How to Create a Terrorist, Part III

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.  .

Alaa al Aswany
Alaa al Aswany

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:


Check Out These North African Women Writers (Part I): Ahdaf Soueif

Ahdaf Soueif

photo from Soueif’s web page

Ahdaf Soueif is an Egyptian writer who has strong ties to England. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Lancaster, and her second husband was English. Her native language is Arabic, but most of her published writing is in English.

Her cross-cultural identity provides one of the recurring themes of her fiction. I have read two of her novels, The Eye of the Sun, and The Map of Love. Both of them are about women caught between (or perhaps within) two cultures, which leads them to grapple with cultural, sexual, political, and intellectual identities.

In the Eye of the Sun
In the Eye of the Sun

In the Eye of the Sun chronicles the coming-of-age story of a beautiful, upper-class Egyptian woman named Asya who tries to reconcile her intellectual, emotional, and sexual needs with the confines of Egyptian traditions. Like Soueif herself, Asya spends several years in a cold and lonely English university while pursuing her Ph.D.   Asya is married to an Egyptian man but is apart from him while pursuing her degree and ends up having an affair with an English man. In the Eye of the Sun has been compared to Victorian English novels such as George Eliot’s Middlemarch because of its style, scope and the exploration of the inner life of her main character. On the other hand, In the Eye of the Sun is more modern and daring (one might even say racy) in its unflinching exploration of the sexual desires and sexual politics of its characters as well as the sexism of both English and Egyptian cultures. In that sense, Soueif reminds me a little of feminist writers such as Doris Lessing and Sylvia Plath.

I would recommend this book for people who are interested in women’s issues, especially in Arab women’s issues. Don’t bother with this book if you like lots of action in a novel. It is much more about psychology and culture than action. Keep in mind that this is a hefty read—over 800 pages. I sometimes wished Soueif had not been quite so wordy. In this sense, her writing reminds me of Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy. (I have been told by Arab-American friends that Arabs like their words—that what Americans might call “wordy” or “flowery” prose are compliments, not critiques. ) I do think that the novel is worth the time it takes in getting through it.   I do not know of other Arab writers (in English, alas) who have explored the psyche of female characters with so much depth and insight. (If you know of others, please let me know!)


The Map of Love
The Map of Love

Soueif’s Map of Love is the most famous of her works because it was shortlisted for the 1999 Booker Prize. It is a complex work that interweaves romance, history, and politics into a gorgeous Middle-Eastern tapestry. The plot is so complicated, in fact, it is rather difficult to convey briefly.

One thread of the narrative concerns Anna Winterbourne, a late 19th century English woman who travels to Egypt after the death of her husband. While there, she meets, falls in love with, and marries a dashing, upper-class English man (think Omar Sharif ). The 19th century plot is frankly romantic, complete with desert sojourns, kidnapping, and so forth. Normally that type of romance makes me nauseated, but for some reason it worked for me in this novel. Perhaps it worked for me because the romance was combined with a heavy dose of historically based portrayals of British colonialism and the horrors that ensued from it.

Another strand of the novel, however, is set in the present day (late 20th century). An American woman named Isabel Parkman finds some old papers of her mother that are written in Arabic. She meets an Arab man (think Omar Sharif meets Edward Said) who suggests she goes to Egypt to meet his sister Amal who can help her with the papers. (I told you it gets complicated). In any case, the novel intertwines the stories of the three women (Amal, Anna, and Isbael) and we find they are interconnected in unexpected ways despite being separated by time and geography.

Like In the Eye of the Sun, The Map of Love, also combines biting political critique with a sensitive exploration of women’s emotional terrains. The Map of Love, however, has a more complicated plot structure. On the one hand, this is good because it gives the novel a stronger scaffolding for the emotional exploration. On the other hand, juggling all the different characters, time periods, and historical references can be a challenge. Nonetheless, I loved this work. Again, I don’t know of anything else that combines the romantic with the political in such an intriguing style.

Soueif has written a number of other works, too, both fictional and nonfictional. Here is the link to her official webpage. Check her out!

Her official web page.

