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Three reviews: The Yacoubian Building, The Monk, A Bride of the Plains Legolas Send a noteboard - 18/09/2012 09:00:44 PM
Figured I'd keep it to one thread rather than spamming the board. :P Plus, with three reviews in one thread, odds are that at least one of the three appeals to everyone, right? Right. Guess I'll put the last two in separate replies, though...


Alaa al-Aswani - The Yacoubian Building (Imarat Yacoubian)


Nine years before the Tahrir Square manifestations that would change modern Egypt forever, author and political activist Alaa al-Aswani (who would go on to play a significant role at Tahrir) published the novel The Yacoubian Building, which somehow managed to evade censorship and became an instant hit - and a few years later the movie version went on to become the most successful Egyptian movie of all time. This is rather surprising, considering that The Yacoubian Building was pretty much a no-holds-barred frontal attack on everything that was wrong with Egyptian society and Egyptian government.

The story follows the lives of a good number of characters, all of whom live in the Yacoubian building, an old apartment building in downtown Cairo that takes its name from the Armenian who built it in the thirties. At the time of the novel, a few of the original sumptuous apartments remain, but most of the inhabitants of the building are middle-class or downright dirt poor, living in huts on the roof. As such, the building contains all sorts of people: a wealthy eternal bachelor with a love for all things French, the smart and ambitious son of the janitor and his fiancée, the openly gay editor of a major newspaper, a corrupt businessman trying to become an even more corrupt member of parliament, and so on. Some of those people rebel against the system, others abuse it, still others are apathetic to it, but in all the plotlines the corruption, hypocrisy and popular dissatisfaction of Egyptian society features prominently.

Al-Aswani tries to tackle a large number of social problems in Egypt, and a large number of ways of dealing with those problems, at the same time; this has the benefit of making this novel very interesting to readers who want to learn something about Egyptian contemporary society and the factors that led to the Arab Spring, but from a literary point of view he overreaches somewhat. Certain plotlines are left dangling in loose air, and many characters lack the depth to become more than just the representation of a certain social problem or controversy - the gay editor is just there to breach the subject of homosexuality, for instance. The two dominating plotlines are those of the janitor's son, who finds his dreams of becoming a policeman frustrated by the mere fact of his father's profession, and finds a release for his frustration in increasingly militant religion; and that of the old bachelor full of nostalgia for the more European Egypt of times gone by, who suddenly finds himself locked in a ruthless struggle with his bitter, sour sister that threatens his comfortable life. Those characters are well-written enough, but it's a shame about the rest.

As usual, I was rather unhappy with the quality of the Dutch translation of this novel (I considered reading it in Arabic, but in the end I decided that'd be too much work), but hopefully the English one is better and less stilted. Partially as a result of that, I have to say I didn't find much in this novel to add to the movie; I'm inclined to say that this is one of those rare cases where the movie is better than the book. I do recommend the book, especially to those wanting to have a better understanding of the frustrations of Egyptians and Middle Easterners in general; but I recommend the movie more.
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Three reviews: The Yacoubian Building, The Monk, A Bride of the Plains - 18/09/2012 09:00:44 PM 5550 Views
Actually, it sounds like a bad copy of Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy - 18/09/2012 09:06:40 PM 726 Views
I've yet to read the final two books of that trilogy. - 18/09/2012 09:36:33 PM 645 Views
Mahfouz tackles almost all those "taboos". - 18/09/2012 11:20:59 PM 621 Views
Matthew Lewis - The Monk - 18/09/2012 09:31:27 PM 686 Views
Baroness Orczy - A Bride of the Plains - 18/09/2012 10:18:51 PM 778 Views

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