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.