Film Review: Contemporary Egypt at the Edge of an Abyss

Film Review: Contemporary Egypt at the Edge of an Abyss

Alaa Al Aswany, The Yacoubian Building, Translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies, Harper Perennial, 2006

“The Yacoubian Building” [Film] (Marwan Hamed, 2006)

The late Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz wrote what was perhaps the definitive work of Arabic literature in the 20th century: his Cairo Trilogy was an epic that showed the complex ways in which the changes of that tumultuous century played out in Egypt, the center of Arab culture and politics. 

The Trilogy (Bayn al-Qasrayn, 1956; Qasr al-Shawq, 1957; Al-Sukkariyya, 1957 – English translations: Palace Walk, 1990; Palace of Desire, 1991; Sugar Street, 1992) followed the fortunes and misfortunes of one Egyptian family, led by the patriarch Ahmad Abdel Jawad who maintained the many contradictory impulses of the Egyptian Middle Class.  Abdel Jawad was a puritanical tyrant in his own home, but a libertine in his leisure activities.  He was a well-respected merchant who held to the strictest standards of Hanbali Islam: he held his poor wife Amina in a grip-like vise, often terrorizing her with his power and prestige; his children quivered as he walked into the room; but in his nocturnal encounters he partook in wine, women and song in ways that belied his conservative and respectfully religious demeanor.  But Abdel Jawad was also an Egyptian patriot whose support of the nationalist, liberal Wafd party was firm and unwavering.

As the three novels of the series evolve, we see the tumultuous and overwhelming changes that take place in Egyptian society.  By the time we reach the generation of Abdel Jawad’s grandchildren that society has been through some radical changes.  The place of religion and tradition in Egyptian society had been dramatically reconfigured.  Prophetically, Mahfouz brings the Trilogy to a close with the disenchantment of Abdel Jawad’s youngest son Kamal who, contrary to his father, has become a skeptical intellectual bereft of the certainties of the past; a man with no wife and no children, embodying a cruel reality borne of modernity and its civilizational discontents.

But Mahfouz goes one step further and draws two portraits which will become critical in the Arab future.  Two of Abdel Jawad’s grandchildren, Abd al-Munim and Ridwan, exemplify conflicting trends in Arab culture that will become more and more important as time passes.  Abd al-Munim joins the nascent Muslim Brotherhood with its atavistic dreams of Islamic purity and supremacy in an Egypt that has always stood firm in its moderating influences.  Ridwan climbs the corrupt political ladder by sleeping with a prominent male politician, showing us not only the political corruption of a state that has been dominated by various bureaucracies for many centuries, but the moral degeneration of a landed class which saw its own perquisites in absolute terms.

The indelibility of Mahfouz’s landmark work has been imprinted on Arab culture in ways that are all too real.  In the novels that he wrote after the Trilogy, Mahfouz continued to examine the breakdown of Egyptian society.  In a late work such as The Day the Leader was Killed (Yawm Qutil al-Za’im, 1985 – English translation, 1989) Mahfouz took on the Sadat regime in no uncertain terms.  After having come very close to being a political prisoner during the Nasser regime, Mahfouz announced his complete independence from political correctness in a kleptocratic Egypt which became emblematic of the larger Arab world. 

I doubt that there is any writer or artist in the Arab world who has become as central to the common discourse as Naguib Mahfouz.  His work has cast a long and meaningful shadow on all that has come after it.  Arabic writers such as Gamal al-Ghitani, Sonallah Ibrahim and Tayib Salih have all worked to create a new space for a post-Mahfouz literature by adapting and creating old and new literary forms and socio-political discussions that attempt to progress from Mahfouz’s world.

It has been in the work of Sonallah Ibrahim – a figure not well-known in the West – that the themes of dysfunction and anomie have been brought to the fore in Arabic literature.  His best-known work Tilka al-Ra’iha (written 1966 – First Incomplete Edition published, Egypt, 1969 – First complete Arabic edition published, Morocco, 1986) – banned in Egypt for many years – translated into English as The Smell of It (1971) – was a dramatic salvo in a new cultural movement among Arab writers.  The Smell of It was the shocking expose of an Egypt that ate its young.  Ibrahim’s sense of desperation and existential angst knew few bounds.  Blowing past the niceties of Mahfouz’s realism, Ibrahim engaged Egypt through explosive sexuality, social dysfunction and cultural collapse.  It was a frank and brutal work whose explicitness can, years later, still cause a shock to the system.

