old French-educated engineer too busy chasing women to build anything, laments that Nasser ‘taught the Egyptians to be cowards, opportunists and hypocrites’. His attitude is typical of the book, which has nothing good to say about Egypt’s post-revolutionary leaders.

The idea for the structure of the novel came to al-Aswany, he claimed in an interview for Egypt Today in 2004, when he saw an old building being ‘torn down in longitudinal sections, making its many separate rooms visible. Those rooms had life. There was someone studying, someone who was in love with the girl next door, some newlyweds’ first apartment. It had people who lived and people who died.’ The novel follows five main characters, drawn from different levels of society. Al-Aswany includes some familiar Egyptian stereotypes: the ageing philanderer, the corrupt businessman and the impoverished girl forced into sexual relationships she doesn’t want; but to these he adds a young man, a gay editor of a French-language newspaper. Their intersecting lives are brought together by the Yacoubian Building – but also by the Egyptian state, which in different ways oppresses them all.

The novel deals frankly with sexual abuse. Busayna, who lives on the roof, is forced to find work after her father dies. Fired from every job she gets because she refuses to provide sexual favours for her bosses, in an excruciating scene, she allows the manager of a clothes shop eventually to masturbate over her in the storeroom. Souad Gaber, a widow, is separated from her son under the terms of her marriage to Hagg Azzam, a corrupt businessman, and kept locked in the Yacoubian Building. She works out that Azzam wants her to be ‘the woman who, taken unawares by her husband’s virility, surrenders to him’, but although she submits to the role, in reality all she feels is ‘the rubbing of two naked bodies, cold and annoying’.

The portrayals of Busayna and Souad will have resonated with many Egyptian women. The Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights collects testimonies on its website; there are complaints about a range of abuses, from indecent exposure on public transport to the fact that Egyptian law doesn’t recognise rape within marriage. A recent WHO survey revealed that 65 per cent of Egyptian women are harassed by men at work. But although The Yacoubian Building sympathises with Busayna and Souad, it is full of lustful, and occasionally embarrassing, descriptions of women. Zaki Bey contemplates ‘voluptuous bosoms with swelling nipples like delicious grapes’, and the narrator lingers on Busayna’s ‘tight-fitting red dress’. Later on in the book, Zaki makes Busayna his mistress. At first, this relationship is presented as seedy and exploitative – ‘When she came close to him, she would smell, along with the penetrating smell of cigarettes that his clothes gave off, another smell, coarse and ancient’ – yet the book ends (unconvincingly) with their happy marriage. (The film remedies the inconsistency by making Zaki more innocent: he doesn’t sleep with Busayna until they are in love. But in the book he can’t wait to take her virginity.)

Homosexuality is addressed in the novel, too. Al-Aswany has said that ‘homosexuals in Egypt were always tolerated – probably not in the same way as in the West – but now I think this has changed. There is less tolerance.’ The Egyptian authorities treat homosexuals more severely than sex offenders. In 2001, the police arrested 52 men whom they accused of ‘debauchery’ and ‘defaming religion’ – code for being gay. Twenty-three were found guilty and sentenced to hard labour. Periodic raids on gay bars and hammams are an easy way for the government to appease the Muslim Brotherhood, or their potential recruits, without having to enact real reform. The Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights doesn’t dare raise the issue, for fear of undermining the whole movement.

In The Yacoubian Building, Hatim Rasheed is the elegant editor of Le Caire. He hangs out in Chez Nous, a gay bar in the basement, which looks like an English pub. Al-Aswany explains the sexual codes of that world: stroking a man’s wrist as you shake his hand means you’re interested; putting two fingers together and moving them is a real come on. Alongside the anthropological details, there are some less convincing generalisations: Hatim has the ‘sad, mysterious, gloomy look that often haunts the face of homosexuals’. His story is predictably tragic. The child of a French mother and an Egyptian father, Hatim grew up culturally confused. As an adult, he begins a stormy relationship with Abduh, a policeman. When Abduh’s son dies, he is overcome with guilt and murders Hatim.

