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Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany, 2002, * * * *

All manner of flawed and fragile humanity reside in the Yacoubian Building, a once-elegant temple of Art Deco splendor now slowly decaying in the smog and bustle of downtown Cairo. Set during the 1991 Gulf War, but about contemporary Egypt, Alaa Al Aswany's novel follows the lives of several of the building's inhabitants. The diverse characters include the pious son of the building's doorkeeper. the impoverished squatters on its roof, the tattered aristocrat, the gay intellectual, and the ruthless businessman whose stores occupy the ground floor. Each sharply etched character embodies a facet of modern Egypt - an Egypt where political corruption, ill-gotten wealth, and religious hypocrisy are natural allies. It is also the Egypt where the arrogance and defensiveness of the powerful find expression in the exploitation of the weak, where youthful idealism can turn quickly to extremism, and where an older, less violent vision of society may yet prevail. Al Aswany explores the abuses of power and the corruption that permeate Egypt, from the highest levels of government and business down to the employment of the police as paid thugs in domestic disputes. The novel caused an unprecedented stir when it was first published in 2002 and has remained one of the best selling novels in the Arabic language since.

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