It was in this vein that the Egyptian writer Alaa al-Aswany published his 2002 novel The Yacoubian Building.  Eschewing Sonallah Ibrahim’s avant-garde style and radical tendencies, Aswany returned to Mahfouz’s social realism, but did so in the spirit of radical critique and alienation that has been the hallmark of the post-Trilogy Arabic literature.  And while Aswany’s novel could not be compared at an artistic level with the masterful Mahfouz, his engagement with powerfully controversial themes is something that has stirred the Arab world.

The Yacoubian Building has been made into an epic film and now into a television mini-series that has been the talk of Arab society.

The film version of the book takes its salient elements and transforms them into a grand cinematic vision.  The essentials of the tale, linked in a less-than-satisfying fashion in the novel, explode onto the screen with a fierceness that makes the movie a worthy successor to the many classic Egyptian films of directors like Youssef Chahine in the 1950s and 60s.  It was in the Egyptian cinema that a rich and heady mix of saga and realism ruled.  Stories were rolled out in soap-opera fashion while the social critique was layered into the narrative stew.  It is in this vein that “The Yacoubian Building” flies off the screen.

The intertwined stories of the narrative are richly mounted: the film presents at its center the figure of Zaki el-Dessouki; the broken-down scion of a wealthy family whose connections to the landed classes and the political elites of the pre-Nasser state have allowed him to live off the fat of the land.  A man who does not do much but preen himself and conquer women he desires, Zaki Pasha is a tremulous symbol of a long-ago forgotten Egypt. 

In the figure of the Yacoubian Building we can see the crumbling of this old order.  In a short prologue which begins the film, a voice-over narration explains how the Yacoubian Building serves as a monument to the old Egypt, an Egypt of European splendor and a polyglot, Levantine culture; an Egypt where the rich and poor mingled in a complex stew of imperial gloriousness and utter squalor, an Egypt of Jews, Europeans, Muslims, Copts, Greeks, Armenians and many others.

Zaki Pasha is himself a crumbling monument to that past.  His life in the Yacoubian Building is contrasted to a number of its other inhabitants: there is the flamboyant homosexual newspaper editor Hatem Bey Rashid whose own past as the son of a prominent professor father and a French mother is also a sign of a bygone age.  Hatem Bey is a cultured, effete member of the aristocracy who is haunted by a childhood filled with loneliness and the passions stirred when he was a mere child by a Nubian servant who initiated him into the forbidden pleasures of the homoerotic.  He is a man who by day is a well-respected member of the elite class and by night is a man who prowls the streets for fresh male meat – which he finds in the person of a poor, country-born soldier from Upper Egypt named Abd Rabbo.  Hatem Bey initiates Abd Rabbo into this forbidden lifestyle by baiting him with money, power and prestige.

The son of the building’s superintendent is a young man named Taha el-Shazli who longs to get out of his poverty and who is shown struggling with his fiancée Bousaina; another member of an Egyptian underclass who is desperately trying to attain a modicum of security while protecting her innate dignity as a female, something she has found impossible in a world of lustful hypocrites who would like no better than to strip every good-looking Egyptian girl of her dignity.

Taha and Bousaina represent a new generation of Egyptians whose lives are filled with pain and frustration.  They live in a world of absolute corruption and moral degradation. As the film begins Bousaina has just quit her job because of sexual harassment by her boss.  Taha is keen on going to the Police College as a way of escaping his poverty.  Immediately, we see Bousaina take another job where her boss, a Syrian retailer, regularly takes his female employees to a stockroom in the back of the store and unzips his pants and rubs against their fully-clothed young bodies until he ejaculates on their blouses.  For this the man gives the girls a 10 pound note.  Taha is a brilliant student, but is rejected from entry into the Police College when it is learned that he is the son of a janitor.

In these two stories we see the failure of the Nasser program; a socio-economic revolution based on agrarian reform and a neo-Socialism that sought to empower such young people in the face of a corrupt and decadent elite.  The failure of Nasserism is made even more explicit in the novel where Aswany vilifies the regime in the most aggressive terms. 

Towards the end of the movie, we hear Zaki Pasha go on a long, drunken rant that climaxes with the statement: “This is the time of deformity.” And indeed, this line can be seen as the thematic core of the film.  “The Yacoubian Building” is a film that speaks of a world that has neither the moral clarity of an older, more traditional time, or of the shiny brilliance of a new culture that has adopted the mores of democracy and liberal values.

It is this sense of deformity that permeates the narratives of the movie and the tragic lives of its characters.

The final character to enter the story is a man named Hajj Azzam who is the person who most resembles Ahmad Abdel Jawad: his is the story of a hard-working man who has come from humble beginnings; he has maintained a respectable life and is devoted to religion.  In his first scene in the movie, Hajj Azzam is shown in his marital bed having a wet dream – his wife has basically refused to have sexual relations with him and his desires cannot be fulfilled due to his religious orthodoxy.  Finding himself a vigorous male, Hajj Azzam goes to his religious advisor and is told that he should remarry.  After some hesitation, Azzam finds a young widow named Souad with a 9 year old son who has been crushed by the weight of her poverty.  The wealthy Hajj Azzam marries her on the condition that she keep the marriage secret and that she send her son to live in Alexandria with his maternal grandparents and – most importantly – that she not get pregnant.

As the movie proceeds we learn that Hajj Azzam is climbing the social and political ladder and is living out a life that is filled with contradictions and hypocrisies.  He has built a legitimate business selling automobiles that hides a hidden drug trade.  He has lied about his past life as a shoeshine boy and as a military deserter.  All these lies catch up with him in the end – Azzam’s meteoric rise to political office and social celebrity are endangered by what he is desperately trying to hide.  In his second marriage his cruelty is matched by his commitment to his contract with the bride: when Souad gets pregnant Azzam sends out some thugs to ensure her miscarriage – and he then divorces her after having used her as a sexual plaything.

The desperation of women and young girls in this culture is pronounced.  The older traditions of female honor have now gone by the wayside.  When Taha sees the ways in which his beloved Bousaina has been treated, he gravitates towards Islamic extremism.  After having learned that Bousaina was molested, Taha becomes enraged.  Combining this with his bitter disappointment in being rejected from the Police College, Taha begins to attend an extremist Mosque where he is recruited into the Muslim Brotherhood and trained as a paramilitary, as a terrorist.

“The Yacoubian Building” provides one of the most insightful and penetrating portraits of a Muslim extremist in contemporary letters.  After Taha leads a protest at the Israeli consulate in Cairo, he is taken to police headquarters and tortured.  The irony of this young man who wanted so badly to serve this same police department but was refused is palpable.  After refusing to talk, Taha is taken into a back room and is repeatedly sodomized with a broom-handle.  This torture only serves to further radicalize the young man who is sent by his handlers to a secret training camp where hundreds of like young men are preparing for Jihad. 

Having grudgingly broken his relationship with Bousaina, Taha enters into an arranged marriage with a young widow of yet another extremist.  Unlike the tension that exists in his relationship with Bousaina which is based on the complex interplay between money, power and status, the new marriage is predicated on the erotic attraction of the Jihad.  The scenes of the young couple having sexual relations are supercharged with the freedom that has been afforded by the wild allure of the cause.  The couple’s orgasms are charged with the certitude that has been absent from the world of the “normal” Egyptian youth who are frightened and worried about their security.

Zaki Pasha has been robbed by one of his whores and finds himself in hot water with his sister Dawlat when she learns that a ring she entrusted to him to take to the repair shop was stolen.  She then throws him out of the family apartment that they share.  He is forced to move into his offices in the Yacoubian Building – the place of his many sexual trysts.  Dawlat hatches a scheme to steal Zaki’s estate from him by having him diagnosed as mentally unstable and incapable of attending to his affairs.  Zaki’s valet, a crippled Copt, is in the process of making a deal for his brother to obtain one of the rooftop apartments of the Yacoubian Building – the place where many of the poor live, including Bousaina and her family – in order to start up a shirt-making business.  This plot-line increases its importance in the story as Bousaina is brought in to work for Zaki by the Copt in a scheme to swindle Zaki of his apartment/office in the Yacoubian Building.

