I attended a rooftop showing of the film The Yacoubian Building in Abu Dhabi on a warm but breezy late April night with a group of ex-pats. Our wonderful hosts had treated us to good Lebanese food, French champagne and German beer, so were in the right mood to enjoy what initially was a very funny adaptation of Egyptian writer Alaa Al-Aswamy’s book. The author, a dentist by profession, pulled no punches in his highly popular original novel. Egyptians, fully conscious of their country's decline, were seemingly therefore drawn to his no holds barred account of seediness in high and low places. An Egypt once used to seeing Gulf Arab leaders kow towing to what passed for Arab political correctness emanating from its capital, is today increasingly giving up any profession to Arab leadership. The high oil prices and real estate booms that have helped cement the shift in the centre of gravity in the Arab world to the Gulf followed disenchantment with the stale rhetoric of social and political change. This film helps explain the internal reasons for the country's decline. This internal dissolution has in turn fed off the lack of political direction of a leadership that sought to exchange war and economic stagnation for peace and economic sustainability, and has barely secured either.
The different social strata represented in "The Yacoubian Building", itself resonant of a by-gone age in Cairo, form the focal point of interconnecting narratives around which the film is constructed. However, from initial belly laughs, the characters’ stories soon become almost exclusively bleak. A surviving pasha, or at least pasha’s son from the pre-revolutionary Egyptian era, cannot for all his inherited wealth find respect or meaning in contemporary Egypt, while a nouveau pasha - they have proliferated in recent years - cannot gain access to the upper echelons of society without repeated pay offs to an seemingly insatiable state that, in this depiction at least, is akin to a mafia. With connections or the right pedigree being as important in the very post-revolutionary order that is today’s Egypt, perhaps as much as they were in the pre-1952 era of the original pashas, then there is much source for Islamic radicalization. Thus one very bright young man whose academic grades and admiring fiancé have seemingly set him on a career path in the police service, turns to campus agitation when his father’s employment as a bawab (door man) disqualifies him from this option, and to militant violence when an angry demo leads to him being sodomised at the local police station. When his desire to extract revenge sees a bloody, indeed gory, denouement outside that same institution of dispassionate justice, then Islamist radicals and the republican state end up looking equally unappealing. The fact that the young man’s appetite for violence had been further whetted by a generous taste of paradise when he enjoys an arranged marriage at an Islamist hideout, only adds to the sense that, at least in the movie’s telling, radical alternatives to the regime look as distinctly unappealing as the authorities themselves. I was struck by the fact that these scenes presumably made it past the Egyptian censors, although the DVD version we were watching, purchased in Abu Dhabi, has presumably been “cut” to suit the Gulf market. This presumably reduced the sexual content, albeit this is unlikely to be graphic in the on screen version in Egyptian picture houses. It cannot, although I do not know for sure, have cut out all the anti regime sentiments without being lop sided. If I am right, and I stand to be corrected as lop sided, crude censoring is hardly without precedent in the Middle East, then this would perhaps suggest a mature censorship policy operating from the ministry of information in Cairo. However a recent interview with Alaa Al-Aswamy in “Egypt Today” suggests there is something far less sophisticated in contemporary Egypt, with the clerics of Al-Azhar can neutralize an author’s, and presumably a film maker’s, career.
Ultimately the lives of all the occupants or associates of the Yacoubian Building come across as sad as well as sordid. A homosexual editor of a French language newspaper (what else?) meets a grisly end with his latest tryst, but then his exploitation of a simple man from the country for carnal gratification, who moves his wife and soon to die child in the same building, had hardly set the viewer up for sympathy. The film's seemingly happy ending of a 65 year old pasha’s marriage to the beautiful former fiancé of the Islamist fighter has a decidedly desperate air. There is genuine feeling between them. However the woman has been driven to extreme measures to earn her place in modern Egypt. Thus the marriage option ends up being merely a better financial risk than the other scams she has engaged in since trading love for the slippery moral slope that the film tells us awaits a woman seeking economic advancement without the right background. Marriage is depicted as being as much about sexual gratification as the seedy back room goings witnessed in the shops and businesses, let alone the gay newspaper editor’s apartment. The film’s portrayals undoubtedly pile on the extremes, but the end result is a convincing depiction of a capital rife for upheaval as legitimacy and order appear elusive and the economic demands of the burgeoning population seemingly cannot be met.