Comparative Historical Analysis of The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al-Aswany and The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
by Laila Mostafa
Originally published in 2002 in Arabic with the title Imarat Ya’qubyan, The Yacoubian Building is a best-selling novel by Alaa Al-Aswany that narrates the lives of multiple characters who live in one of the most prestigious apartment blocks in Cairo. Although the building is currently considered one that has gone out of style, Al-Aswany’s novel managed to revive its significance and historical beauty by featuring it in the novel as a metaphor for contemporary Egypt and a central, unifying location in which the primary characters of the novel reside. Al-Aswany’s novel was also praised for its ability to provide subtle yet profound commentary and criticism regarding multiple aspects of Egyptian culture, politics, religion, and history. Similarly, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day is a novel that was published in English in 1989. It revolves around the life of Mr. Stevens, who works as a butler to Lord Darlington. Throughout the novel, Lord Darlington reveals himself to be a Nazi sympathizer prior to the outbreak of World War II (WWII). Similar to the Yacoubian building in Al-Aswany’s novel, Ishiguro uses Darlington Hall as a miniature version of England, with English society reflected in the hierarchical structure of social relations inside Darlington Hall (Baumann 1). As such, this paper aims to examine the historical references present in each novel and their implications, particularly regarding the recurring theme of political disputes and corruption.
The Yacoubian Building is set in Cairo, Egypt, with the events of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 acting as its political backdrop (Gardaz 1). The novel also features multiple critiques of Egyptian politics, including against the president at the time of the novel’s publication, Hosni Mubarak. Nonetheless, a majority of this criticism also targets former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s rule and the infamous Egyptian Revolution of 1952. The majority of the events and themes occurring in the novel can be traced to the 1952 coup d’état by a group of army officers known as the “Free Officers” led by Gamal Abdel Nasser with the purpose of “overthrowing King Farouk and his son, removing any remnants of British influence in the government, and ending the monarchy to create a republic in Egypt” (Egypt Today 1).
In light of the revolution’s success and the end of the monarchy in Egypt, citizens became divided between support and hatred for Nasser’s decision. On one hand, the revolution was celebrated by the poor for its “redistribution of land rights” as “one of the new government’s first acts was to issue a land reform law, which said landowners could not hold more than 200 acres of land. It decreed that the rest of their estates should be divided among Egypt’s poor, in an attempt to end the feudal system” (Egypt Today 1). However, this redistribution also meant that some of the lands would be taken away from the rich, which would lower their social status and heavily affect their living conditions. The divided reactions to this revolution amongst the citizens of Egypt is repeatedly featured in The Yacoubian Building; they were especially represented through Zaki Bey’s conversations with others and other background information provided in the novel by the narrator. For instance, at the beginning of the novel, the narrator describes Zaki Bey as the son of a “well-known pillar of the Wafd who was prime minister on more than one occasion and was one of the richest men before the Revolution, he and his family owning more than five thousand feddans of prime agricultural land” (Al-Aswany 2). The narrator also explains that Zaki Bey’s social status was negatively affected when “most of his possessions were confiscated and distributed among the peasants under the land reform” as a result of the Revolution (Al-Aswany 2). The contrast between Zaki Bey’s social and financial status preceding and following the Revolution is a testament to its impact and the rollercoaster-like effects it had on social class in Egypt. The information about Zaki Bey’s past is also significant as it frames his opinion of Egypt’s current political state and characterizes him as a relic of the past, which is often represented through a description of his physical features like his “old, wrinkled face, his thick glasses, his gleaming false teeth, and his dyed black hair” (Al-Aswany 1).
