Monthly Archives: April 2012

The Dichotomy in an Egyptian Society as Seen in The Yacoubian Building

There are many aspects that separate the people of every society. While differences in some societies are subtle, in others, they are great. Wealth and social class have always been the greatest aspects that created differences in societies such as the Islamic Middle Eastern ones. However, as technology flourished and people began seeing and comparing their lives to other societies around them, the dichotomy present in Middle Eastern societies, such as Egypt, began to evolve and widen over time. In the book The Yacoubian Building, the author Alaa al-Aswany shows readers how the there are many differences that exist and separate the Egyptian society today. By analyzing and examining The Yacoubian Building, one can gain insight into how the Egyptian society has been divided into three major divisions; the rich versus the poor, the religious extremists versus the non-religious or non-extremists, and the westernized versus the non-westernized.

            Wealth and social class have always played a big role in the divisions among society, and they still continue to do so. The poor struggle to make a living for themselves while the rich have it a little easier.  In The Yaccobian Building, this societal difference can be clearly seen between Busayna and Zaki Bey. Zaki Bey was one of Egypt’s former wealthiest elites and the oldest inhabitant of the Yaccobian building during its glory days. He often spends his days dining in the  finest restaurants, attending clubs, and sleeping with women of every type; ” the engineering office quickly failed and was transformed into the place where Zaki Bey spends his free time each day reading newspapers, drinking coffee, meeting with friends and lovers…” (5). Despite his failed career, Zaki Bey still enjoyed his life because he was relatively wealthy and could afford to do that.  Although often pestered by the greedy ambitions of his sister, who is constantly scheming to get him permanently out of his apartment, he nevertheless still manages to live a relatively comfortable and carefree life. On the other hand, Busayna is a poor girl who lives on the roof of the building and struggles to keep her job in order to make enough money to support her family. From the day she graduated high school, she has been jumping from job to job because her bosses always took advantage of her. For example, her bosses would “insist on kissing her by force in the empty office, or press up against her or start opening their fly to comfort her with some ‘facts on the ground'” (42).  Therefore, it can be seen that those who are poor often see the evils of their country and of society, while the rich get a less taste of it. Moreover, the book shows how the rich often take advantage and rip the poor of their rights.  For instance, Hagg Azzam, who is a rich and powerful business man, was able to buy Saud, a poor widow, for marriage, even though she did not want to be with him. Hagg Azam ripped Saud of her right to see her child and her family. He also forced her to have an abortion; “you made an agreement and you went back on it…from the start we said no pregnancy” (170).  Therefore, it can be seen how the poor often suffer from the exploitation and influence of the rich.

             Like money, the degree of religious conformity has always segregated the Egyptian society; however one would think that religious differences would not exist or be that influential in a predominantly Sunni Muslim country as Egypt. The Yacoubian Building shows readers how religion is playing a big role in the differences that exist among society today. For instance, it shows readers how there are Islamic extremist groups that are thriving in society.  These Islamic groups want to overthrow the government with its corruption and malice: “We want it Islamic- Islamic and we will struggle and give up our lives and all we hold dear till Egypt is Islamic once more” (96). In pursuit of their political goals they do not mind deceiving and using innocent young men to do their dirty work for them. Moreover, the author uses the characters of Malak and Abaskharon to show that religious conformity exists even among the non-Muslim, non extremist members of society.  Malak and Abaskharon are Christians, who do not noticeably stand out from society because they are still conservative men; they just attend a church instead of a mosque. On the other hand, there are other non-extremists, and may be even the non-religious, who live in Egypt, like Hatim a homosexual man. Although Hatim believes that homosexuality is okay, it indeed goes against the basic notions of any religion which makes him extremely non-religious. Ironically, Hatim does not see himself committing a crime against God’s commands. In fact he tries to convince his partners, like Abduh, of his belief on homosexuality. For instance he tells Abduh that, “our Lord is big and He has true mercy, nothing to do with what the sheiks in your village say…Our Lord will forgive us because we don’t do harm. We just love each other,” (134). Therefore, in this part of the book, one can see how there exists a dichotomy in religion in society.

            Moreover, another factor that separates society in The Yacoubian Building is the degree of westernization. The books shows how some people are westernized in the Middle Eastern society, while others are completely sheltered and know nothing of the West. In the book, Zaki Bey practices many western traditions by drinking wine and attending clubs. Christine is another character that does so, even though she is originally an Egyptianized foreigner. Christine is a wealthy woman who is part of the old Greek community, has traveled outside the country and is extremely westernized because she sings at foreign clubs and practices western traditions at restaurants; “Christine tasted the wine as the traditions of the table require, then made a sign to the ancient Nubian waiter and he poured out two full glasses,” (108). One would not think that such traditions are practiced in Egypt. On the other hand, there are the non-westernized people in Egypt like Abduh and Busayna. They lack the opportunity to practice western traditions due to their place and role in society; their place has led them to resort to more conservative practical Egyptian traditions. For instance, a woman in Busayna’s social class is looked down upon if she were to wear short and skimpy clothing, which is a western asset.

