Alaa Al Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building.
First published in Arabic in 2002. U.S. edition, translated by Humphrey Davies, published in 2004, Harper Perennial
This post is part of the African Reading Challenge hosted by Kinna Reads. .
Taha el Shazli has dreamed since childhood of becoming a police officer in his home city of Cairo, Egypt, and he has done everything in his power to make that happen. He achieved high scores on all his school tests, he trained his body to become physically fit, he cozied up to all of the policemen in his area, and he passed the qualifying examination for the police academy with flying colors.
Taha is one of the main characters in Egyptian writer Alaa Al Aswany’s best-selling 2002 novel The Yacoubian Building. This novel focuses on a group of characters who all live in (or on the roof of) the once-elegant apartment complex called The Yacoubian Building. This building is meant to represent a microcosm of Egyptian society, with the rich, poor and middle class all living intersecting lives within close proximity.
Taha is one of the poor members of this microcosm, so poor that he and his father live on the roof of the building. Taha tries his whole life to rise above his humble origins. Despite all his efforts, however, Taha is rejected from the police academy, not because of his qualifications, but because his father is a lowly door keeper. Class barriers are strong in Egypt. As Taha’s girlfriend Busayna points out,
“This country doesn’t belong to us, Taha. It belongs to the people who have money. If you’d had twenty thousand pounds and used them to bribe someone, do you think anyone would have asked about your father’s job? Make money, Taha, and you’ll get everything, but if you stay poor they’ll walk all over you.” (59)
After being rejected from the academy because of his father’s job, Taha starts to dream of revenge. He moves on with his life, however, by attending university. He finds himself unable to shake off his class though. The university students replicate the rest of their society; his fellow students are divided into cliques of the rich vs. the poor, just as the Yacoubian Building is.
One place where Taha DOES finds a place where he feels accepted is at the Faculty’s mosque. Most of the other young men who frequented the mosque are poor like himself, and he soon became part of a close group of friends. One of these friends eventually introduces him to Sheikh Shakir.
Shakir convinces these discontented young man to join his group in jihad. He exhorts his listeners to rebel against the corrupt rulers of Egypt, claiming that Egypt is ruled by “French secular law, which permits drunkenness, fornication, and perversion, so long as it is by mutual consent.” Shakir then reminds the men that their “supposedly democratic state is based on the rigging of elections and the detention and torture of innocent people so that the ruling clique can remain on their thrones forever. They lie and lie and lie, and they want us to believe their revolting lies.” After railing against the corrupt Egyptian government, Shakir then urges his lsteners to “reclaim the concept of gihad and bring it back to the minds and hearts of the Muslims,” noting that “Millions of Muslims humiliated and subjected to dishonor by the Zionist occupation appeal to you to restore for them t heir ruined self-respect.” (95-97.)
Taha, like many other young men, is drawn to the words of the sheikh. He is all too familiar with feeling humiliated and rejected and finds succor in the idea of organized resistance against all the corrupt forces that are holding him down. Becoming an Islamist gives him “a new, powerful, bounding spirit. He has taken to walking, sitting, and speaking to people in the building in a new way. Gone forever are the old cringing timidity and meekness before the residents. Now he faces them with self-confidence.” (115)
Once Sheikh Shakir is confident of Taha’s strengthened religious faith and his feeling of belonging, he next persuades him to join their jihadist struggle, the Islamic Action Charter. He give Taha a copy of their brochure to read, which Taha stores in his pocket. Not long afterwards, Taha participates in a mass protest against the Western alliance in the Gulf War. The police are not happy with his participation in the protest, so they take him in to jail.
The police find the brochure for the Islamic Action Charter in Taha’s pocket and assume he is part of the organization. The beat him to a pulp trying to get him to talk about it, but Taha knows nothing. At that point, the police escalate their torture.
“Then they threw him facedown on the ground and several hands started to remove his gallabiya and pull of his underclothes. He resisted with all his might, but they set upon him and held his body down with their hands and feet. Two thick hands reached down, grabbed his buttocks, and pulled them apart. He felt a solid object being stuck into his rear and breaking the tendons inside and he started screaming. He screamed at the top of his voice. He screamed until he felt that his larynx was being ripped open.” (153)
It is this experience of torture and humiliation at the hands of the police that complete Taha’s transformation from an earnest, hopeful young man to a scarred soul bent on revenge. He is now ready and willing to do anything for revenge. He is now primed to become a member of Shakir’s jihadist organization and to volunteer for a suicide mission.
Alaa al Aswany’s portrayal of Taha has some intriguing similarities with Yasmina Khadra’s portrayal of his nameless narrator. Both of them start out as poor yet peaceful young men with high hopes for the future. Both are brought down by a series of shocks and assaults on things and people they love. What finally turns both of these characters towards terrorism, though, are actions of others that humiliate them and remove their sense of honor and dignity. Once those are gone, they feel compelled to seek vengeance. They believe this vengeance is necessary to restore themselves to life as they know it, life with dignity and honor.
Khadra’s narrator claimed that he was, for all intents and purposes, dead after seeing the humiliation his father suffered at the hands of the American soldiers. Similarly, Taha felt dead after his torture by the police. He said to the sheikh,
“I’m dead now. They killed me in detention. When they trespass on your honor laughing, when they give you a woman’s name and make you answer with your new name and you have to because of the savagery of the torture. . . You want me to forget all that and go on living?’
Whether this loss of honor and dignity come from Western military forces or from the brutal Egyptian police, these characters believe they must take action to restore their sense of selves.
This post is the third in my series “How to Create a Terrorist.” The first two posts were on Yasmina Khadra’s novel The Sirens of Baghdad: