The reasons why anyone would choose the martyrdom of a terrorist have always been hard for me to understand. The Japanese kamikaze pilots of the Second World War seemed to me to be completely ununderstandable when I first learned about them. Patriotism, valour and all that were things we were being brought up to believe in. But suicide for the cause?
Suicidal terrorism is no more easy to understand now that it considered glorious in so many corners of the world. That is why I’ve been on the look-out for explanations in my reading. The Yacoubian Building by Alaa El Aswany contains the best I’ve come across to date. The book is about the people who live in a once-elegant apartment house in central Cairo. At the centre are two young people: Taha who wants to be a police officer and Boussaina, who wants to marry him and live a happy life raising his children. But Taha comes up against the inherent corruption of modern Egypt and slips into fundamentalist Islam which offers hope for both personal salvation and revenge against an unjust society. Boussaina goes the other way toward a fairy tale ending, which in some respects is far harder to believe in than Taha’s destiny.
The novel (made into a recently released film) is a good companion to two other recent and excellent books about politics and terrorism, Have You Heard the Night Bird Cry? (Knopf) by Anita Rau Badami and The Unyielding Clamour of the Night by Neil Bissonndath (Cormorant Books).
We’ll be discussing The Yacoubian Building in French at the Outremont Library tonight. (Tomorrow night it’s Dreams of My Russian Summers by Andrei Makine at the Atwater Library).