What makes Zaki Bey’s political opinions even more interesting is their vast contrast with that of the younger generation who were not alive during the revolution and so have no idea what Zaki's “good old days” may have looked like. For example, in a conversation with Buthayna, Zaki claims that “Abd el Nasser was the worst ruler in the whole history of Egypt,” and that he encouraged corruption in the country by teaching the Egyptians to be “cowards, opportunists, and hypocrites” (Al-Aswany 118). While Buthayna does not have an opinion on the matter simply because she was not alive to experience Abd el Nasser’s rule herself, she does claim to know a lot of people who loved him, to which Zaki replies that “anyone who loves Abd el Nasser is either an ignoramus or did well out of him” (Al-Aswany 118). By highlighting Zaki and Buthayna’s opposing political opinions, Al-Aswany encapsulates both ends of the spectrum in relation to the ’52 revolution. Similarly, their opinions are directly linked to the generational difference between the two characters, providing readers with a snapshot of Egyptian society across the spectrum.
Thoroughly described by Al-Aswany in the novel, Zaki’s reaction and bitterness towards Abd el Nasser’s rule are also highlighted in the film adaptation. It is especially translated in the scene where Zaki drunkenly lashes out as he and Buthayna walk out of Maxim’s and back to his apartment. The film presents the scene in dim lighting to highlight the hopelessness and darkness that Zaki Bey feels about Egypt’s future at that moment. The scene then contrasts his dark expectations for the future by highlighting “the glory days” through the bright, focused lighting on Talaat Harb’s statue in the frame (Al-Aswany 1). To explain, Talaat Harb’s statue represents the past and the Egyptian history that Zaki once glorified, especially considering the fact that Talaat Harb was a leading economist and entrepreneur who “played a huge role in reforming the Egyptian economy, detaching it from any colonial investments” (Safwat 1). Another important point to consider is that Talaat Harb’s statue was named by none other than President Gamal Abd el Nasser himself to commemorate Harb’s achievements in 1954 (Safwat 1).
Considering that Talaat Harb died before the revolution of 1952, the statue’s presence in the scene serves as a reminder of Zaki’s nostalgia for the past along with the glories that came before the revolution. The scene also reinforces these ideas by having Buthayna and Zaki out of focus and small in contrast, the dimly lit frame showcasing the only bright aspect of Egypt that Zaki Bey sees, their present insignificance compared with its past greatness.
In addition to political disputes and historical contexts, Al-Aswany uses the novel to present subtle commentary on corruption in Egypt, some of which is represented through whole characters while others are present in small instances between the characters. The main theme of this corruption, however, which seems to target the Mubarak political infrastructure, is embodied in Hagg Azzam and Kamal El Fouli. From the very beginning of the novel, both characters are represented as heavily corrupt in both their personal and professional lives. Out of the many instances featuring their corruption, the most prominent one occurs at the very beginning where Hagg Azzam needs El Fouli’s help to secure his win in the elections for the People’s Assembly. The very fact that Hagg Azzam was aware that he cannot win the election without corruptive forces at play is an indicator of his as well as the country’s acceptance of said corruption, indeed, of its normalization, especially since Hagg Azzam’s character is supposed to represent the political officials in Egypt. Hagg Azzam’s corrupt intentions were further shown as he tells Souad that if he secures a place in the People’s Assembly, he can “do business worth millions” (Al-Aswany 40); here, Hagg Azzam exposes his true, corrupt intentions behind his decision to run for the elections, none of which include helping the people or the community in any way.
Similarly, El Fouli’s character and actions are highly representative of the widespread corruption that exists in Egypt, which is further presented by the fact that he only agrees to help Hagg Azzam for the price of one million Egyptian pounds. As the novel progresses, El Fouli begins to blackmail Hagg Azzam for a percentage of his illegal business. Al-Aswany then highlights the characters’ corruption further by pushing the narrative and mentioning a much powerful character who goes by the name “The Big Man.” Of course, The Big Man is never physically described or seen by anyone in the novel; the only pieces of information given to the readers are of his power and reach in Egyptian society. While nothing is certain, The Big Man’s presence in the novel is most likely a way for Al-Aswany to hint at the corruption of the Egyptian presidency which was then led by the former President Hosny Mubarak.
