Monthly Archives: April 2012

The Lack of Female Development in Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building

            Unlike the other readings in this semester thus far, a male writes this novel. It is evident through the book that while he may feel he sympathizes with the plight of Egyptian women, he obviously does not. The stories and dimensions of the female characters show Aswany’s true perception of women. While all females are more concerned about providing for their family and less self-centered than the male characters, the women all follow the central plot line of selling their body to a man in power in order to provide for their family or a greater cause.

            The character that exemplifies Aswany’s stereotype best is Busayna. She goes from job to job to try to support her mother and siblings. Each boss expects some sort of sordid compensation from her and she is quickly disillusioned. The other females are older and already have come to expect their fate. Hagg starts to have sexual dreams and essentially buys a beautiful woman, Souad, to sleep with him to satisfy his desires. Taha would never purposely use a woman, but instead his wife uses him to further the goals of her religious group.

While it may be accurate to show the sexual harassment and objectification women go through in Egypt or even the Middle East as a whole, Aswany never delves further than this issue. No female ever fights the issue or voices their concern over being treated this way. It is a shame that a self-proclaimed activist and liberal author lets male characters talk about and show change through terrorist organizations and rigged political parties, but seldom gives women a voice. It seems that when political change, fighting, or rights is concerned, women are rarely considered. Busayna briefly voices her disgust against the conditions her whole generation is under, “You don’t understand because you’re [Zaki Bey] well-off. When you’ve stood for two hours at the bus stop or taken three different buses…then you’ll know why we hate Egypt,” (Aswany 138), but that is the closest a female comes to gaining some dimension.

It is surprising that Aswany makes his female characters less dynamic given his passion for womens rights in his personal life. He has written several articles addressing the topic of lack of women’s freedom in extremist nations. In one article dealing with this issue he addresses that it seems “the extremist view is that they (women) are only bodies and instruments for either legitimate pleasure or temptation, as factories for producing children,” (Al-Aswany, 2009). His argument in this article ties in perfectly with what his characters went through, and yet he never went further with it. If he feels so passionately about it, why did he never have any of his female characters so one-sided and never attempt to address this pressing issue?


Al-Aswany, A. (2009). When women are sinners in the eyes of extremists. The                             

Independent, Retrieved from alaa-alaswany-when-women-are-sinners-in-the-eyes-of-extremists-1810447.html


An Analysis of the Portrayal of a Homosexual in The Yacoubian Building

In Alaa Al Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building, the author chronicles the everyday life of an assortment of people who live and work in this antiquated downtown Cairo building in the 1990’s. Among the main characters that the story follows is Hatim Rasheed, the respectable editor-in-chief of Le Caire, a French newspaper, and a homosexual. While it might be expected for a novel situated in such a culture as that of Egypt, in which homosexuality is taboo, to present this subject fairly negatively, I believe that in many instances the author actually depicted this character in a more positive light than what most readers ascertained.

When the reader first meets Hatim he is walking into Chez Nous, a bar under the Yacoubian Building that is frequented by homosexuals, with his lover, Abd Rabbuh.  Instead of causing a scene, the drunken customers offer the well-known editor and his lover respect: “The people in the bar were drunk, shouting and singing loudly. All the same, as soon as Hatim entered, their racket diminished and they took to observing him with curiosity and awe…even the most impudent and obscene of the customers could do no other than treat him with respect” (pg 37). Aswany continues to paint Hatim as a respectable character when he describes his professionalism, saying that though all of his employees are aware of Hatim’s homosexuality, they do not sense it nor does he make a show out of it at work; rather, he is quite stern and serious with them (pg 178-179).

The author also describes homosexuals as “also excel(ling) in professions associated with taste and beauty” (pg 130) and goes on to say “ it is well known that the most famous clothes designers in the world are homosexuals, perhaps because their dual sexual nature enables them to design women’s clothes that are attractive to men and vice versa” (pg 130). Some readers might interpret this as offensive, yet nowhere in the text is Aswany restricting homosexuals to these standards; he is simply presenting a popular observation and, in my opinion, complimenting those who do succeed in these fields.  Moreover, Aswany gives his two main homosexual characters occupations that do not even directly relate to beauty or taste and makes a heterosexual character a shirt maker, proving that he does not believe that homosexuals’ talents are limited or that career choice and sexual orientation are that strongly correlated.  This view is further proven in this description, “Hatim Rasheed is not merely then an effeminate but also a talented and inquiring individual who has learned much from experience and whose competence and intelligence have brought him to the pinnacle of professional success. Moreover, he is an exquisite intellectual…” (pg 180). The author identifies Hatim’s homosexuality, but does not let it define or confine him intellectually or professionally.