At the center of these schemes is the figure of Zaki’s lawyer Fikri Bey who is advising Zaki how to deal with Dawlat’s legal machinations and is also setting up the deal to open the shirt-making business on the roof of the Yacoubian Building.  In the person of Fikri Bey we see the decadence and corruption of a legal system that is perverted by money and political influence.  There is a parallel between the machinations of Dawlat and of Malak the shirt-maker.  These are people without scruples who are worming and scheming their way into getting what they want any way they can.

Again, it is the figure of Zaki Pasha – that pathetic vestige of a bygone age, a man who performs no work we would acknowledge as productive, but who extols and longs for a past that is romanticized and idealized – who remains the only sane force in a world that has been tuned upside down and inside out.  Bousaina continues to use her not-insubstantial feminine charms to seduce Zaki and further the scheme to have him sign over the apartment to Malak without knowing he is doing so.  She uses her body to charm the old man and plies him with alcohol to get him drunk – not at all a hard thing to do – until he is inebriated enough to not know what he is signing.

All the while, Azzam is rising up the political ladder.  He buys a seat in parliament from the hack party bosses and sets up his love nest with Souad.  His business interests are flourishing and his sex life is booming.  He has arranged a life of depravity and corruption into a smashing success.  While the world around him is crumbling, Hajj Azzam is happier than he has ever been.  But his arrogance increases and he is undone by his own hubris.  The party bosses demand a cut of his new deal with some Japanese investors and he decides to resist paying them.  He will, as we can quickly figure out, live to deeply regret this decision.

Taha is now bent on revenging those policemen who have tortured him and is hell-bent on violence.  He too, like Hajj Azzam, is sexually satisfied, and he goes out into a world that he feels that he controls.  Powerless as an honest student, Taha is now a fearsome guerilla in a Jihad that has attracted many of those Muslims who have been unable to build placid lives of security and love in the “normal” world.

The movie skillfully brings all these plot-lines together as the various worlds constructed in the narrative all collapse in on one another.  The police break into Zaki Pasha’s office when he is deflowering Bousaina and arrest him and his “whore.” Taha embarks on an operation that leads to bloodshed at the police station where he was once violated.  Hajj Azzam is arrested for drug dealing after he refuses to pay the party bosses.  Hatem’s idyll with Abd Rabbo is shattered when Abd Rabbo’s son is taken ill and dies in the hospital.  Wracked with guilt for his sexual conduct, Abd Rabbo leaves Hatem who is forced to go back to the mean streets of a Cairo where homosexuality is illicit and illegal.  Hatem Bey’s carefully constructed mythic cocoon of homoerotic fantasy is shattered when he brings home one boy too many and pays with his life.

“The Yacoubian Building” is a landmark film in the Arab cinema.  Drawn from a controversial international best-seller, it improves on its literary source by distilling the critical elements of the novel and painting an indelible portrait of an Egypt that has become unmoored and unhinged.  The experiments of Nasser’s neo-Socialism and Sadat’s Infitah, economic liberalism, are shown as abject failures.  All that is left is money-grubbing and degrading sexuality.  Often the race to obtain wealth and power is combined with the sexual degeneracy that is the bane of a civilized society.  Gone are the pieties of the Mahfouzian past where the world of young women was one of home and family.  Bousaina’s life marks her as a fallen woman even as she struggles valiantly to maintain her own purity and integrity.  In the old world, Bousaina’s degradation was limited to the entertainers and whores that Ahmed Abdel Jawad used to fill his leisure time with.  Never would a respectable young woman be subjected to the horrors that Bousaina has undergone.

The film is brilliantly mounted, showing a glittering Cairo that is lit with the putrescence of its decadent inhabitants.  The beautiful young women are of the sensually Egyptian type – they have the robust plumpness that is the desideratum of the Mahfouzian ideal.  Their bodies are alluring and dangerous to themselves and to those who abuse them.  In an indelibly memorable scene at the beginning of the film, Bousaina is sitting on the roof and watching television while we hear stray voices in the background trying to arrange their own sexual encounters – horny husbands trying to get their wives to pleasure them while the din of the outside world, a world of perpetual movement and harried hustling, closes in on them.  This is a world where there is no privacy and no modesty, a world of cruelty and violence, a world that the Islamists seek to mark out and mercilessly destroy.

