This is a book that had a big impact when first published in Egypt – the original Arabic version topped the best-selling charts for two years in a row and has also been very well received since it was translated. It has been widely reported as showing a tolerance for homosexuality – though I’m not so sure. What Al Aswany hasn’t done, is actively rail against homosexuals as the author. However, homosexuals aren’t depicted as having a particularly happy time of it – but then, that applies to most of his other characters.
Some live in squalor on its rooftop, others inhabit the faded glory of its apartments and offices – among them a womanizing aristocrat, and the secretly gay editor of Le Caire newspaper. Religious fervour jostles with promiscuity; bribery and exploitation with joy and elation; modern life with ancient culture. Taha, the son of the building’s doorman, has aspirations and dreams for himself and his childhood sweetheart Busayna. But when those dreams are dashed on the rocks of corruption, hope turns to bitterness – with devastating consequences…
So goes the blurb. I have to say that while I fully concur with the bits about the hope turning to bitterness and the bribery and exploitation – the joy and elation completely by-passed me. Al Aswany is an engaging writer, whose limited omniscient viewpoint gives a variety of deft pen portraits. His vivid descriptions certainly bring the Cairo landscape to life – and all I can think is that this has beguiled other reviewers to read more humour and joie de vivre into the story than I found. Or the original humour has been lost in translation…
Because I thought this was an extremely angry book. There wasn’t a single character whose life hadn’t been ruined or polluted in some way by corruption and the prevailing institutional injustices. Taha is certainly the outstanding example of a character whose life is particularly blighted – but no one seems to escape from the moral vacuum that seems to preside at the heart of this Cairo society.
As for Al Aswany’s reputed open-mindedness on controversial topics, such as homosexual affairs, or women’s sexuality – I wasn’t convinced about that, either. Throughout the book, I was always very aware that I was reading a book from a different cultural viewpoint. Many times, this added an extra piquancy to the narrative – but there were occasions when I just winced…
‘Homosexuals, it is said, often excel in professions that depend on contact with other
people, such as public relations, acting, brokering and the law. Their success in these fields is attributable to their lack of that sense of shame that costs others opportunities…’
‘They (women) do not love it simply as a way of quenching lust but because sex, and their husbands’ greed for it, makes them feel that despite all the misery they suffer they are still women, beautiful and desired by their menfolk.’
Oh really? Nothing to do with the divorce laws that mean once a woman is rejected by her husband, she can find herself on the streets without her children, I suppose. I’m aware that I am judging this book as a white European woman – but those statements plain graunched with me.
That didn’t prevent me from enjoying the moments of high irony, such as when a couple of crooked politicians who are busy stitching up a ‘public’ office, make constant pious allusions to God throughout their conversation. Or finding the scene between an ageing playboy and his young lover compelling, when he nostalgically recalls the glory days of the building – while the girl bitterly observes that the country is done for and if she had a chance, she’d leave. He is clearly shocked at her attitude – but this exchange was, for me, the heart of the book. Al Aswany’s characters are all suffering to some extent. The rather odd ending is an attempt to provide a sense that all is not lost, though I wasn’t fully convinced. However, it was a riveting read and a fascinating insight into another world – and I would happily read another book by this author.