In his novel, The Yacoubian Building, author Alaa Al Aswany employs a clever literary technique: a single, crumbling edifice and its population within serves as a metaphor for the decline of Egypt. Literature works well with restrictions and better with the ghosts of nostalgia and this trick could be well disposed for use among other residential landmarks with storied pasts (the Beverly Hills and Chelsea Hotels with its long-term guests come to mind, as does the Chateau Marmont Hotel on the Sunset Strip, a setting that could strip rock and roll to its essence, and perhaps, its popular decline). Decline is a popular theme in literature and for the fictional residents of the Yacoubian Building old enough to remember, change is not usually a good thing. Present circumstances, at least (the novel’s setting is the winter of 1991 during the onset of the first Gulf War), prove intermittently corrupting, debilitating, and horrible—those of a delicate cast, it seems, do not fare very well in modern Cairo.
Built by an Armenian businessman in 1937, the real life eponymously named Art Deco structure once housed Cairo’s elite but Third World capitals have their own kind of ‘white flight’ not dissimilar to ours (the rich gravitate towards greater space for their golf courses, swimming pools, manicured lawns— not so different from their Long Island or Montecito counterparts— it is a flat world, after all) and the inhabitants within Al Aswany’s novel represent various paradigms of contemporary society: political wannabes, Francophile dipsomaniacs, gay journalists, scheming tailors, and Islamic terrorists. Okay, perhaps not exactly. Rather than being an honest survey of urban Cairo this description of characters might appear handpicked at prima facie but Al Aswany has written a great book, one to my mind, is very nearly to his Cairo as Salmon Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is to Bombay, The Master and Margarita is to Mikhail Bulgakov’s Moscow and What Makes Sammy Run is to Budd Schullberg’s Hollywood— a novel that is so evocative of time and place it defines a society as well as its culture’s plight, better (and certainly more poetically) than any history is capable of. And like these other great novels, there’s a lot of anger there. Its stand against a social system, with which it finds fault, is a brave one.
There is no central plot in The Yacoubian Building— Al Aswany weaves between characters, whose stories do not always intersect: Zaki Bel el Dessoui is a wealthy, aging, alcoholic womanizer reminiscing over the glorious pre-revolutionary past; Taha el Shazili is the doorman’s son who fails at his policeman’s test and is politicized enough to become a suicidal terrorist; Malak is a shirtmaker conspiring to hustle himself into a better apartment; Hatim Rasheed is a gay journalist who’s in love with a married soldier from the country, whom he bribes with gifts to woo his affection; Hagg Muhammad Azzam is a self-made millionaire opportunist aspiring into politics, an individual whom betrays his religious averring when he drugs his concubine mistress in order to force an abortion against her will.
But to my mind, the hero of the story is Busayna el Sayed, a young, beautiful woman who has to work to support her family, which involves indulging the sick petting of her boss for a mere ten Egyptian pounds reward (about two dollars worth). Like another character in the building, Abashkharon, a factotum to the philandering fleshpot el Dessouki wielding a prosthetic leg as “moral blackmail,” Busayna is compelled to use her body for whatever tiny, if not shameful, gains available to her. Inspired by her fetching figure, the charming lecher, el Dessouki, hires her as his assistant but eventually falls in love with her integrity. With his fond memories of an elegant, pre-revolution Cairo, El Dessouki might despise the impoverished, insular, religiously fundamentalist nation Egypt has become (Al Aswany’s prose describes drinking alcohol in Cairo as very nearly a speakeasy affair) but the old gentleman flinches when Busayna mocks his nationalism in the most important speech of the novel:
“You don’t understand because you’re well off. When you’ve stood for two hours at the bus stop or taken three different buses and had to go through hell every day just to get home, when your house has collapsed and the government has left you sitting with your children in a tent on the street, when the police officer has insulted you and beaten you just because you’re on a minibus at night, when you’ve spent the whole day going around the shops looking for work and there isn’t any, when you’re a fine sturdy young man with an education and all you have in your pockets is a pound, or sometimes nothing at all, and then you’ll know why we hate Egypt.”