The figure of Zaki Pasha becomes the archetypal symbol of the glories of a past long gone, and of the decadence of that past.  He is a sweet man who eventually seduces Bousaina and becomes her knight in shining armor; even as he himself is a deadbeat and a degenerate who is now an old unmarried man, rootless, without gainful employment, without a family, without a home, without his own dignity.  Zaki Pasha is the contradictory heart that pulses throughout “The Yacoubian Building.” It is a world of lies, deceit, disgust, indignity and passions gone mad.  The two options in this world, decadence and religious fanaticism, speak to the moral decay that has been so eloquently articulated by Alaa al-Aswany and mounted as a social critique that is truly devastating.

Looking back to a multicultural Cairo where beauty, grace and aesthetic values were once a critical part of life, Aswany’s new Cairo is a world of hate, violence and exploitation.  It is a world where the frantic chase for wealth and prestige leads human beings to crime, violence and moral corruption.  Aswany is clear to show the ways in which this new society has been formed.  He reminds his audience – using the voice of Zaki Pasha – how Egypt was once the glory of the Middle East.  This was, of course, before the rise of the Gulf States and their Islamic fundamentalism and their obscenely pornographic oil wealth; before the rise of Islamism and the Pax Americana in the region; before the unleashing of atavistic forces that have consumed a world that has been thrown into a frenzy on all sides trying to figure out how we ever reached this point. 

The vision of “The Yacoubian Building” is one of an unremitting nihilism and pessimism that know no bounds.

In the end, the world of “The Yacoubian Building” shows us an Egypt where dreams are extinguished with an aggression and cruelty that turns the hopeful young people who live in it into crude and heartless hustlers.  Whether they are using their sexuality like Bousaina, or turning into mindless religious extremists like Taha, or whether they are simply trying to survive with dignity as Souad is, these young people mark contemporary Egypt as a foul sewer that eats its young and that empowers perverts and sociopathic manipulators in ways that leads not only to the destruction of the young, but of the sociopaths themselves.  Aswany relentlessly attacks a society that, in its post-Cairo Trilogy variant, is now exhausted from the hate and violence that comes from too many decades of corruption and tired lies to itself.  It is a world of vain illusions and vulgar realities.

The Egypt of “The Yacoubian Building” is contrasted to the one where a more perfect harmony once existed.  While Aswany is not overly sentimental – his portrayal of Zaki Pasha is evidence that everything was not great in the past – the point he makes about pre-1956 Egypt is well-taken: prior to Nasser’s revolution, prior to the Jewish exodus, Egypt was a place where dignity and self-respect was a primary value.  Making the Jewish exodus into an important leitmotiv in the narrative’s arc, Aswany looks back to what we have called “The Levantine Option” as a means to process what Egypt once had and has now lost.

It is this collapse of multicultural Egypt and the rejection of its ever having existed – and this comes from groups as disparate as the Islamists and the Zionists – that is the predominant theme of this brilliant work.  “The Yacoubian Building” is ultimately a conceptual project that seeks to return pluralism to the Arab world; a world that is now choked on its own incestuousness and inbreeding. Aswany wisely draws his characters as lacking in the ability to draw from a rich reserve of cultural diversity; a matter that has now begun to infect many of the world’s nations where monoculturalism and Hegelianism have begun to take on a pronounced role in the revanchist culture that seeks an impossible purity which is often embodied in a socio-religious homogeneity.

For those who wish to better understand the Arab world as it is today, “The Yacoubian Building” is an important work of art that teaches us how the past, present and future are brought together in a demonic dance of love and hate.  Forgetting what has happened in the past leads us to the ills of the present and the hopelessness of a future that is unbearable and stifling.  The forced abdication of past reality and the rejection of history as being an illusion have led us into traps and deformations of our own making.  Each character in “The Yacoubian Building” has made their bed and is cruelly forced to lie in it.  They are figures of a sad and pathetic truth that is told as a series of individual human tragedies that paint a picture of a world gone stark raving mad.

It is this world, as Aswany tries to argue, that has subsumed what we understand as “The Levantine Option”; a world where peoples of different cultures, ethnicities and religions were able to co-exist and prosper in ways that have now become mere dreams and illusions to those suffering through the detritus of the present age.