43rd Discussion: Alaa Al Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building

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QBC kicked off 2013 by doing something a little closer to Asia. Raj, our wonderful host, served up “Middle Eastern flair” – couscous, pandan chicken, shish kebab, and the obligatory red & white wines. In attendance were Raj, Aaron, Isaac, Alex, Javin, Luke, and Timmy. We also welcome Lydia, who had intended to do her own work while we dissected the book but ended up listening in the discussion as well.

Alaa Al Aswany's The Yacoubian BuildingFirst Impressions

Other than Lydia, Timmy, and Luke, who didn’t manage to read the book, and Ernest, who only read the first twenty pages, everyone else completed their readings. Three of them liked it: Javin found it funny; Alex said it was fast paced and had interesting characters; Isaac commented the book utilized the “melodrama device” very well and portrayed Egypt’s culture and politics. Raj was neutral towards the book, stating that it was nothing outrageous in spite of its appeal and how easy it was to read the book. “If someone who doesn’t know about Middle East read the book, they would find it interesting,” he quipped. Aaron agreed with Raj in that the book was easy reading (“MRT friendly” aka Alexius we missed you!) but it was not a “literary read”. He felt that the writing was not good.

Different Eras

Aaron asked about the “changing times” that were showcased in the book. He referred to the building as “Old Europe”. Raj brought up Christine, the matriarch of the building, the one who maintained the place. Javin saw Zaki Bey as someone who represented “the good old days”.

Ernest felt that Taha’s childhood sweetheart, Busayna, was of the old order as well. Raj, however, felt that she “didn’t keep the cherry like the other ladies”, and also brought up the fact that Busayna had aimed to get out of the country, which was unlike ladies of that era. Aaron backed up Raj’s comments by highlighting the fact that she made use of others to get what she wanted.

Raj noted that Hatim was akin to someone who was in transition, “stuck in between”.

Religion

Javin questioned about beliefs after reading the book; he felt that it was just using God’s name in vain. Aaron followed up with his observation of the politics described in the book, and whether both points were equivalent to the interpretation of Islam. “Isn’t that a form of hypocrisy?” he asked.

Ernest posed the question of using religion for personal beliefs, which led Aaron to ask if the book is against Islam/Islamism. (Islamism – the religious faith, principles, or cause of Islam) Raj and Timmy defended the book, explaining that Aaron’s claims did not make sense given the fact that the book is set in Egypt and it is a predominantly Muslim country.

The discussion then moved on to why certain characters turned to religion. “Was it a last resort tactic?” asked Aaron. Javin replied that it could be due to fear rather than as a last resort. We noted the difference between Azzam and Taha; the former used Islam as part of his political agenda whereas the latter turned to it because of his anger. Raj suggested that Taha did so because he had no friends to vent out to, and in religion, he found hope. “He found solace,” Timmy complemented Raj’s opinion.

Politics

Following up on Aaron’s point on politics, Ernest brought up the letter exchanges between Taha and the president, and questioned whether the entire thing was written to ridicule Taha. Javin talked about Sheikh Shakir and the extreme ways he executed in the book. “Was this because of a personal vendetta?” he asked. “When the devil in you overtakes God…” Raj joked.

Aaron rambled on about religion resulting in political, social, and gender corruption, which Isaac agreed. He noted of the social corruption displayed in the book, as well as the disparity between the rich and the poor, the oppressed and the oppressors.

Gender

The difference in the treatments of Busayna and Souad was brought up. Raj thought that Busayna was treated like shit, but Aaron disagreed, claiming that she got the better deal as compared to the latter. He explained that Azzam was just out to punish Souad, thus her keeping the child was her way of claiming something that is hers in their marriage. This, in comparison to despite Zaki paying for Busayna’s services, he treated her nicely and it felt like there was something more to their encounter.

Homosexuality

Two questions from Aaron:

  1. Is the book condemning homosexuals?
  2. Is it a homophobic book?

With regards to the first question, Javin thought it was the circumstances occurring in the book that might have led to it condemning homosexuals.

As for the second question, Alex agreed solely because of the way “someone kena hentam”. Ernest pithily said no, and then mentioned that Hatim gained prominence in society despite being gay. Hatim’s looks was then brought up. Javin said looking effeminate is the lesser of two evils. Bottoms and stereotyping were also briefly mentioned, and Madonna was quoted. (“The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Yeahhhhhh.”)

“Why did Hatim have to die?? Isn’t that homophobic??” Aaron asked. Most of us agreed that his death painted a sympathetic portrayal of homosexuals rather than homophobia.

Characters

Favourites

Raj, Javin, and Aaron did not have any characters that they like, although Aaron was happy for Busayna and Zaki. Ernest liked Taha as he resonated with his ideals and something about “trying to breathe onto a glass ceiling” (Don’t ask me). Raj commented that in spite of all that, he still had a lot to lose, i.e. his dreams. Isaac thought Abdul was hot. Aaron applauded the characterization of Abaskharon, calling him awesome and is an embodiment of the contemporary Egyptian (“He does anything to survive.”)

Hates

Raj, Javin, Alex, and Ernest did not have any characters they disliked. Aaron hated Azzam, calling him the most manipulative person and his tendency to utilize the Quran for his own advantages. Isaac brought up Abdul again, whom despite being hot, only seemed to enjoy anal sex like the gay for pay bitches in Sean Cody productions.

Wrapping Up

After the invigorating discussion, we all cooled down and shared our final words about the book. Javin felt that it was entertaining. Alex agreed with him, and (of course) stated that he liked the sex scenes, in particular the warehouse violation involving Busayna. Ernest also was kept entertained by the book, thought he complained: “I didn’t read enough to get to the sex scenes”. (Hopefully by the time this note is published, he would have finished it.) Raj succinctly said the book was okay. Isaac, ever the optimist, said the book was “pretty good” and summed up religion and society in Egypt nicely.

Peace be upon you.

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2 Comments

Filed under Alaa Al Aswany, Class, Egypt, Gay, Love, Politics, Religion, Time

2 responses to “43rd Discussion: Alaa Al Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building

  1. I still want to argue that Hatim’s death is homophobic because (1) the author couldn’t envision a happy ending for Hatim. Hatim could have saved the baby’s life, the mother would have been grateful, and the four of them–Abdul-wife-baby and Hatim–could have lived happily ever after.

    (2) Someone brought up Brokeback Mountain and claimed that not all deaths don’t mean unsympathetic. Yes, that is true but looking at the description of book again, we have been seeing from Hatim’s pov throughout but suddenly, at this murder scene, we see it from Abdul’s pov, we are meant to understand and sympathetize why Abdul did it, take Abdul’s side. In fact, the entire passage condemns Hatim and how he tries to seduce the innocent, and the passage also has a fatalistic tone to it, telling us that Hatim must die. Since we see from Abdul’s pov and sympathize with Abdul, we see that the gay man is a pervert here and the gay man MUST be killed.

    Also: Taha’s sodomy is seen as the worst form of humiliation. Why should anal sex and being treated as a bottom seen as humiliation if the novel is not homophobic?

  2. Pingback: Our Favorite Books in 2013 | Queer Book & Movie Club (Singapore)

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