Another way Aswany presents Hatim Rasheed in a likeable manner is by giving him a past with which the reader strongly sympathizes. His father, Dr. Hassan Rasheed, was an overly devoted lawyer and professor of law and through dedication and “uninterrupted work” (pg 74)  rose to become the Dean of the Faculty of Law at Cairo University and one of the hundred most prominent lawyers in the world.  Like many of the great intellectuals of his time, Dr. Rasheed had studied abroad in Paris, and brought back with him a wife and a love of western values and lifestyle.  As a result, Hatim was raised in an entirely European household while still having to assimilate into an Egyptian society.  Like his father, Hatim’s mother’s main priority was also her career and she spent most of her time working as a translator at the French Embassy.  Because his parents were too busy to actually raise him, Hatim spent his childhood “sad and lonely, to the point that in contrast to all other children he even liked school days and hated the long summer vacations, which he spent on his own with no friend to play with… (He had) feelings of alienation and mental confusion from which the children of mixed marriages suffer” (pg 74).  Spending all of his time with the servants brought about the development of his first serious relationship with the much older servant, Idris when he himself was just nine years old.  Hatim loved Idris and shared his first homosexual intercourse experience with him, later noting that “when (he) now thinks back to that first time with Idris, that same strange piercing sensation that he knew that day for the first time come back to him but he cannot remember feeling any distress at all” (pg 75).  By portraying young Hatim as a neglected, lonely, confused, and naïve boy being actively and indirectly molded by both the people present and not present, respectively, in his life, the author gives the reader the idea that perhaps his “faults” as an adult are merely a product of his childhood and not something for which the reader should blame him.  Also, showing Hatim as capable of both love and despair makes him seem more human-like as opposed to villainous as some readers might view him.

Many readers automatically assume that the author of the book they are reading share their same biases and subsequently depict the characters accordingly.  However, in the case of The Yacoubian Building, Aswany’s purpose was not to portray a homosexual in a negative light, but to illustrate Hatim Rasheed: a flawed but likeable character, who also happens to be homosexual.  By using heartening flashbacks and positive descriptions, Aswany is able to present Hatim Rasheed as more relatable than his general audience would usually be willing to consider a homosexual character.

An Evaluation of the Changes in Isaac Amin Throughout His Imprisonment

After the removal of the Pahlavi dynasty, the poor and mistreated citizens revolted against those who had been prospering under the Shah.  They interrogated and imprisoned those they felt guilty of respecting the Shah and opposing the Islamists that were attempting to take power.  Septembers of Shiraz describes this reign of terror as people lived in fear of being arrested, served sometimes-interminable sentences in crowded prisons, and occasionally suffered executions.  People changed as a result of these prisons – physically, mentally, and emotionally.  Isaac Amin displays these changes after being jailed and separated from his life for six months, which ultimately gave him time to think and reconsider his previous life choices.

Prior to his imprisonment, Isaac owned a gem shop and worked long hours, which allowed him to support his family and thrive as a “sofa family” opposed to the “floor families” otherwise known as the lower class (pg. 89).   Due to his working schedule, he was unable to spend quality time with his wife or daughter, but even when he wasn’t working, he failed to play an active role in their lives (pg. 5).  His family was one of a minority of Jews in a Muslim nation, which along with their prosperity put a strike against him in the eyes of the Islamist revolutionaries (pg. 156).

Time is a condition that could either hurt or help an individual, and in Isaac’s case, it helped him set his priorities straight and value the family he had left behind.  His sentence consisted of interrogations, tortures, and memories – memories of his wife right after their marriage, of his two children growing up, and of his mistakes as a husband and a father during the past couple years.  He recalled how his wife would read to their children and wondered why he had remained a spectator and not taken part in their routine (pg.196).  He remembered the smell of his wife’s lotion and longed to hold and caress her, as he had not done in years (pg. 209).  In his current world of black, these memories provided color and hope for a safe return.