Busayna is speaking of her own hardships, but she may as well be reporting for all the world’s fellaheen, whether they are Indians, Africans, or even Americans. The language resonates, particularly in its locale and environs: The Yacoubian Building was the decade’s biggest selling Arabic novel. It’s remarkable that such a book could be published and popularized in a country notorious for its censorship (it’s even been adapted into a film and TV series though in sanitized forms). As a work of art that challenges the status quo, the novel spits in society’s face: the government is portrayed as corrupt, barbarous, nepotistic, irreligious, and despotic— torture is described vividly. Malice, perversity, and cravenness pervade the motivations of much of the remaining characters. Egyptian society, here at least, seems to be tearing itself apart.
But how does one of the country’s annual seven million tourists perceive this? Well, he or she doesn’t. Although the Egyptian government fails to provide for the poor, an infrastructure catering to the needs of tourists is very well established. And why not considering the profits? High admission prices, luxury hotels, comprehensive tour programs are big, big business. In the popular press, Egypt is safe enough to visit but dangerous enough that individuals are advised against doing so on their own, a happy medium for a government quite enthusiastic to exploit a rich heritage they had absolutely no part in creating. This concern for travelers’ safety is a fallacy predicated on Egypt being a Muslim, and therefore dangerous, nation. Handholding becomes de rigueur so that in their ten-day ‘adventure,’ the average tourist’s interaction with Egyptians is limited to souvenir peddlers, waiters, concierges, bellboys, drivers, and the ubiquitous tour guide, an air-conditioned experience filtering the traveler’s participation to a culturally predetermined test formula.
It’s often the case that in the interests of tourism a country’s glorious history will overshadow present-day realities. In perhaps no other country is the disconnect between myth and reality so vast as it is in Egypt. Moreover, the historical gap between the marketed fantasy and the onerous reality is equally prodigious. Between the New Kingdom and modern Egyptian state, the fellaheen have suffered incompetent and taxing governments under Persians, Greeks, Romans, Circassians, Turks, and the British. Even religion has a long and varied history so that between Aman Ra and Allah, believers might have prayed to Zeus, Jupiter, and Jesus Christ— you can witness this textured history in ancient temples where stone-cut reliefs of Horus have been plastered over with painted Last Supper scenes, the facial features chiseled out by Muslim iconoclasts.
In most countries, it’s common to see as many locals as tourists at famous monuments, but not in Egypt. In fact, in the interest of state-sponsored tourism (and thus tourists) whole neighborhoods are being razed in order to recreate the glory of ancient Egypt, as in the Nile Valley region where the Sphinx road between the Luxor and Karnak Temples is being restored, displacing entire neighborhoods and thousands of people who are not being adequately compensated for the loss of their homes. For the casual tourist or amateur Egyptologist, the government’s initiative may seem a matter of course. After all, when the scales are weighed between the visual recreation of a glorious dynasty and the miseries of a few thousand peasants, which side do you think the majority of Nefertiti fetishists will find purchase?
Tourism: an inexhaustible machine
Egypt’s President Mubarak came to power in 1981 after the spectacular assassination of Anwar Sadat. Egyptian society has been in a “state of emergency” ever since. What this means is the suspension of habeas corpus, civil rights, and an impartial justice system. Dissidents, radicals, journalists, religious fundamentalists, and free thinkers are routinely jailed and tortured. Yet, Egypt is often held up as a model of the region’s potential for democracy. These tone-deaf proclamations as well as financial support (Egypt is the second highest recipient of U.S. aid— two thirds of which goes to military spending and police espionage used to oppress its citizenry) reveal the utter depths of American hypocrisy. Mubarak is eighty-four years old and expected to die soon. One of his sons, his rapacious reputation preceding him, is being groomed as the heir apparent. This is not a happy prospect for the impoverished Egyptian and in the cafés, many Egyptians, even those in middle-class positions who have benefited from the regime’s policies but whose moral instincts are disgusted by its behavior, are open to a people’s revolution. The land, so fertile with history, may burst into the international spotlight yet again.
As for fate of the characters in The Yacoubian Building, most end tragically, but the final scene finishes the novel on a happy note, one of love redeemed and survived in spite of the brutal reasons it shouldn’t. It may seem maudlin to some after so much tragedy, tagged on by a publisher’s recommendation, softening the political hammer but in its own way it works. Because readers, and by that extension human beings, need a reason to hope.