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The Yacoubian Building - Book Review

In The Yacoubian Building, Alaa Al Aswany creates a memorable cast of characters who, taken as a whole, may represent the range of groups or classes in contemporary Egypt. In addition, by using a single structure as the physical locus in which many of these characters initially meet or ultimately live and work, the author has centered his story in a manner that depicts changes taking place both physically and socially in Egypt over time. This essay will first examine a small number of characters in the novel as they appeal to the reader and relate to Egyptian culture. Second, it will focus on the actual role played by the building itself in creating a meeting place where new loves and old animosities flourish.

One of the most compelling characters in the novel is Busayna, described by Al Aswany (vii) as "the oldest daughter of a poor family that lives in the shacks on the roof of the Yacoubian building." This young woman is intelligent, educated, and beautiful. Required to work after completing a commercial diploma, she gradually comes to the realization that as a woman she is vulnerable to the advances of her male employers. Indeed, virtually every man for whom she works sexually harasses her, "The boss would keep at it til the business reached its logical conclusion, that final scene that she hated and feared and that always came about when the older man would insist on kissing her by force in the empty office or press up against her or start opening his fly to confront her with some 'facts on the ground'" (42).

What is fascinating about Busayna is that despite her love for a poor young man named Taha el Shazli (a son of the Yacoubian building who lives a shack on the roof of the building and is a very devout Muslim), she is willing to allow her employers partial use of her body in return for the money and presents that she needs to live. This young woman is a vital breadwinner in her family and though she feels ...

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