Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Yacoubian Building

After a fairly sleepless night, an Egyptian film entitled 'Imarat Ya'coubian' began on the telly early this morning and captured my full attention. I never watch television in the morning, as mornings tend to be the best time of day for me. Watching the telly in the morning would be the ultimate decadence. Yet, hearing Arabic, I was compelled to watch. Usually, my television viewing is flawed nowadays. There was a time when I never would have allowed myself to watch a film if I missed the beginning. Without gaining any prior knowledge of the programming now, I often do miss beginnings. Awakened by pain, I watch the best of whatever I can find. When pain overwhelms, I often miss endings as well. On this occasion, miraculously, the film was beginning, so I missed nothing. Two hours later, I still was watching, moment by moment, the unfolding of different tales and different lives in contemporary Cairo.

'The Yacoubian Building', released in 2006 is based on a best-selling novel by Alaa Al-Aswany. It is an extraordinary film, multi-faceted and revealing. As it deals with various tenants of a single block of flats in Cairo, it involves different tales and yet, all threads are interwoven in a single tapestry. No one is perfect. No one is entirely pure and indeed, many of the characters are unsympathetic and yet, this is life, not a romance. Whether propelled by ambition, desire, laziness, greed or despair, most of the characters in this drama alternately inspire disgust and inspire pity. Oddly, the 'hero' is a man who is portrayed as rather feckless, without a career or a family apart from his cold, selfish sister who holds him in utter contempt. Like many Arabs of his generation, Zaki Bey al Dessouki was utterly seduced by Paris and all things French in his youth and yet, at the foundation of his soul, he possesses an innate love of his homeland.

Is there a moral to these tales? Nothing is quite so simple. The Western influence of France corrupts and yet within the culture of Egypt, corruption exists as well.
'This is the age of deformity!' Zaki declares.

In fact, ultimately, this man IS one of the only characters with honour in a world where the wide gulf between poor and rich is only part of the problem with society. The families of the rich are as capable as the poor of betrayal in the cause of enrichment. It is the story of a building, created in sumptuous beauty and yet one that over the years, degenerates...

Within this microcosm, various controversial issues are addressed: homosexuality, radical Islam, the ancient dichotomy of Egypt that still prevails in the fundamental differences between the North and South as well as the 'escapism' that French culture represents for the rich. For those who have little knowledge of the Arab world, it offers a window into the lives of Egyptians in various strata of society, from the poor who live in 'one-room' tenancies on the rooftops of magnificent but deteriorating luxury flats housing the politicians and newspaper moguls who control society. Between them stand the scheming individuals who own small businesses and seek to 'better' their lives by manipulating those who are less fortunate than they.

In Islam, some of the worst sins are those of the 'Munafiqeen' or 'Hypocrites' and 'The Yacoubian Building' is replete with examples of hypocrisy, of those who profess Islam but who prey upon the helpless and poor. Incidentally, the Copt is no better so the film does not discriminate where religion is concerned.

Most of the 'endings' in the tales of the various tenants are tragic. One of these involves the son of the custodian of the building, Taha al Shazli who, rejected from the police force because of his father's humble occupation, goes to University where, disgusted by the corruption of society and government, becomes involved in the Muslim Brotherhood. At a demonstration against the Zionists, he is arrested, then tortured by the Mukhabarat. Seeking revenge, he is given an opportunity to assassinate the man who ordered his torture. Although successful, he himself as well as his own accomplices die in a hail of gunfire. He too is a man of honour, honest and direct, but his own experience with injustice and cruelty causes him to pursue a different path from Zaki's eternal quest for worldly beauty.

The plots are far more complex than this, however. Drug-dealing, politics and the plight of women who lack social protection for one reason or another all play a part in these tales. Although they pay lip-service to the tenets of religion, very few of the characters have any moral fibre.

Near the end of the film, Zaki, the aging dilettante shouts, 'I am the last respectable man!' He proves it, triumphing over his sister's schemes to take everything from him, including his dignity. In the last moments, he marries the young girl who initially intended to participate in the scheme to rob him but who ultimately succumbed to love. Traditional Arab zaghareet (ululations) join the music of Edith Piaf in an ending that containing the seed of hope, despite everything that has transpired.

In a sense, 'The Yacoubian Building' mirrors the popular humanist, somewhat agnostic views of many older Egyptian intellectuals. Can Egypt find no better solution than the escapism represented by the eternal longing for an idealised Paris? The radical Islamists, while acknowledged as pure in their motivations, are portrayed as doomed to some extent. It is the character of Zaki, member of a obsolete breed, who is assigned the role of 'hero' here. Yet, while promising to take his young wife abroad, the aged Lothario ultimately demonstrates a firm loyalty to his homeland and the building that represents past, present and future for him, rather to the surprise and disappointment of his scheming sister. Like the building itself, he somehow manages to weather his changes in fortune, and like the building, he will endure.

Incidentally, there is a real Yacoubian Building in Cairo at 34 Talaat Harb Street, built in the Art Deco style.

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