Secret of the Desert (Egypt)

Egyptian perfume

Secret of the Desert

The Golden Palace Perfume Shop beckons like an enchanted fairytale retreat after the noise and grime of the Cairo streets. We are seated on plump cushioned chairs and offered heavily sweetened tea by our host, Mahmoud. The mirrored walls are lined with glass shelves on which rest hundreds of delicately curved perfume bottles in hues of pale blues, greens and reds. The golden accents shimmering in the mirror overwhelm my senses and I close my eyes to get my bearings. Despite the enchanted feeling of this getaway, however, I am feeling far too wrinkled, frumpy and middle-aged to be a fairytale princess, especially since my hair, face and clothes are covered with a thick layer of sand whipped up by the Egyptian winds. As I sip my tea, I pray that I can make it out of the shop without breaking any of the bottles.

It is March of 2003, just days before President Bush orders the bombs to be dropped on Iraq, and I have chosen to travel to a Muslim country, despite the protests of friends and family. I am here with dozens of scholars from around the world to presentb a paper to the African Literature Association conference in Alexandria. We are spending two days in Cairo as tourists before the conference begins.

After we have had time to sip our tea and get comfortable, Mahmoud brings out the first set of essential oils for us to try. He explains how these oils are made and boasts that they are far more concentrated than, and thus superior to, the perfumes one buys in stores. Certainly, he sniffed, these perfumes are far superior to the bottles sold in barbaric fragrance outposts such as France.

Mahmoud brings around little vials and rubs drops of the oil onto our wrists. I am most impressed with “Secret of the Desert,” a subtle, earthy fragrance. Mahmoud explains to us that this was the perfume Cleopatra favored and which was the key to her success with men.

“Men will be unable to resist your powers if you wear this perfume,” Mahmoud promised us.

“Is that a guarantee?” I asked.

“If it doesn’t work, bring it back and I will personally verify its powers,” he said, winking. Everybody laughed.

Choosing to trust in the wisdom of Cleopatra and the guarantee of Mahmoud, I decide to purchase “Secret of the Desert.” As I wait in line to pay for my purchase, I think about my experiences so far in Egypt. Although I was not scared enough about bombs and potential terrorists to stay away from Egypt, I admit to being uneasy in a Muslim country at this time. So far, the people have been remarkably warm and welcoming, but still, I can’t help but think of the tourists who were murdered a few years back. Despite our constant police escorts, it could easily happen to us.
It is my turn to pay for my purchase. I hand the man behind the counter my credit card. While swiping my plastic, he smiles at me and asks where I am from. I hesitate in my reply. I do not want to say the United States because I feel so horrified about the impending bombs and ashamed to American. I consider lying, maybe claiming Canada or Germany as my home, but that doesn’t feel right.

“Minnesota,” I say.

He looks a little puzzled and responds, “I’ll need to see your identification.”

I hand him my license with trepidation. He places it in his shirt pocket.

Alarms go off in my mind. Why does he need my ID? Is there a problem with my credit card? No, the sale went through without a problem. It must be because he knows I am an infidel from an imperialistic Satanic power-crazed country and therefore I must be punished. I bet he is going to share my driver’s license with his terrorist friends, all of whom are Al-Qaida operatives. They will put me on the hit list of unveiled brazen hussy infidel s who must be stoned to death. My mother was right; I should never have come here.

Then he looks down at the license and said, “No, you are not from Minnesota. You are from heaven.”

For a few moments, I am utterly confused. Why would I be from heaven? Isn’t he the one who will go to heaven for murdering me? I stare at him, speechless.

He is smiling and winking at me.

Then he hands me back my driver’s license, along with a card with his name and phone number written on it.

“Call me,” he says.

Finally, it dawns on my jetlagged brain: he is flirting with me. Cleopatra was right; this perfume really works!
I feel a huge surge of relief. I beam at him with happiness, but not for the reason he is hoping. I am not going to die, at least not today, at least not at the hands of this man. I have been so obsessed with geopolitics that I have lost sight of a basic truth: commerce and seduction will always trump war. Even Cleopatra knew this.