The most radical scenes in the novel are those which link political corruption directly to Mubarak. Hagg Azzam pays millions of Egyptian pounds to Kamal el-Fouli, a political fixer – the ‘very essence of corruption and hypocrisy’ – to make sure he becomes a parliamentary deputy. In the film adaptation, as they discuss the deal, there is a blurred photograph of Mubarak on a background wall. In the novel al-Aswany is more direct. In the only substantial part of the book not adapted for the screen, Azzam is brought to the president’s palace for refusing to pay el-Fouli a quarter of his profits. Through an intercom, a familiar voice (the president’s, though he is never named) explains: ‘We protect you from the tax office, the insurance office, the safety standards office, the audit office and a thousand other offices.’ The president goes on to say that he knows Azzam is a drug baron, and that if he wants protection, he had better hand over the money.

When Mubarak became leader in 1981, parliament gave him the authority to negotiate all military contracts. Over the years, according to a recent report published by the opposition movement Kifaya (‘Enough’), in which al-Aswany plays a prominent role, he has siphoned off millions of dollars from these deals. The first lady, Susan Mubarak, heads around a hundred charities, some of which, the report alleges, are little more than fronts for money laundering: each charity might receive as much as $5 million a year, but the money isn’t properly accounted for. According to the report, Gamal Mubarak, the president’s son, is involved in ‘profit-making partnerships – without making any investment – in a large number of companies’, including Philip Morris, Skoda, Vodafone and McDonald’s. There are rumours of his involvement in the illegal export of Egyptian antiquities. (It was recently made illegal to spread the rumour that Gamal is being groomed for the presidency.) All this is made possible by the ongoing state of emergency, which has been in place ever since the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981. Although Mubarak allowed other candidates to take part in the 2005 presidential election (previously there had been only referendums), vote rigging and intimidation were rife. Only 25 per cent of Egypt’s 32 million registered voters turned out (the population is 78 million). Mubarak won the election easily.

It is remarkable that al-Aswany got away with such a thinly disguised attack on the president. Last year, Mubarak called on journalists and publishers to control themselves better, claiming that ‘our culture is not that of insults or defamation.’ In November 2004, Abd al-Halim Qandeel, the editor of the opposition newspaper al-Araby, was picked up near his home, blindfolded, beaten up and left on the motorway between Cairo and Suez. It is widely believed that this was a punishment for his vocal calls for constitutional reform and the lifting of the state of emergency. Torture is routine in Egyptian prisons. After the terrorist attacks in Sinai in 2004, female relatives of terror suspects were kidnapped and sexually assaulted, to force the men to confess. In the novel, Taha, the son of the building’s doorkeeper, joins an organisation based on the Muslim Brotherhood after being spurned by Busayna and unfairly rejected by the police force. When he is arrested for owning Islamist literature, his guards make him say ‘I’m a woman,’ and rape him repeatedly with a stick. After his release, Taha is more violently committed to his cause. At the end of the book, he dies in a terrorist attack aimed in part at taking revenge on his torturers.

The novel has some more nuanced moments. Busayna keeps giving her mother hints about what happens at the clothing store, until at last she feels she has ‘snatched away her mother’s mask of false innocence’. Hatim is seduced by a servant, Idris, but they have sex on the floor because of Idris’s ‘psychological inability to use his master’s bed even when having sexual intercourse with him’. In general, though, the novel is not subtle. Al-Aswany’s characterisation is thin, his writing workmanlike and the plot reminiscent of an Egyptian soap opera. Meanwhile his success continues. He has just published Chicago, a novel set among the expatriate Arab community that draws on his experiences in America; it tells the stories of an Arab man who falls in love with a Jewish woman and the sexual awakening of a veiled Egyptian woman. It sold twice as many copies in its first week as The Yacoubian Building.