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The Yacoubian Building

by Alaa Al Aswany

Based on an actual apartment block, the eponymous building acts as a frame for the intertwined stories of its inhabitants. The author, Alaa Al Aswany, worked as a dentist in the Yacoubian Building and watching the tenants come and go inspired him to write this book.

It was built by an Armenian millionaire in the once-grand European quarter of Cairo in the 1930s, but the area is no longer smart and the building, with its faded splendour and its wide-ranging cast of characters, also represents modern Egyptian society in microcosm.

There is Taha, son of the doorman, whose ambition to become a police officer is thwarted on account of his lowly social status. His frustration and subsequent recruitment to Islamic militancy are all too believable. Meanwhile Busayana, the girl he loves, is forced by economic necessity into selling herself to a higher bidder. Yet her eventual devotion to the man who buys her, an aging Lothario and aristocrat, is one of the surprises in a novel whose narrative turns defy prediction.

Among the other denizens of the Yacoubian Building are corrupt politicians, ruthless wide-boys and impoverished immigrants from the country who live on the roof, where entire families exist in old store rooms the size of a cupboard. There is also the sad story of Hatim Rasheed, newspaper editor and closet homosexual, whose search for love has tragic consequences. This sounds gloomy but itís actually a funny and engaging book that rattles along with the helter skelter pace of a soap opera.

Published in Egypt in 2002, THE YACOUBIAN BUILDING was a bestseller in Arabic before being translated into English and has now been made into a film that is on release in the UK.

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