            The Yacoubian Building is a great book that shows the dichotomy of the Egyptian society today.  In the book, people like Zaki Bey and Busayna show readers how the dichotomy that exists between social classes still exists and is becoming worse. Moreover, characters like Hatim, Malak, Abaskharon, and the members of the Islamic groups show readers how religion itself has become a dichotomy that separates society. Also, characters such as Christine, Busayna, and Abduh show readers how a dichotomy exists between people regarding the degree of their westernization and their perception of Western values. All these divisions allow readers to fully understand how complex and complicated the Egyptian society has become.




Removing the Veil: Women’s Empowerment or Western Assimilation?

In Leila Ahmed’s Women and Gender in Islam, the argument concerning the act of wearing the veil or deciding to take it off is an intriguing one. Ahmed is clear in saying that “Islamic societies did not oppress women,” but the focus of the veil is based on Western society rather than the interests of the women in the Middle East (167). She points out that the first advocates of removing the veil came from men: men who Ahmed claim the West greatly influenced, and who only wanted their women to remove the veil in order to appear “modernized.” Ahmed argues that the men are not trying to empower the women, but rather strip them of their cultural heritage. When the woman is making the choice to wear the veil, any person telling her that she should not or that it is oppressing her is simply removing the woman’s freedom through his or her “advocacy.” The argument of the veil is a metaphor of a larger argument Ahmed is expressing. Ahmed notes that many “advocates” struggle with distinguishing between cultural and religious origins of practices and clothing, and that the distinction needs to be made before promoting any true change.

Ahmed feels strongly about increasing the rights and liberties of women and appears fed up with the concentration on clothing choices as the Western feminist movement. “The feminist agenda as defined by Europeans was also incorrect in it particularities, including its focus on the veil” (287). Ahmed goes on to say that because of this focus, many terms have become associated with the veil, and that the only way oppression can be fought is by the removing of the veil. The logic behind the focus of the veil does not make sense. There are definite rights that women need, but removing the veil is not going to gain those rights. There needs to be more awareness and understanding of the complexity of the veil. In a statement that sums up the message Ahmed wants us to understand is that “Arab and Muslim women need to reject the androcentrism and misogyny that they find themselves in, but that is not at all the same as saying they have to adopt Western culture or reject Arab culture and Islam comprehensibly” (166).

Most Western people share the feelings of the early feminists about the veil, but it is critical to understand the origins of the veil before creating assumptions. The veil is not something created by Islam, but it was adopted from the Greeks and Byzantines at the time of Mohammed. The prophet’s wives adopted the practice because certain people thought his wives should not be as exposed to the world. The Koran does not mention the veil. It only commands Muslims, men and women, should retain modesty. Most people follow from the example of Mohammed’s wives in believing that they should veil, but no one can be sure if Mohammed intended for people to veil in the name of God, and Islam. Even in recent American history, it was common for women to cover their hair in public. If they did not they would be scandalized by the community. Certain cultures retain similar beliefs, which is why the veil is so common in certain areas, and not in others. Societal pressures can have a firm hold over people’s everyday lives.

Ahmed’s arguments make the readers question the content of the progress that Western feminism is encouraging. Why should one group decide what classifies as right or wrong? There is constant pressure put on places to be and look exactly like the West, but what does that mean? To industrialize, become unsustainable, and begin destroying the planet? People in the West constantly worry over places not progressing, but what if those places have already found their ultimate, optimal state as a society. Nomadic communities in Africa are seen as “backwards,” but they are maintaining their land, self-sufficient, and are free of health problems such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and other illness plaguing the “modern,” Western world. Maybe we should start stop looking for what we can change in these places, and see what we can learn from these societies to improve our own.

The issue of the hijab is an issue parallel to those issues of modernity and progress. Why should the West decide how women should dress and what is suitable? If women in the Middle East feel it is their right to wear the veil, and feel that it is the right decision for them, why should outsiders make such an issue of it? Some people may see the common act of piercing young girls’ ears as oppression, but it is done within our own culture, so there is no issue. People who feel it is wrong should at least seek to understand the cultural meaning and history of the veil before making rash comments about the women who wear it.  Ahmed knows that there is wrong happening in her society, but she makes a clear point that making a difference in the issues of women’s rights should not come through attempts to remove the veil or strip people of their cultural heritage. Ahmed feels that women should be empowered to make their own decisions, and have control over their own lives. Outside “feminists” cannot make any true change, especially without understanding fully the cultural implications of their advocacy.