Yacoubian Building Essays

Alaa Al-Aswany (Egyptian Arabic: علاء الأسواني‎, IPA: [ʕæˈlæːʔ elɑsˈwɑːni]; born 26 May 1957) is an Egyptian writer, and a founding member of the political movement Kefaya.

Early life and career[edit]

Al-Aswany was born on 26 May 1957. His mother, Zainab, came from an aristocratic family; her uncle was a Pasha and Minister of Education before the Egyptian Revolution of 1952.[4] His father, Abbas Al-Aswany, was from Aswan[3] (in Lower Nubia) and was a lawyer and writer who “is remembered as being a captivating and charismatic speaker with a broad following and loyalty within a cross-section of the Egyptian revolutionary intelligentsia”. Abbas Al-Aswany wrote a regular back-page essay in the Egyptian weekly magazine Rose al-Yūsuf entitled Aswaaniyat.[5] In 1972, he was “the recipient of the state award for literature".[3] He died when Alaa was 19 years old.[4]

Aswany attended Le Lycée Français in Cairo and received a bachelor's degree in dental and oral medicine at Cairo University in 1980. He went on to pursue a master's degree in dentistry at the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1985.[6] He speaks Arabic, English, French and Spanish.[7] He studied Spanish literature in Madrid.

Al-Aswany married his first wife in his early twenties, she was a dentist, and they had their son Seif, they divorced later. When he was 37, he married Eman Taymoor and they had two daughters, Mai and Nada.

He wrote a weekly literary critique entitled "parenthetic phrase" in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Sha'ab, and then became responsible for the culture page in the same newspaper. He wrote a monthly political article in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Arabi Al-Nasseri and a weekly article in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Dustour. Then, he wrote a weekly article in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Shorouk. Currently, he writes a weekly article in Al-Masry Al-Youm on Tuesdays. His articles have been published in leading international newspapers such as The New York Times,[8]Le Monde,[8]El Pais,[9]The Guardian,[10]The Independent[8] and others.[8]

His second novel, The Yacoubian Building, an ironic depiction of modern Egyptian society, has been widely read in Egypt and throughout the Middle East. His literary works have been translated into 31 languages:[11] English, Greek, Bulgarian, Catalan, Chinese, Chinese Simplified, Dutch, Turkish, Malay, Danish, Norwegian, Finnish, Armenian, Croatian, Bosnian, Serbian, Polish, Portuguese, Icelandic, French, Slovenian, Galician, Spanish, Estonian, Italian, Romanian, Russian, Korean, Swedish, German and Slovak. In 2006, The Yacoubian Building was adapted into “the biggest budget movie ever produced in Egypt”.[12] The movie was screened at international film festivals and was a huge hit in Egypt. However, Al-Aswany was banned from attending the premiere.[3]The Yacoubian Building is one of a few movies that addresses social taboos and widespread governmental corruption, such as the rigging of elections. In fact, many intellectuals believe that this work played a crucial role in triggering revolutionary sentiments among the Egyptian people. Alaa Al-Aswany claims that during the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, many protesters approached him and said “We are here because of what you wrote".[13] In 2007, The Yacoubian Building was made into a television series of the same name.

Chicago, a novel set in the city in which the author was educated, was published in January 2007 and his Automobile Club of Egypt was published in English in 2016.

Al-Aswany’s name has also been included in the list of the 500 Most Influential Muslims in the World,[14] issued by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center in Amman, Jordan. He was number one in The Foreign Policy Top 100 Global Thinkers list 2011.[15]

Al-Aswany participated in the Blue Metropolis literary festival in Montreal, June 2008 and April 2010, and was featured in interviews with the CBC programme Writers and Company.

