The following is a short essay I wrote about The Yacoubian Building for an undergraduate history course.
In Alaa al Aswany’s book, The Yacoubian Building, Islamism and Islamists are primarily presented through the point of view of the character Taha El Shazli, the son of a doorman who lives on the roof of the Yacoubian building. As the story progresses, the rise of Islamism in Egypt is presented as being directly related to socioeconomic background, the lack of adequate economic opportunities and corruption present in government and society.
Taha’s family was of very modest means. Despite this, Taha was very intelligent and was able to excel at his studies because of his desire to become a police officer, which he believed would allow him to advance in life and gain the respect and dignity that he lacked while growing up in the Yacoubian building. As the son of a doorman, he was often ridiculed and looked down on by the other residents, which he was forced to put up with because he had no other option. Taha was sure that he would be able to succeed in his endeavor because he believed firmly in God, prayed regularly and avoided major sins (Aswany, 20).
Taha almost reached his goal, but his socioeconomic status caused his application to be rejected. Before attending the character interview, he had spoken to officers in his district who told him that because he had no rich and influential family members he would have to pay a bribe of 20,000-pounds to guarantee his acceptance into the police academy. Taha wasn’t financially capable of paying a bribe of that amount and given his religious devotion, he probably wouldn’t have done it anyway. Instead, he believed firmly in his abilities and hoped that his devotion to God would enable him to overcome that obstacle.
Unfortunately, the board wasn’t interviewing for ability or the marks of a good police officer. They were only interested in the corrupt practices of giving out government positions to family members or people with the right amount of money. Even though they were impressed by Taha’s answers, when it was discovered that his father was a “property guard,” he was dismissed. This was Taha’s first taste of corruption, another in a long line of blows to his dignity, and a serious threat to his chances of ever having a respectable life.
Taha’s next attempt to push past the boundaries set by his socioeconomic background was his enrollment in the Faculty of Economics at Cairo University. In his new surroundings, however, he still felt the sting of class divisions and was drawn towards other people who, like himself, came from humble backgrounds. These people were more religiously observant and Taha finally felt like he’d met people that would allow him the respect and dignity he was seeking. The level of respect and the sense of belonging he finally felt with this new group of people, student Islamists, made him far more open to radicalization. He felt that he was valued. He was brought into an inner circle and introduced to an influential and charismatic leader, Sheikh Shakir, which validated his need for respect and purpose.
The event that crystallized Taha’s emergence as not just an Islmaist, but a jihadi Islamist, was the trauma he experienced when arrested after a demonstration protesting Egypt’s involvement in the Gulf War. Already having spent most of his life being bullied and pushed around because of circumstances out of his control, he was bullied, tortured and raped by the very government entity that he had at one time hoped to work for. The corruption that prevented him from serving his country as a police officer now served to facilitate his torture and radicalization. When Taha was finally released from prison, his dignity as a man and a human being was shattered. His faith was shaken. Through coaxing from his Islamist mentors, however, he was convinced that he could best recover through renewed devotion and military-style training, which Taha readily agreed to out of an intense need for both healing and revenge.
In the end, Taha became a “martyr,” dying in the process of taking revenge on the man who ordered his rape. Because of Taha’s socioeconomic background, he had limited options to start with. Because of the corruption in the police department (and the government office that denied his claim of unfairness) he was pushed down a path that led him to associate with Islamist oriented people of a similar background. Further government corruption in the form of sanctioned torture and degradation in prison caused Taha to pass the tipping point. While not all Egyptians may follow the same path to Islamism, Aswany’s message is clear: the lack of opportunities open to people of all classes and the government’s enabling of and participation in corruption helped to create violent Islamists.