The novel described the Yacoubian Building as one of the most luxurious and prestigious apartment blocks in Cairo following its construction by Armenian businessman Hagop Yacoubian in 1934, with government ministers, wealthy manufacturers, and foreigners residing or working out of offices there. After the revolution in 1952, which overthrew King Farouk and gave power to Gamal Abdel Nasser, many of the rich foreigners, as well as native landowners and businessmen, who had lived at the Yacoubian fled the country. Each vacated apartment was then occupied by a military officer and his family, who were often of a more rural background and lower social caste than the previous residents.

On the roof of the ten-story building are fifty small rooms (one for each apartment), no more than two meters by two meters in area, which were originally used as storage areas and not as living quarters for human beings, but after wealthy residents began moving from downtown Cairo to suburbs such as Medinet Nasrand El Mohandiseen in the 1970s, the rooms were gradually taken over by overwhelmingly poor migrants from the Egyptian countryside, arriving in Cairo in the hopes of finding employment. The rooftop community, effectively a slum neighborhood, is symbolic of the urbanization of Egypt and of the burgeoning population growth in its large cities in recent decades, especially among the poor and working classes.

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