In October 2010 the Israel/Palestine Centre for Research and Information (IPCRI) said it was offering its Hebrew readers the rare privilege of reading the best-selling Egyptian novel The Yacoubian Building. While Al-Aswany refused for the book to be translated into Hebrew and published in Israel, a volunteer had translated it and IPCRI wanted to offer it for free to expand cultural awareness and understanding in the region. Al-Aswany was deeply frustrated by this, as he rejected the idea of normalizing with Israel, and accused the IPCRI and the translator of piracy and theft. Consequently, he complained to the International Publishers Association.[16]

In January 2015, the Gingko Library published Democracy is the Answer: Egypt's Years of Revolution, a collection of newspaper columns written by Al-Aswany for Al-Masry Al-Youm between 2011 and 2014.[17][18][19]

Role in the revolution[edit]

Al-Aswany was in Tahrir Square each of the 18 days before Mubarak fell from power.[13] In fact, he was one of the few prominent faces of the leaderless revolution. Following Mubarak’s resignation, Alaa Al-Aswany confronted the Mubarak-appointed Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik on an Egyptian channel.[20] Shafik lost his temper under persistent grilling by the novelist and it was the first time for Egyptians to witness a ruler dressed down so severely by a civilian in public. Consequently, it is said that Shafik was fired by the SCAF.[13]


On 27 October 2013, The Blaze ran an article claiming that Al-Aswany is "an anti-Zionist conspiracy theorist".[21]

Bibliography (in Arabic)[edit]


  • 1990: Awrāq ʾIṣṣām ʾAbd il-ʾĀṭī (Arabic: أوراق عصام عبد العاطى‎, The Papers of Essam Abdel Aaty)
  • 2002: ʿImārat Yaʾqūbiyān (Arabic: عمارة يعقوبيان‎, The Yacoubian Building)
  • 2007: Chicago (Arabic: شيكاجو‎)
  • 2013: Nādī il-sayyārāt (Arabic: نادي السيارات‎, The Automobile Club of Egypt)
  • 2018: Jumhuriat ka'an (Arabic: جمهورية كأن‎, Republic of As)

Short stories[edit]

  • 1990: Alladhī iqtarab wa raʾa (Arabic: الذى اقترب و رأى‎, "Who Approached And Saw")
  • 1998: Jamʾiyat muntaẓirī il-zaʿīm (Arabic: جمعية منتظرى الزعيم‎, "Waiting for a Leader")
  • 2004: Nīrān sadīqa (Arabic: نيران صديقة‎, "Friendly Fire")


  • 2010: Li mā dhā lā yathūr il-Miṣriyūn (Arabic: لماذا لا يثور المصريون؟‎, "Why Don't Egyptians Revolt?")
  • 2011: Hal nastaḥiqq il-dimuqrāṭiyya? (Arabic: هل نستحق الديمقراطية؟‎, "Do We Deserve Democracy?")
  • 2011: Miṣr ʿalā dikkat il-iḥṭiyāṭy (Arabic: مصر على دكة الإحتياطى‎, "Egypt on The Reserve Bench")
  • 2012: Hal akhṭaʾat il-thawra il-Miṣriyya? (Arabic: هل أخطأت الثورة المصرية؟‎, "Did the Egyptian Revolution Go Wrong?")
  • 2014: Kayf naṣnaʾ il-diktātūr? (Arabic: كيف نصنع الديكتاتور؟‎, "How do we make the Dictator?")
  • Since November 2013, he has been writing a monthly opinion column for the International Herald Tribune/New York Times.

English translations[edit]

  • Alaa Al Aswany (15 February 2015). Democracy is the Answer: Egypt's Years of Revolution. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-1-909942-71-4. 
  • Alaa Al Aswany (12 April 2011). On the State of Egypt: What Made the Revolution Inevitable. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. ISBN 978-0-307-94699-7. 
  • Alaa Al Aswany (2009). Friendly Fire. Fourth Estate. ISBN 978-0-00-730600-8. 
  • Alaa Al Aswany (6 October 2009). Chicago. HarperCollins. ISBN 978-0-06-198188-3. 
  • Alaa al Aswany, The Yacoubian Building, HarperPerennial, 2007
  • Alaa al Aswany, The Yacoubian Building, Fourth Estate, 2007
  • Alaa al Aswany, The Yacoubian Building, Humphrey Davies (translator), HarperPerennial, 2006
  • Alaa al Aswany, The Yacoubian Building, Humphrey Davies (translator), The American University in Cairo Press, 2004



