Posted by: istop4books | January 30, 2008

The Yacoubian Building

Every so often a book crosses my path that leaves me thinking far after I’ve gone on to read some other, less memorable books. This is one of those.

It starts out a bit slow, a bit confusing, giving us details to the many residents who live and work in this old, once elegant building in Cairo, Egypt. There are offices, shops, elegant apartments and, on the roof, some iron storage bins-converted to apartments for the needy. We meet the cast of characters separately and learn how they arrived at the building, what their passions and aspirations are, as well as what haunts them. The book deals with many of the gritty aspects of life and death, of corruption, sex, greed, a police state, Islam, fundamentalism, gijad, of juggling duty to parents, country and God, of poverty and the power of wealth — all in one building!



It seems to me that the author felt that under whatever dictatorship had gained power, the country had gone to hell in a hand basket of decadence, power, authoritarianism, corruption and lack of modesty, religion and Islam in general. Each one of the characters of the Yacobian Building seem to represent a different segment of this society struggling to make his or her way through life and make the changes that they can, in whatever way they can. The author clearly defines the powerful, dominating and controlling segments of the society and juxtaposes it to the powerless with a result that is heart wrenching. So we have the impoverished, the gay man, the young lady who has to accept blatant sexual harassment to feed her family, and a host of others who deal with their situations in their own ways, some with happy outcomes, and others not. At some level I’m sure that there is quite a bit of symbolism in the novel, but I’m sure a lot of it escapes me for lack of a larger understanding of the current political situation in Egypt.

In the end, the book focuses on a handful of residents and deals with them in a politically incorrect, real-life, real-world way. I can’t say that I could agree with many of the statements the author made in the book, most especially about homosexuals, but the book opened a window a crack and allowed me to spy on a world that I know very little about.



  1. I have heard this is a fantastic must read by many Egyptians. It reflects so much truth.

  2. It was a bestselling Arabic novel in 2002 and 2003 and made into a movie. Whether it is a true depiction of Egyptian life or not, I really don’t know, but it’s a fascinating read.

  3. Just my opinion but probably as true as you can get in printed form. Here is the precursor:

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