THE YACOUBIAN BUILDING by Alaa Al Aswany

Please note: My “Reading Reflections” are not reviews. They are simply my thoughts in response to certain passages.

To give you a better sense of the May giveaway books, I’m going to share my “Reading Reflections” on them.

“After all these years, you’re still naive. Why are you amazed at evil? You think like a child. You think that the good people should be smiling and jolly and the bad ones have ugly faces with thick, matted eyebrows. Life’s a lot more complicated than that. There’s evil in the best of people and in those closest to us.” (109)

Those are the visual shortcuts we’re taught. Pretty and smiling = good. Ugly or frowning = bad. But life isn’t a Disney movie. (Fortunately or unfortunately?) The world isn’t black and white; it’s all shades of gray.

One of the hardest parts of growing up, at least for me, was learning to see where the people I loved fell on that scale. Childhood is like looking at the red and blue doubles of everything — it’s all blurry but kind of fun. Then you mature, you get the special glasses, and suddenly everything’s in 3D. On the one hand, it’s all clearer, which is good. You know exactly what you’re looking at. But sometimes you wish you hadn’t seen. It’s harder to sort out your feelings about a good friend who drives drunk, or a bully whose parents abuse them.

Ironically, it’s the grayscale that I love most about fiction. The complexities of character. Maybe because they help me work out my thoughts and emotions in a safe, no-consequence mindscape. I can’t hurt or be hurt by something that isn’t real.

“There are lots of things I should have done with my life that I didn’t.”
“Why?”
“I don’t know. When I was your age, I used to think that I could do whatever I wanted. I used to make plans for my life and I was sure about everything. When I got older, I discovered that man controls almost nothing. Everything is fate.” (137)

“Everything’s fate and destiny.”
“That backward stuff again? You can make your destiny in this world on your own. If there were any justice in this country, someone like you would get educated at state expense. Education, medical treatment, and work are the natural rights of every citizen in the world…” (184)

I love the contradiction. Everything is fate — but you make your own destiny. I have always believed in both.

I do also dream of a world where everyone has their most basic rights and needs fulfilled. Things still wouldn’t be perfect — because people are not perfect, and some would choose to squander their opportunities. But it just kills me to look around now and see how many people don’t even have opportunities to begin with.

“That’s big talk. I dream in my own size. I want to live comfortably and have a family. A husband who loves me, children to raise, and a lovely, comfy little home instead of living on the roof. I’d like to go to a decent country, where there’s no dirt, no poverty, and no injustice.” (200)

What’s wrong with dreaming “small”? Why isn’t enough to have a job or a family and a roof over your head? When did the American dream start requiring a vacation home, a Porsche, a name that’s recognized around the world?

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with those things. Heck, I want some of them. But I hate how people are often looked down upon for not wanting enough. Like if you’re not rich and famous, you’re not anything. That’s so… dumb. And not true.

We should all dream in our own size.

“I don’t want you to live in the past. Everything that happened to you is a page that’s been turned and is done with. Think of the future. We have each other now and I’ll never leave you.” (200)

No real thoughts on this one except that it’s sweet. I don’t believe the past should be forgotten, but I don’t think dwelling on it is a good idea either. Move forward, be happy. Maybe life can be that simple.

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8 Comments

  1. Hmm, I don’t think this book would be for me. For one, I don’t believe in the concepts of fate and destiny, and frankly, they’re both the same thing, aren’t they? So your analysis that “everything is fate but you make your own destiny”… well, it doesn’t make sense to me on many levels. Just my opinion, of course!

    These are, however, appealing themes to many people. Sounds like you got a lot out of the book, and hopefully whoever ends up with it will too!

  2. Yes, fate and destiny are the same. That’s exactly the contradiction. It’s fated, but you control it.

    As the Queen in Alice in Wonderland would say, I sometimes believe in six impossible things before breakfast. :)

  3. One of the things I enjoy about fiction is that it has room for ambiguity, and contradictions. People are confusing, complicated, and wonderful all at once.

  4. “We should all dream in our own size.”

    So, so, SO true :)

  5. I’m with Sonje on this one. I don’t believe in fate, and I get annoyed with too much “fate” in fiction. It’s like the “chosen one” thing we were discussing over at T.S.’s blog and mine. It’s much more interesting to have characters make things happen, for better or worse.

    “I do also dream of a world where everyone has their most basic rights and needs fulfilled. Things still wouldn’t be perfect — because people are not perfect, and some would choose to squander their opportunities. But it just kills me to look around now and see how many people don’t even have opportunities to begin with.”

    Agree completely. This is basically what I write about. In the last mystery I wrote, somebody was malnourished — had barely eaten for days — and one character commented that he must have bene starving himself, because there is always food if people want to eat.

    “We should all dream in our own size.”

    Agree also. I think this is why I’ve remained a happy amateur writer all these years. I think that’s my size.

  6. Joelle

    Dreaming big is good,it exercises the imagination. I am perfectly happy though, with dreams of varying sizes and colors. I believe that life is inherently simple. We, as humans, tend to muck it up along the way to finding our dreams. Some muck is good, some bad.

  7. “Everything is fate — but you make your own destiny. I have always believed in both.”

    Agree wholeheartedly with this contradiction. People have to be open to the opportunities provided by fate; you still have the choice to shape your own future by closing doors that could otherwise be open.

    “I do also dream of a world where everyone has their most basic rights and needs fulfilled. Things still wouldn’t be perfect — because people are not perfect, and some would choose to squander their opportunities. But it just kills me to look around now and see how many people don’t even have opportunities to begin with.”

    YES. So true. And isn’t it funny that some of the biggest dreams we can have (ie changing the world) involve some of the most basic human rights? Civil rights, clean water, clean air, basic healthcare… dreaming in your own size for individual wants and needs is important though.

  8. Anthony-
    Sometimes fiction is about fighting one’s fate. I can get behind that. :)

    Joelle-
    Eggs. Actly! Could not have said it better myself.

    RTW-
    “And isn’t it funny that some of the biggest dreams we can have (ie changing the world) involve some of the most basic human rights?”

    Yes. Well said.

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