  1. ^Planet Book Groupie InterviewArchived 12 February 2015 at the Wayback Machine.
  2. ^Maya Jaggi, "Cairo calling", The Guardian, 23 August 2008.
  3. ^ abcdRachel Cooke, "The Interview", The Observer, 31 May 2009. Retrieved 24 May 2011.
  4. ^ abKhan, Riz (13 February 2009). "One on One". Al Jazeera. 
  5. ^Chicago Novel Book ReviewArchived 14 October 2009 at the Wayback Machine.
  6. ^McCarthy, Rory (27 February 2006). "Dentist by day, top novelist by night". The Guardian. London. 
  7. ^Bio of Alaa Al Aswani"Archived 14 March 2011 at the Wayback Machine., World Affairs Journal, accessed 24 May 2011.
  8. ^ abcd"Alaa Al-Aswany`s C.V." Facebook. Retrieved 12 March 2013. 
  9. ^"Egipto ante el fascismo | Internacional". El Pais. 28 October 2011. Retrieved 12 March 2013. 
  10. ^"Alaa Al Aswany". The Guardian. London. 9 July 2009. 
  11. ^t. "Alaa Al Aswany". Facebook. Retrieved 12 March 2013. 
  12. ^Karen Kostyal, "Alaa Al Aswany: Voice of Reason", National Geographic, September 2006, accessed 17 May 2011.
  13. ^ abcMatthew Kaminski, "The Face of Egypt’s Uprising", The Wall Street Journal, 13 April 2011, accessed 24 May 2011.
  14. ^The Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre. "The 500 Most Influential Muslims"(PDF). The Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre. Retrieved 3 January 2011. 
  15. ^"The FP Top 100 Global Thinkers". Foreign Policy. 28 November 2011. Retrieved 12 March 2013. 
  16. ^"Israeli Translation of Egyptian Novel Infuriates Author", Agence France-Presse. Hosted by Google, 28 October 2010, Retrieved 24 May 2011.
  17. ^"BBC Radio 4 – Start the Week, Arabian Nights". BBC. Retrieved 21 November 2015. 
  18. ^"Democracy is the Answer: Egypt's Years of Revolution". Middle East Monitor – The Latest from the Middle East. Retrieved 21 November 2015. 
  19. ^"Autopsy of a Revolution". Washington Free Beacon. Retrieved 21 November 2015. 
  20. ^Baladna Bil Masry Talk Show (March 2011) on YouTube
  21. ^The Blaze, 27 October 2013]
  22. ^Al Wafd News
  23. ^"الأسوانى" يفوز بجائزة حرية التعبير الألمانية

Further reading[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Kostyal, Karen, "Alaa Al Aswany: Voice of Reason" (interview with the author), National Geographic Interactive, nd.
  • Mishra, Pankaj. "Where Alaa Al Aswany Is Writing From", New York Times Magazine, 27 April 2008.
  • Salama, Vivian, "A Tale of Some Egyptian: As Yacoubian Building Heads West, the Author Discusses the Story's Message", Daily Star Egypt, 8 December 2005.
  • Alaa Al Aswany interviewed by Jonathan Heawood, English PEN at the London Book Fair, 2008, podcast
  • Watch a video interview with Alaa al Aswany talking about Chicago on The Interview Online
  • Interview with Alaa al Aswany at the World Book Club
  • http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=97897234
  • Review of "Chicago", Ambassadors Online Magazine, July 2009

External links[edit]

Dr. Alaa Al-Aswany during his monthly seminar in the "Leadership and Management Development Center" on 25 April 2013.

The Yacoubian Building

by Alaa al Aswany

255pp, Fourth Estate, £14.99

The Yacoubian Building is the sort of dense neighbourhood novel which, though quite out of style when set in London or Paris, has been revived for the banlieue of downtown Cairo. With its parade of big-city characters, both ludicrous and tender, its warm heart and political indignation, it belongs to a literary tradition that goes back to the 1840s, to Eugène Sue and Charles Dickens. Nearer at hand, it stands midway between the foundation novel of Egyptian Arabic, Naguib Mahfouz's Zaqaq al Midaq (Midaq Alley, 1947) and the modern Egyptian television serial.

