The City in an Apartment

Anson Ching

Published not long before the Arab Spring, The Yacoubian Building (HarperCollins) by Alaa Al Aswany is a collection of interwoven short stories set in Cairo. The stories capture the Egypt of the early 2s by following archetypal characters that happen to share the same apartment block, the Yacoubian Building. As in much of Cairo, the building was once grand, but has fallen on hard times. A sense of hopelessness and outrage saturates the text. Certain authors like to paint their homeland or cities with a general brush. Orhan Pamuk, for example, does this for Istanbul. Pamuk uses the Turkish word hüzün to describe a sense of shared melancholy that all Istanbullus seem to feel, attributing the mood to people reminded of a lost former glory by the ruins and dilapidated imperial landmarks of their city. To the people of Istanbul, as with the people of Cairo, history seems to have been twisted or folded, so that it can now be read in reverse. But Al Aswany’s characters do not simply grieve; a sort of revolutionary pragmatism follows. Small acts of resistance and defiance occur, as housewives put clothes out to dry on a rooftop that seems to boast its own community, much like those in the alleyways and side streets in older parts of town. It seems that Al Aswany is not just attuned to the human struggles around him—distilling a microcosm out of his city and country—but plays a bigger role, by weaving into his text a sense of urgency that does more than simply bear witness.

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