Sixteen attendees at the Montrose Great Books book club on June 2, 2011 gathered to discuss THE YACOUBIAN BUILDING . I was surprised to hear how well the book was received in the group. One of the attendees who had immigrated to the U.S. from Egypt in 1980 when she was fourteen years old and whose mother was still living in Cairo gave us some first hand knowledge of her experiences. Of most interest, I thought was her description of how women's dress had changed. In 1980, the city was very European and now when she recently visited last year before the uprisings, nearly every woman in the street wore a Burqa. Her mother who is quite elderly told her daughter how she had recently been harassed in the streets because she wasn't wearing a Burqa.
One of the themes of the book included the religion of Islam. One of the characters, Taha, wanted a job as a police officer but was turned down because his father had the job of doorkeeper, a job with no status. Though Egyptian laws prohibited rejections like this, because of corruption, Taha had no channel for justice. As a result, his bitterness drove him to protesting with students, and subsequently being tortured and ultimately becoming a terrorist. In a terrorist operation by a group he joins, he kills the man who tortured him.
The book was a "slice of life" as described by one attendee. Because it was intended to represent reality rather than using symbols and metaphors for its message or messages typical of a "roman a clef", there were many themes including Egyptian culture and history and customs, poverty, corruption, homosexuality and heterosexual sexual and romantic liasons, political unrest, family loyalty, and rights (or lack therof) of Egyptian Islamic women.
Though the story had some stereotypical characters and some Danielle Steele type story elements (i.e. a soap opera of wealth and poverty, idyllic romance and/or romance gone sour,etc.), I am still glad I read it. I enjoyed the originality of the context and location of the story which was the community of people, mostly Islamic, in Cairo, Egypt living in and on the roof of a building that exists there today. And also the quality of the writing was first rate. The author is quite a story-teller. I found this to be a bit of a "page turner" especially once you get into it and get accustomed to the foreign names (there are lots of them). The translation has won awards and may be part of the reason the quality is not lacking.
I especially recommend this if you're American and would like to visit a place that is probably foreign to how you live in your day to day life. Our group reads so many (though not all) American and British authors, I was glad of this chance to visit a place totally foreign to anything I have ever experienced.
Following the discussion, we elected new titles to be added to our existing reading list. New titles selected include:
- RABBIT, RUN by John Upike
- HUNGER by Knut Hamsun
- WASHINGTON SQUARE by Henry James
- FRANNY AND ZOOEY by J.D. Salinger
- THE ADVENTURES OF AUGIE MARCH by Saul Bellow
Looking forward to next months discussion of THE CYBERIAD by Stanislaw Lem on July 7 at 6pm at The Havens Center, 1827 W. Alabama, Houston, TX.