The inclusion of The Big Man and its reference to Mubarak’s rule is an unmistakable comment on the corruption present under the former president’s rule. This is especially true as there were little to no checks on his power, a characteristic Nasser shared once he managed to sideline Egypt’s first president Mohammed Naguib, “dissolve all political parties except for the Arab Socialist Union Party and create a new constitutional order defined by a powerful presidency” (Yingling 36). Moreover, “presidential power was already significant before the 1958 enactment of the Emergency Law, which gave the president the power to circumscribe non-governmental political activity” (Yingling 36). The Emergency Law was also significant in the way it “invited police abuse because it allowed the police to detain people for up to 45 days without ever seeing a prosecutor” (Humans Rights Watch 1). In fact, Al-Aswany explores this form of corruption in the novel through Taha’s character and the abuse he suffers at the hands of the Egyptian police. All of the above-mentioned factors encouraged corruption under Abd el Nasser’s rule, especially since “administrators and bureaucrats abused their power to prey on citizens and siphon off resources from the state” (Yingling 36). It is also important to mention that these forms of corruption continued and, in some cases, increased under Hosni Mubarak.
The film highlights this form of corruption as well, especially during the scene where El Fouli begins to blackmail Hagg Azzam for money. In the scene, Hagg Azzam and El Fouli are shown on opposite sides of the frame, representing the fact that they are on two different sides in their argument. Both characters are also backlit in a way that reflects their darkness and emphasizes the illicit and corrupt nature of their discussions and deals. It also represents the grim and dark nature of their conversation, which is tainted with threats, blackmail, and betrayal.
In a similar yet contrastive political setting, Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day revolves around a European political dispute that takes place after World War I. Its aftermath can primarily be observed through Lord Darlington’s character and his thoughts regarding the peace treaty that was drawn up at the end of the Great War. It can also be seen in the way he would try to invite certain dignitaries from all over the world to Darlington Hall to convince them that the Treaty of Versailles was unfair, that it humiliated the Germans beyond the humiliation and economic consequences of the war. To give context, The Treaty of Versailles “forced Germany to surrender colonies in Africa, Asia and the Pacific; cede territory to other nations like France and Poland; reduce the size of its military; pay war reparations to the Allied countries; and accept guilt for the war” (Chapman 1). Generally, Lord Darlington found these rules to be humiliating to Germany and would continually try to figure out ideas and “devote more and more hours” to promote peaceful relations between Britain and the new German regime under Hitler (Ishiguro 65). In fact, Lord Darlington expresses his disagreement with the measures taken against Germany by claiming that the actions are “barbarous” and that “it is unbecoming to go on hating an enemy like this once a conflict is over” (Ishiguro 79). Lord Darlington then reiterates his point of view by claiming that, “Once you’ve got a man on the canvas, that ought to be the end of it. You don’t then proceed to kick him” (Ishiguro 79). Additionally, Stevens explains the source of Lord Darlington’s remorse towards Germans and his obsession with fixing their crisis by saying, “As I recall, [Lord Darlington] had not been initially so preoccupied with the peace treaty when it was drawn up at the end of the Great War, and I think it is fair to say that his interest was prompted not so much by an analysis of the treaty, but by his friendship with Herr Karl-Heinz Bremann (Ishiguro 62). In other words, Lord Darlington’s sympathy towards Germany mainly stems from the guilt he feels towards Herr Karl-Heinz Bremann, his German friend who committed suicide after to the events of World War I due to the humiliation and tragic postwar economic conditions that Germany went through as a result and not the effects of the war itself.