Time allowed Isaac to reconsider what he valued most in life – money and social class or his family and his desire to see them once more.  Previous to his imprisonment, money was his first priority, his honor, and his life.  It took him the duration of his 6-month term to determine that money was the reason for his imprisonment and would also be his ticket out.  By forfeiting his savings, he displayed his change in character and recognized that in the end, family survives without large sums of money and high honor (pg. 261).

Ironically, these mental and emotional changes did not have a huge impact on his life after his return.  One would expect the homecoming to be joyful and full of emotion, but instead the relationship between the family members continued to be strained.  Issac had changed into a quiet, solemn man and his family was reluctant to question his new behavior and previous treatment in the prison (pg. 259, 269).  Shirin hardly recognized her father due to his physical weakening and changes while in prison and her reaction to his homecoming was not one of excitement, as one would expect (pg. 268).  He slept most of the day and wandered around with a sad, pained expression on his face while he was awake.  Ultimately, it would take time to adjust to the changes after imprisonment and later to the changes after the move to America.

Stop Honor Killings

by Kristin Wade

In the year 2004, 2,774 women were killed in the name of honor, primarily in the Middle East and Eurasian countries. Honor killings are committed when a relative is thought to bring shame to a family. The murdering of the shamed family member is supposed to restore honor within the family. Actions that can lead to dishonor include not adhering to strict dress codes, walking outside without a male from the family escorting you, or engaging in premarital sex. All of these show how easy it is to be discredited as a young girl in Middle Eastern societies. Because women often lack proper education, they are forced to obey tribal customs that are rooted in religion. This allows women very little control over their own lives and leaves them susceptible to becoming scape goats for issues related to morality and the most common targets in honor killings.

            Women are also viewed more so as objects than as people in Middle Eastern society. This is because when they reach a certain age they are typically married off into a different family. Because of this, their family of origin puts little effort into them, as they will eventually lose their daughter to another family. The family she marries into is also uncaring, as they are unfamiliar with her and have little care for her safety. The murders of these women are also justified in the belief that a single person’s offense to a family’s honor can be retracted if the offender is killed. Another factor that contributes to the high number of women killed each year in the name of honor is how evidence is not even a concern in some cases. By going off of rumors alone, some women have been killed just due to gossip without probable evidence. In the most extreme case of this, a man had his wife killed because he dreamed that she had been unfaithful to him.  However, this is not just to say that all victims are murdered. Some victims have escaped with their lives, but at the expense of disfigurements or after enduring extreme forms of torture. Some women have had acid thrown on their faces only to survive and become outcasts in their communities.  Recently, Pakistani director, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy won an Oscar for directing and producing the film, “Saving Face,” about women disfigured through such attacks and the surgeon, Dr. Mohammad Jawad who has worked to restore both their physical appearances and their dignity.

            One of the main reasons honor killings are still happening today is because those who commit them are rarely punished for their murders. Most murders are premeditated and families sometimes choose the youngest male in the family to commit the murder to attempt to gain leniency. There is also a large bias in many instances, with support coming from law enforcers, judges and even lawyers. Because of this issue, women are also too afraid to come forward if they are raped, for fear of bringing dishonor to their family. Because of all these facets, it is clear to see that women are not only neglected socially and physically, but also legally. Because of this lack of legal defense, there is little they can do if an accusation is brought against them. The punishments for bringing dishonor varies; however, they are all gruesome acts, such as pouring acid on the face, burning or stoning. Because these murders are sometimes unsuccessful, some women may have to live out the rest of their lives with these mutilations, such as waking up every morning to see a disfigured face due to acid burns. These physical scars also translate into emotional scars that are forever engraved in the minds of the victims.

            The best way to combat these injustices is through education. Luckily there are many organizations that aim to do just that. With more people learning about the horrors of honor killings, there will be more pressure placed on these societies that may help end these horrible practices. With enough national pressure, these unfit legal systems will hopefully one day crumble. If you’re interested in lending a helping hand, there are numerous organizations to choose from. One such organization is Sabatina which is run by Sabatina James. This organization seeks to eradicate this archaic practice and help women escape oppression by running an underground railroad system. They accept donations and provide information to those willing to help the cause.