On The Yacoubian Building: Hilarious “Must-Read” for Those Interested in Gay Stereotypes


In which The Gay Recluse reads a book five years later and says wtf.

Last fall, after we posted our thoughts on the suffocation of the gay voice in American literature, a reader suggested that for the sake of comparison we check out The Yacoubian Building, by Alaa al Aswany, which said reader described to us — earnestly, and not without indignation — as a good example of a gay voice in Egyptian literature. So we bought the book, have finally read it and are now ready to file our report.

A little background: the novel was a best seller in Egypt for two years running — 2002 and 2003 — and was acclaimed for “breaking taboos” with its “frank sexuality,” including (omg!) that of the homo variety; NPR — among others — loved it: “Packed with uncomfortable truths,” writes Robert Siegel of All Things Considered on the back of our paperback edition, “it is as much about the human condition as the Egyptian character.”

The plot is built around an old colonial-era building (the Yacoubian) in downtown Cairo, where the author presents the comings and goings of about a dozen characters, each of whom could be said to represent a segment of Egyptian society. There is a fading aristocrat who spends his time chasing after whores; a corrupt politician who rigs elections and also chases after whores (wait, is this Albany?); a crafty businessman who sells cheap whatever; a couple of whores, who — because some taboos are not in fact broken — are lower-class women with no choice but to sell their bodies; a working-class teenage boy who is denied entrance into the state police academy and consequently turns into an Islamic terrorist; and so on.

Aswany presents all of this in a lyrical-enough prose that probably explains the NPR infatuation and occasionally offers a glimmer of emotional complexity, or at least enough to carry us through to the end. At times it was enjoyable, albeit in a major-network-mini-series-about-Egypt kind of way, which is to say the characters felt more like placards than people. But because this is about Egypt, we are fascinated! We come away with the sense that just like the United States it is a very corrupt place, ruled by thugs, bourgeois hypocrites and religious fundamentalists.

We might have embraced this empty-calories treatment were it not for two more serious flaws: the first is Aswany’s treatment of “the gays” in his book, which can be described as unintentionally hilarious but ultimately off-putting. Though Aswany — unlike most post-war American writers — must be commended for noting the existence of homosexuality, the book is nevertheless filled with passages such as this:

Homosexuals… 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, while their sexual lives, filled as they are with diverse and unusal encounters, give them deeper insight into human nature and make them more capable of influencing others. We wish! Lol!

Or check this out:

[Homosexuals] make themselves known to one another and hold secret conversations by means of hand movements. Thus, if one of them takes the other’s hand and strokes his wrist with his finger while shaking it, that means that he desires him, and if a man brings two fingers together and moves them while talking to someone, this means that he is inviting his interlocutor to have sex, and if he points to his heart with one finger, it means that his lover has sole possession of his heart, and so on. Seriously? — secret code — LOL!!! Don’t stop, please!!! Hilarious!!!

Or how about Aswany’s description of Hatim, the effeminate (which is to say, half-French) newspaper reporter:

He tries…with practiced touches, to bring out the feminine side of his beauty. He wears transparent gallabiyas embroidered with beautiful colors over his naked body, is clean-shaven, applies an appropriate and carefully calculated amount of eye pencil to his eyebrows, and uses a small amount of eye shadow. Then he brushes his smooth hair back or leaves stray locks over his forehead. By these means he always attempts, in making himself attractive, to realize the model of the beautiful youth of ancient times. Get it? He’s womanly or “passive” because “tough” guys don’t like to get fucked — lol!

Or this:

With his smart clothes, svelte figure, and fine French features, he would look like a scintillating movie star were it not for the wrinkles that his riotous life has left on his face and that sad, mysterious, gloomy look that often haunts the faces of homosexuals. Now we know why we look so sad and gloomy — damn!

So you get the point. When it comes to the gays, Aswany trades in nothing but stereotypes. And btw (spoiler alert!) guess which character literally gets his head smashed in by his (masculine, married) lover at the end of the book? Moral of the story: queens (and terrorists, cause the terrorist kid also gets blown away) are degenerates who deserve to die!

Meanwhile — and this is serious problem two, which seeps into our consciousness as we read — the author has literary aspirations. Here’s what he says in an interview:

People say Yacoubian Building was popular because of the sex, exposed corruption, police brutality, etc., but won’t acknowledge that, perhaps, it was a good piece of literature.

This? Literature of the good variety? We hate to break it to you, Alaa al Aswany, but in this case “People” are right! Let us get on our soapbox for a moment and say that one job of literature is to deconstruct stereotypes, or at least demonstrate to the reader some awareness that you are using them for a reason, whether irony, sarcasm or humor. And we don’t care where you’re from: please don’t ask us to consider your work “literature” when you give us characters that have no bearing on the complicated truth of the world you so carelessly ignore. [And as a final note, fuck Robert Siegel — who endorsed the idea that it was “controversial” to make a newspaper editor gay — and everyone else who reviewed this positively without slamming the idiotic (if at times hilarious) ignorance that seeps from its pages.]

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4 Responses to “On The Yacoubian Building: Hilarious “Must-Read” for Those Interested in Gay Stereotypes”

  1. 1 TJW

    I don’t know what kind of gay code you’re writing in here but I’m beginning to suspect that you lack a sense of shame (at least, that’s what I’ve always attributed TGR’s success to). Shake off that gloomy outlook, maybe with a carefully applied amount of eyebrow pencil

  2. TJW, thanks for the comment (uhh, maybe?). You’re kidding, right? I hope? Because if you’re not, I’m going to be very sad.

  3. 3 TJW

    Did I not adequately “demonstrate to the reader some awareness that [I was using Aswany’s gay stereotypes] for a reason, whether irony, sarcasm or humor”? Now I’m sad.

  4. For some reason, TJW — let’s call it pressure of impending family events or perhaps a lack of caffeine, my head was in a vice this morning. Stephen thought your comment was hilarious and quickly brought me on board. Thanks for reading and writing!

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