As the novel progresses, Lord Darlington’s character reveals more shocking events about his political activities as Steven learns of Lord Darlington’s association with Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British fascist Black Shirts movement in the interwar period. Throughout these revelations, Stevens attempts to make multiple excuses for Lord Darlington’s actions and statements, for instance, the firing the two Jewish maids, but he is ultimately proven wrong when Lord Darlington turns out to indeed be himself associated with the Black Shirts movement and a Nazi sympathizer. This implies the presence of ideologies within Lord Darlington’s mind that contradict Stevens’, causing Stevens to deny his better observations because he does not wish to perceive Lord Darlington as anything but a noble and honorable man, making Stevens indirectly culpable in anti-Semitic behavior.
Like the novel, the film portrays Lord Darlington’s ideology as a Nazi sympathizer throughout. The most prominent and powerful scene occurs when Lord Darlington invites a number of dignitaries to Darlington Hall and Mr. Lewis calls the guests a “room of amateurs.” As a reaction, Lord Darlington stands up and publicly expresses his views regarding the Treaty of Versailles and the humiliating treatment he believes Germany has been given. In this scene, Lord Darlington is standing up at the center of the frame and looking down at Mr. Lewis, which expresses domination, confidence, and assertion of power. Furthermore, Lord Darlington has a number of servants behind him, which further impacts the sense of power and money he holds at Darlington Hall; the audience is also positioned behind Lewis, implying that their thoughts and ideologies align with his. Also, the wall lamp strengthens the scene as it is positioned right above his head as if putting him under the spotlight and giving his speech extra attention.
Similar to The Yacoubian Building’s inclusion of corrupt characters in the novel, The Remains of the Day also features an element of corruption in Lord Darlington’s character. However, the difference between the two novels is that the characters in Al-Aswany’s novel are politically and physically corrupt in the sense that they are hypocritical and exploitative of their power over individuals to get what they want; Ishiguro’s novel, on the other hand, displays ideological corruption not in the much more subtle, everyday kind of way, as mere accident and, indeed, even honor. In The Remains of the Day, Lord Darlington invites the British Prime Minister and a German Ambassador for a secret meeting in the dark. In this scene, Lord Darlington’s grandson, Cardinal Reginald, unexpectedly comes to Darlington Hall to stop the meeting, or at the very least uncover its details. While Lord Darlington appears to be a Nazi sympathizer in the novel, Reginald exposes the corruption, explaining that “the Nazis are manoeuvring [Lord Darlington] like a pawn,” that he is being manipulated into sympathizing with the Germans, or the then-Nazi regime (Ishiguro 205). In fact, Lord Darlington’s “desire to right the wrong of the Allies” which “[lead] him to corruption so in this sense too he is presented as a victim” (AQA 6). This form of passable corruption is also reflected in the novel as Lord Darlington’s image remained unchanged as Stevens kept referring to his lordship as a “sincere and honorable” man who simply didn’t realize what he [was] doing (Ishiguro 207). Because of the characters’ reaction to Lord Darlington, one could argue that the novel could make the readers sympathize with a Nazi sympathizer. In that sense, the political corruption in The Remains of the Day is much more nuanced and complex than that of The Yacoubian Building, which ultimately makes it more dangerous. To illustrate, while comparing the two novels, it is evident that Al Aswany clearly believes that corruption is evil, but Ishiguro doesn't make a judgment. He artfully turns responsibility onto the reader to decide, making them think hard about how so-called honorable and seemingly innocent behaviors are also saturated with political and ideological corruption if not downright evil.
Overall, both Al-Aswany and Ishiguro’s novels make use of a single place, the Yacoubian building and Darlington Hall, to represent a microcosm of their settings: The Yacoubian Building is a microcosm of sociopolitical criticism in Egyptian society , and The Remains of the Day a microcosm of contentions in England after the First World War. Both novels feature elements of political unrest, disputes, and corruption, but while the political disputes in the two novels might be somewhat similar, the elements of corruption differ as Al-Aswany’s novel features political corruption while Ishiguro’s ideological. Nevertheless, both novels and film adaptations do employ parallel scenes of corruption, which further highlights the themes explored by each author and its implications on the overall narrative.
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