Author: Alaa al-Aswany
Alternate Title: Imarat Yaqubian
First published: 2002 (English translation, 2004)
Locale: Downtown Cairo, Egypt
Plot: Social criticism
Zaki Bey el Dessouki, an older gentleman with an office in the Yacoubian building. At sixty-five, his body is tiny and emaciated, his face wrinkled; he dyes his remaining hair black and wears thick glasses and bright false teeth. Despite his age, he continues to spend much of his time pursuing women. He usually dresses well, in a three-piece suit and tie. Zaki's late parents were from the old Egyptian upper class. Zaki has a French engineering degree but has basically stopped working and uses his office to meet his lovers. One Sunday, he is drugged and robbed by one of these lovers, a nightclub hostess. Zaki's vicious sister Dawlat kicks Zaki out of his own apartment, so Zaki moves into in his six-room office. His live-in office assistant and the assistant's brother procure young Busayna as secretary for Zaki. Zaki gently romances Busayna, and the two fall in love. One night Dawlat leads the police to Zaki's office, and Zaki and Busayna are arrested on immorality charges. After being humiliated at the police station, Zaki uses his influence to obtain their release. Zaki and Busayna marry in an elegant café in a ceremony to which many of Busayna's friends are invited.
Busayna el Sayed, a young woman living with her widowed mother and younger siblings on a shack on top of the Yacoubian building. She has a shapely body, full bosom, and small, white, perfect teeth. She is utterly fed up with the corruption and decay of contemporary Egyptian society, which she experiences firsthand. Busayna has a commercial diploma but loses job after job because she refuses to let herself be sexually harassed, until the need to support her family finally pushes her to accept the advances of one of her bosses. Busayna is originally the girlfriend of fellow rooftop dweller Taha el Shazli. When Taha becomes involved in radical politics, she breaks up with him. Busayna accepts the offer of rooftop merchant Malak to work as Zaki's secretary in order to trick him into signing over his apartment to Malak. Zaki's kind treatment and tender love for her makes Busayna fall in love with him, and she tells Malak she will not trick Zaki. Her wedding to Zaki is both fashionable and boisterous.
Taha el Shazli, a poor but ambitious and religious youth living with his father, the building's doorkeeper, atop the Yacoubian building. As a teenager, despite his many menial jobs, he studies hard to pass the police academy exams. He is crushed when he fails just because his father is of low social standing. With his good grades, Taha joins an elite university. There, he becomes a political and religious radical. After a demonstration, he is arrested, beaten, and raped. Seeking revenge, Taha joins a clandestine Islamic training camp, where he marries the widow of an Islamic martyr. He goes with an assassination team targeting the colonel who oversaw his torture. The colonel is killed, but his guards kill Taha.
Hatim Rasheed, a gay newspaper editor living in an apartment in the Yacoubian building. He looks elegant and refined and has a strong, conservative personality. His upper-class father left Hatim's upbringing to his servants, one of whom molested Hatim when Hatim was nine. Hatim falls in love with the military conscript Abduh, who physically resembles that servant, and makes Abduh his cook. When Abduh leaves him, a heartbroken Hatim finds him and asks for one last night together in exchange for a comfortable job. Abduh agrees but wants to leave after their sexual acts are over. Hatim demeans Abduh, who gets angry and kills Hatim.
Abduh Abd Rabbuh, a young man from Upper Egypt who comes to Cairo as a military conscript. He is muscled and has dark, Nubian features. He enters into a relationship with Hatim for financial security, though Abduh has a wife and young son and suffers from knowing his acts with Hatim are considered immoral in Islam. Given employment by Hatim after his military service, Abduh moves his family to the roof of the Yacoubian. When his son Wael dies of a fever, Abduh leaves Hatim and moves away. When Hatim asks to see him once more, Abduh agrees, but when Hatim insults Abduh, Abduh kills him.
Hagg Muhammad Azzam, a shady businessman who rose up from poverty and has a business and an apartment in the Yacoubian building. He is over sixty, tall, and in good health. Azzam made his fortune dealing hard drugs, and he launders his proceeds with legal shops. He marries the young divorcee Souad Gaber as his legal second wife but prohibits her from becoming pregnant. When Souad becomes pregnant anyway, he has thugs drag her to a hospital for a forced abortion. Azzam bribes his way into parliament but must pay off the Big Man of Egypt to avoid arrest as drug dealer.
Souad Gaber, a divorcee from Alexandria who agrees to become Azzam's legal second wife and moves into an apartment of his in the Yacoubian building. Souad has light skin, a full, beautiful body, and black hair and eyes. Souad's husband, with whom she has a young son, disappeared in Iraq, after which she obtained a divorce. Out of poverty, she accepts Azzam's proposal to become his second wife. However, she secretly despises Azzam and longs for her son, whom she is forbidden to see. When she gets pregnant, Azzam forces her to have an abortion and divorces her.
KamalelFouli, a corrupt power broker and secretary of the fictional ruling party. Despite his overweight and disheveled appearance, Kamal has a domineering personality. He fixes elections for bribes and collectspaymentsfortheBigManof Egypt.
The Big Man, the never-named president of Egypt, a veiled reference to former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. At his palace, he speaks to people only over an intercom, usually to demand money.
Abaskharon, a poor Christian in Cairo who had his right leg amputated and serves as Zaki's live-in office assistant.
Malak, Abaskharon's brother, a short, fat crook who sets up shop in a rooftop shack of the Yacoubian. He and Abaskharon try to use Busayna, but she defies them.
Dawlat el Dessouki, Zaki's embittered, estranged, and vicious sister. A thin, frail, elderly woman, she hates her younger brother for his vitality. Dawlat tries to have Zaki declared legally incompetent so she can govern his assets.