Sunday, May 22, 2005
The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany is apparently the best-selling Arabic novel of the past 3 years. I honestly hadn't heard of it until a few months ago when I heard it was being made into the most expensive Egyptian movie ever. (Believe it or not, the budget of $3 million is double the previous record holder). The movie is being billed as the Egyptian Ocean's Eleven because the cast includes Adel Imam, Noor Al Sharif, Yusra, Nabila Obaid, Laila Elwi, Hind Sabri, Ahmed Rateb, Ahmed Bidair and Farouq Al Fishawi (who will narate but not appear).
The novel has been translated into English and is available from Amazon.com (link above) of which you can read an excerpt from the first chapter. It must have been 15 years since I last read an Arabic novel so instead of just ordering the English translation I chose to read it in the original language. Last week my brother in law was going to Egypt so I asked him to get it for me.
Turned out it was a slim novel of about 350 small pages which I read in just a couple of days. It was a very enjoyable read. Based on my limited knowledge of Arabic modern literature, this is quite a daring novel. For one thing, one of the main characters is gay. The author quite vividly summarized his point of view of 50 years of Egyptian history in one building. He spends the first third of the book just introducing the characters. Each character gets an extensive introduction with background history. He doesn't build the characters, instead he presents them to you fully formed with a synopsis of who they are and how they got to be how they are. The main characters are an old playboy who blames all Egypt's ills on Abdul Nasir, a gay newspaper editor who lives a highly successful life in the day and turns victim to his desires at night, the son of the building's doorman who dreams of becomign a policeman and when denied his dreams turns to fundemantalism and terrorism, his girlfriend who's father has passed away and is now forced to work in clothing stores and accept the owners' sexual harrassment.. Events quickly unfold and all of a sudden it's over with some of the threads left hanging.
It's a bit frustrating in the end. The characters are stereotypes and the author fits them into what he believes are absolutes. You wish the author would have taken the long way around and given you one of those massive novels that you could sink your teeth into and got totally immersed in. I guess the novel wouldn't have been as successful since it wouldn't have been as accessible for the average joe who isn't an avid reader but is willing to read a slim book if all his friends say it's worth his time.
Despite my frustrations with the book, I can totally see where all the hype came from and I do recommend it. However now that I've read it I can't see how any of the actors cast in the movie fit with the the characters. I have little hope it's going to be a good movie.
The Arabic version can be bought online from Adab Wa Fan (note: site does not appear to be fully Firefox compatible).