Book Review: The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany

What a ride was The Yacoubian by Alaa Al Aswany! Though it was published 15 years ago (or so), I feel it still speaks to the problems and soul of Egypt today. But I’m not Egyptian, so what do I know?

It’s silly, but I was so thrilled when one of the characters – a bad*as woman who makes the best of the crappy hand that patriarchy has thrown at her btw – lives in the same neighborhood I did in Alexandria (though not my favorite neighborhood in town, I must confess). I felt a connection to the place and the stories.

The book opens with shock; I was surprised by the coarse language and disgusted by women objectification. I thought: “oh no! Another dirty old man chasing teens and we are supposed to like him”. But this is what Alaa Al Aswany does so well in The Yacoubian Building, shock us, make us cringe and yet keep us glued to the pages, cheering for a character no matter who despicable he or she might be. Let me tell you, they are all flawed and terrible but you get the feeling that it has been corruption, poverty or moral policing and repression that have drove them there. Could those characters exist anywhere else? Could they have thrived if Egypt were a democracy? So like Busayna explains.. it is Egypt that has made them and drove them away.

If you like a novel with a diverse set of flawed and terrible (yet lovable) characters, lots of action and all based or inspired by true events, this is one to consider.

Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction depicting Egyptian society as it is, not as we, looking through our Western lenses, would like it to be. Though I stand strong against Anti-Semitism, Homophobia, and Terrorism (particularly in the name of my faith) I still believe that this book opens the door to needed conversations around these subjects.

CW: rape, sexual assault, violence, terrorism, homophobia, anti-semitism, objectification of women, graphic sex, vulgarity.

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