LONDON – Anyone who has read The Yacoubian Building, a novel published in 2002 by the Egyptian author Alaa-al-Aswany, will regard the revolution in Egypt as long overdue. The novel’s readers will not have been astonished by the ease with which the rotting hulk of Hosni Mubarak’s regime was dashed against the rocks, nor by the spirit and courage of those who engineered this extraordinary piece of history.
First things first: it is a very funny and perceptive book about the characters occupying a fashionable Cairo apartment block (which really exists) and squatting in hovels on its roof. Like the crumbling “Majestic” hotel in J. G. Farrell’s novel Troubles, about the end of British rule in southern Ireland, the eponymous apartment block was a metaphor for the state, and its inhabitants are figures representative of different aspects of Mubarak’s Egypt.
I suppose that censors never have much of a sense of humor, and that irony and parody are usually beyond their intellectual grasp. But I did find it curious that The Yacoubian Building was not banned in Egypt – or in other Arab countries – and that subsequently it was turned into a popular and widely shown film. Al-Aswany told his readers so very clearly what was wrong with modern Egypt, while also demonstrating that, despite the corruption and the dead hand of the security police, Cairenes fizzed with personality and showed a feisty urban grace.
So, now that the Yacoubian state has come tumbling down, the most interesting question is not “Why did it happen?” but “Why did it not happen before?”