Adonis Diaries

“Yacoubian Building” by Egyptian Alaa El Aswany

Posted on: April 6, 2009

“Yacoubian Building” by Alaa El Aswany, ( part 1, April 1, 2009)


For over 100 years, Downtown Cairo was a luxury European center and the common Egyptian wearing the traditional long robe ghalabiyeh were not to be seen. Only people in European dresses and ties roamed around famous restaurants (Groppi, A l’Americaine, and L’Union), private clubs, and movie theaters (Metro, Saint James, and Radio).  All the Christian holidays were celebrated; many small bars and terraces served alcohol and mezze.

By the late 1960’s, the Islamists forced bars to close and the government revoked alcohol licenses; a few bars served homemade brandy that rendered many clients blind.  The bar “Chez Nous” survived by offering largess to the police and secret services; it catered for the homosexuals and was located in a basement of Yacoubian Building

The current owner Aziz was called the English because he looked like one; Aziz inherited the bar from his Greek lover.  The homosexual community had their own slang and hand signs; koudiana means the passive partner and barghal the active one; the barghal nachef (dry) is the ignorant and novice active partner.

Hagob Yacoubian, the millionaire and head of the Armenian community in Cairo, decided to erect a luxury building of ten spacious duplex floors of around 8 to 10 rooms.  It was a jewel of Italian style architecture and equipped with Schindler elevator. Ministers, industrialists, and noblemen resided this building. 

The ground floor was split in two: a vast garage for the Rolls-Royces and a Jewelry shop.  Hagob got the idea to build an annex (the terrace) with 50 iron cabins (2*1 meters) each in size; these cabins were meant for the proprietors to storing foodstuff, locking up dogs, or for watching the laundry by the women helpers.

By the year 1952, Gamal Abdel Nasser mounted a successful military coup.  The proprietors vacated to make room for the military officers and security officials.  Helpers (sufragi) were allocated to the cabins, and rabbits and chickens were raised in many cabins. After Nasser death, the cabins were purchased for habitation. 

Several families allocated a cabin among themselves to be used as toilet.  A few families purchased or rented two cabins for their extended families. The terrace exhibited colorful associations of wives talking loudly and aiding one another with daily chores.  The cabins were kept clean for the husbands to enjoy a resting place after hard day works.  Al that a husband wanted is to have a good supper, light a “narghile or chicha”, make love to their wives at night, and discuss sexual novelties among friends.

I am offering the carcass; it is up to you to discover the jewels, the colorful characters, and the social and political flesh of Cairo and its inhabitants.

Note 1:  After the Egyptian revolt that removed Hosni Mubarak oligarchic regime, the Egyptians lauded Alaa as the voice that opened the eyes of the common Egyptians to the inside realities of the regime. El Aswany has published two other books since then.

Note 2: The author Alaa El Aswany speaks French, English, and Spanish.  He is an Egyptian dentist and a writer who published two other books.  “Yacoubian Building” sold over 100,000 copies in a few months and was translated in English and French; it generated an Arabic movie recently.

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April 2009

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