A Conversation with Alaa al-Aswany on “The Yacoubian Building”

Pamela Nice

So spoke the police officer overseeing the retrieval of my debit card from an ATM machine in Cairo. We had five hours to kill before the process would be successful, so I decided to interview him in his office about his reaction to “The Yacoubian Building.” He gladly obliged me. His comment above was in response to my question about the police brutality in the film version – actually a scene where a young political protester was tortured in a prison, with Mubarak’s picture in the background. “It’s the system that is corrupt. You have power according to how much money you have. There is no law in Egypt. Everyone has his own law – him [referring to a portrait of President Mubarak on the office wall], the police, the government and me. I have a lot of power. If I wanted to take money, it would be easy. They pay the police very badly, so it’s tempting to take money. Fortunately, I have another source of income.”

“I liked ‘The Yacoubian Building,’” he continued, “because it presented a true picture of Egypt today. The classes. There have always been two classes in Egypt since the pharaohs: the ruling class and the ones who want to be ruled.”

Surprisingly, this officer’s reactions were very similar to those I had heard from many people I interviewed in Cairo this summer about both the novel and film versions of “The Yacoubian Building.” A young working woman, who had graduated from Cairo University and was quite religious, said that she agreed that people from the lower class should not become police officers (referring to one of the subplots of the film) because they might take revenge for their oppression on people of higher classes. A student at the American University in Cairo said he saw the film three or four times and was depressed for a week after each viewing. Why did he want to see it more than once? Because “it was a great movie: it presented a true picture of Egypt – how hard it is for poor people in our society; how we have lost the value of caring for one another. Because of the speed of our lives, the poverty – you chase after money just to live.” Others said that the depiction of homosexuality was just another aspect of a culture lacking morals.

Some Egyptians didn’t like the movie because they felt it focused only on the negative aspects of their society. But most of the many people I talked to were profoundly, emotionally moved by the film or book. Some credited the film for the success of the book. Others thought it was the sexual content (certainly tame by American standards) that boosted book sales. But few could deny that both the book and film created a phenomenon in Cairene culture because of the many taboos broken in the name of freedom of artistic expression. “The Yacoubian Building” presents police torture as a main cause of Islamic extremism; shows sexual exploitation of poor women at the workplace; prostitution and drug use among the upper classes; and bribery and extortion as the modus operandi in politics. It depicts a homosexual couple in frank, if stereotypical, terms. As one businessman put it, “Other Egyptian novels and films have treated one or another of these topics. But this book brought them all together in one work.”

Having heard so much from readers and spectators, I was eager to hear from the creator of this phenomenon himself, Alaa al Aswany. On a muggy evening in July, I met the author in his dental office in Garden City. Even after his astounding success with “The Yacoubian Building,” he still puts in several hours of dentistry every day but Friday, which he reserves for meetings. “I can’t remove myself from life to write,” he says. “Writing is part of my living.” He was relaxed and good-humored, stretching my questions about his work into broader reflections on art and life.

I’d like to talk about this phenomenon of “The Yacoubian Building.” The book has been a bestseller throughout the Arab world for the past four years.

It’s been translated into 19 languages, actually. In Egypt, we’ve had nine editions in four years.

I’ve heard many reasons for its popularity here in Egypt. How many copies have been sold?

That’s an interesting question because, you know, publishing houses do not always give accurate figures. Writers here have no rights.

You mean as far as royalties are concerned?

Yes. I’ve changed publishers now, so it’s no longer a problem. But it’s very hard to get accurate statistics, and publishers can pay less to the author if they minimize the sales numbers.

Many journalists here have claimed it’s been the most read book since Mahfouz’s trilogy. Some people have said it’s because of the frank descriptions of sex in the book, including a homosexual relationship. Others have mentioned the honest depiction of political corruption. You got readers because you broke taboos.

Yes, some people do say this. But why can’t we say there is a following because the writing and story are good? Sometimes, discussing the political or social or other themes in a novel and crediting those for its popularity, is a way of dismissing it as worthy literature. We have two schools of fiction here in Egypt today. One is an imitation of the French novel, absurdist – you know, a guy comes home and finds his wife making love to a cockroach. “We have to educate the Egyptian reader to understand our writing,” these authors say. They expect Egyptians to be interested in this?

The other school writes in an original voice. It’s like the difference between dentistry and writing: when I do dentistry, I apply exactly what I was taught. It is an applied science. Art is different. Deep, clear water – that’s what writing should be. A good story is transparent on the surface, but every time you read it, you discover something new. Like our daily lives, but more significant and more beautiful.

What is your writing process like? Do you write every day? Do you have a routine of some sort?

Five, six days a week, I wake at 6:00 and write first thing in the morning until 10:30. You cannot imagine how I feel if I miss a day. I write and revise every day. “Yacoubian Building” took me 2 to 3 years to write. What you are reading now could well have been revised a hundred times. I push the characters until I lose control of them.

Could you give me an example?

Yes. I thought I had finished the novel when Zaki and Busayna got arrested. I went to bed depressed, because the last thing Busayna had said is, “All my life I’ve had bad luck in everything.” In the morning, when I woke, I felt relieved because I discovered they had gotten married!

How did you get past the censors, with the homosexuality and scenes of police brutality?

There is no official censorship of books before they are published – it’s after the fact. Then Al Azhar or the government might make judgments or pull a book. It was the film that upset them. At first they supported it, but when they saw the effect it was having in the theatres – people were applauding characters and shouting – they got concerned. About 100 members of the People’s Assembly tried to ban the film because of the homosexuality – so-called “family values.” But they allow other movies that are almost pornographic! There was a big campaign in the official newspapers. They said the film “gives a bad impression of Egypt; the author is almost a foreigner.” Yes – I had a French education in Egypt and I went to dental school in the U.S., but I’m not working for the Ministry of Tourism. To be loyal to my country, I have to be ignorant?

Who do you write for? Who is your audience?

My imaginary reader? It’s hard to answer that question. I work for him, I guess, but he doesn’t have any authority over me.

But do you write for Egyptians or think of them?

The way I see it, all literature has two elements – the local element, which gives it its humanity, and the universal, which appeals to a broad audience. You should have both. 

Did you write “Yacoubian Building” in fusha [Modern Standard Arabic]?

Yes, in the “third language,” which is a sort of flexible fusha. I don’t believe in writing in the colloquial. Fusha is a nuanced, complex language, unlike the colloquial. And I can reach a broader Arab audience. It’s the orientalists who are pushing the use of the colloquial.

How has your success with “Yacoubian Building” changed your life?

In a good way and a bad way. It has allowed me to make my main living as a writer. But I have lost many friends. I am an object of envy. People say “Yacoubian Building” was popular because of the sex, exposed corruption, police brutality, etc., but won’t acknowledge that, perhaps, it was a good piece of literature. You see?

This interview appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 12, Nos. 56/57 (Summer/Fall 2006).

Copyright (c) 2006, 2019 by Al Jadid

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