a master observer of the human condition, unblinking but sympathetic, and unputdownable


In Cairo’s Suleiman Basha Street, opposite the Excelsior Restaurant where Zaki Bey el Dessouki proposes to Busayna, young enough to be his daughter but who reciprocates his love, stands the Yacoubian Building. Even among the other old-fashioned European-style buildings on Suleiman Basha Street it stands out, despite its dilapidation, a monument to the Armenian millionaire who built it sixty years before: ten lofty storeys high, designed in classical style, its balconies decorated with Greek faces, all its columns, steps and corridors wrought in natural marble, and with an elevator by Schindler, it was home to the rich and fashionable before the Revolution, then to generals and senior civil servants after it, and now houses a cross-section of the hopeful, the hopeless, the cunning, the despairing, a few rich, many poor, and some on desperate paths leading to very different consummations.

The Yacoubian Building is a metaphor for a lost Cairo, a past time when the city, even more so than pre-war Shanghai and Rio, was a place of sophistication and decadence, wealth and pleasure – for the rich anyway. Once secular, exotic and alluring, where West and East mingled more sensually than dangerously, but not without a little of the latter too, Alaa Al Aswany’s Cairo has become the locus of a more ambiguous and uncertain Egypt, a more sinister crossroads of rank corruption, police brutality and murderous religious zealotry, in which survivors from the past pick their way precipitously among the pitfalls.

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