Published in Egypt in 2002 as Imarat Yaqubyan, the novel has been a bestseller in Arabic. While Mahfouz had a greater success in English and French than in his mother tongue, the Arabic Yacoubian is now in its ninth edition. It has been filmed (by Marwan Hamed) with a care and expense unprecedented in the Egyptian cinema.

Mahfouz set his novel in a poor working-class district, seeking to portray the changes wrought by the second world war, and the British Eighth Army, to sexual morals and long-lived social traditions. The Yacoubian Building unfolds in the former European quarter downtown at the time of the 1990 Gulf war.

The Yacoubian building itself is a once-handsome art deco block on the boulevard known now as Talaat Harb, but here called by its old name of Suleiman Basha Street. Built in 1934 for an Armenian millionaire, its fall from grace is for this author just one aspect of Egypt's general dilapidation. The pashas, cotton millionaires and foreigners who occupied the apartments were all chased out at the coup d'état of 1952 and replaced by military officers and their country wives.

With the opening of the country to foreign capital in the 1970s, the downtown district became outmoded, and apartments in the building were let out as offices (including the clinic where Alaa al Aswany first practised as a dentist). Whether in fact, or merely in fiction, old store-rooms on the roof of the building are rented in the novel to poor immigrants from the villages, so that Aswany manages to have both a middle-class apartment block and a teeming Mahfouzian alley in the air.

The characters are a sort of compendium. There is Zaki Bey, an elderly roué with his pre-revolutionary manners and liking for dope and women; Hatim Rashid, a newspaper editor who pursues rough young men from the sticks; and Hagg Muhammad Azzam, a self-made millionaire with a shady past and political ambitions. On the roof, the shirtmaker Malak is working out a deep-laid plan to capture an apartment downstairs.

The heterosexual romantic interest is supplied by Taha, the bright and pious doorman's son, and his girlfriend Buhayna. When Taha proves too honest for the Police Academy, he drifts towards Muslim militancy and away from Buhayna, who is meanwhile finding that there are ways of making money out of men without ruining herself for the marriage market.

If the characters, good and bad, educated or not, have a quality in common, it is a sort of big-city sophistication. The plotting is neat, the episodes are funny and sad, and there are deaths and weddings aplenty. For all the Mahfouzian decor - prostitution, hashish, homosexuality - there is none of the oddity, even clownishness, of character or the intensity of savour and texture of Midaq Alley. Aswany's is an altogether more worldly Egypt, and one that is in a hurry to get somewhere or other.

Mahfouz always doubted whether virtue could survive on an empty stomach. For Aswany, political probity and sexual virtue in Egypt have been obliterated by the British, the monarchy, the Nasserists, the clergy and now the nouveaux riches. As his unamiable political fixer Kamal el Fouli pronounces: "The Egyptians are the easiest people in the world to rule. The moment you take power, they submit to you and grovel to you and you can do what you want with them." That is not true, as the British and the monarchy found to their cost, but you can see why his characters should think it so.

Even Islamic militancy, or what the Egyptians call gihad, is just a drug like Black Label whisky or picking up police recruits or dope or groping young women on crowded buses in Tahrir Square. Yet Aswany is so good-natured that even his terrorist is allowed to enjoy, before his martyrdom, a paradisial marriage portrayed in the shimmering palette of gihadi bad taste. It is balanced by a wedding in a whisky bar, where a good-hearted French lady, a survivor of the good times, sings "La Vie en Rose".

For all its risqué material, and its parade of sodomy and scripture, The Yacoubian Building is restrained in its portrayal of the actual relations of power and wealth in Hosni Mubarak's Egypt. When Hagg Muhammad Azzam, desperate to protect his business interests, seeks a meeting with "the Big Man" at his cement Versailles, he is greeted not by a person but by a disembodied voice through a loudspeaker. The veil of power is intact. The truth is that in Mubarak's Egypt, just as in Saddam Hussein's Baghdad or even the shah's Tehran, sex is one thing but the boss is quite another, and the difference is a matter of life and death.

· James Buchan has translated from Persian Hushang Golshiri's Shazdeh Ehtejab (The Prince, Harvill Secker)


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