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Authors: Alaa Al Aswany
Categories: Novels
Origin country: Egypt
Translation: Pauli Nielsen
Making up: Sonja Kjølbro
ISBN: 978-99972-1-227-6
Date of publication : 9. February 2017
Pages: 304

Jákupslon

Alaa Al Aswany

In 1934, an affluent Armenian, Yacoubian, constructed a large building in downtown Cairo. The building, which still stands, serves both as location in which this story unfolds as well as a metaphor for Egyptian society.

A diverse group of people live and work in the building, including the passionate womaniser, Zaki Bey, the homosexual newspaper editor, Hatim Rashid and his boyfriend, the brazen Hagg Azzam with his mistress, the building’s poor doorman’s bright son, Taha el Shasli, who turns radical, and the shop assistant, Busayna, who must endure her employer’s expectations of sexual favours in return for the additional money she needs to provide for her three younger siblings.

It is a story rife with sex, religion, politics, and money, but most of all of power and helplessness.

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In relation to the English translation, the translator, Humphrey Davies, writes:

Jákupslon (The Yacoubian Building) exists and is located on the same spot as in the story. This is where the author’s father (Abbas al Aswany, who also was a well-known author) had his office, and where Alaa al Aswany himself had his first dental clinic. But not everything looks the same. Rather than the “high classical European look with balconies decorated by stone carved Greek faces”, the building is a splendid example of art deco, without a hint of a balcony.

Same goes for the characters of the story. Many Egyptians believe they know, who the various characters are “in real life”, but there are not many direct descriptions of specific people. Rather, they are combinations of various figures. The reader should neither assume too much from the timeframe of the story’s events, which supposedly take place prior to and during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The story is a portrait of contemporary Egypt.

Therefore, it is wrong to presume, that that which is described in the book in fact represents an easily identifiable reality. The backdrop of the book is indeed contemporary Egypt, yet the way in which the author makes it seem like actual reality is by taking characteristics from many different familiar places and people from which he then creates his own reality. The fact that these compositions are so persuasive only testifies to the brilliance of the story and this is likely the reason for the book’s success.

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