When I went to the
The book is a series of stories that tells about the lives of ten or so Egyptians. The common thread that binds all of them is that they all live in or work at a large and historically important building in downtown called the
My first impression of the book, after a sitting in which I read the first fifty pages, was that this was a cheap story over-focused on sex. Everybody at the beginning was having cheap lustful sex plagued with the guilt of defying
I want to get into the plot a little here, so I recommend you stop reading this post if you think you might be tempted to read the novel and don’t want the story spoiled.
One girl, Busayna, who lived in the shack-city on top of the
Another character, Hagg Azzam, wants to enter the parliament because he feels the genuine urge to give back to the community that had given him so much success. He quickly finds that bosses run the election process and he is forced to bribe his way into office and subsequently pay off his higher-ups to maintain power. Furthermore, Hagg had taken on a second wife, with the blessing of a Sheik, when he began feeling lustful urges that his first wife could not fulfill. He kept this second wife secretly housed in an apartment in
A character named Zaki Bey is one of the novels most gripping characters. He is the building’s oldest tenant, and, as the title Bey denotes, he is a remnant of the pre-Nasser era in which noblemen were seriously respected. Living off his family’s great wealth, the Bey does little with his life other than try to find women to get into bed with. To me, the most amazing, scene in the movie comes when the Bey is stumbling home with his girlfriend from a night of drinking. Hardly able to walk, the Bey stops right in the middle of Midan Talat Harb, a major city center, and looks around at the dilapidated buildings and the dirty streets. He starts screaming to no one in particular about the state of the city. He screams, “Look was has become of
Where the Bey represents all that
The genius of Taha’s character is how, over the course of a three hundred page novel, he goes from desperately seeking admission to the police academy to being a violent terrorist fixated on revenge. Each step in his progression towards terrorism is natural and understandable. The reader can sympathize with each step he takes in that direction, and his demise is agonizing. The brilliance in the writing is that the author forces you to have to keep reminding yourself that Taha is a terrorist and that he does die committing a horrible crime. In spite of all that, all you want to do is root for this character, one who is just another victim of the system.
There were many more characters and stories in the novel. But I won’t bother recounting them all to you for fear of turning this entry into too much of a fifth grade book report! I’m just trying to hit the major ones that give the greatest insight into this enigmatic culture.
And now a few words about the movie….
In order to understand what it was like to see this movie, it’s first necessary to understand a thing or two about Egyptian movie-going. When I went to see what film had done to this novel, I decided to go to the Grand Hyatt cinemas which was the only place showing the movie with subtitles. The small theater with assigned seats was filled with people of all backgrounds: westerners, Saudis, Kuwaitis, liberally dressed Egyptians, and women wearing with full covering. I’m glad that I had read the book ahead of time because apparently nobody gets the concept of silencing his or her cell phones for a movie. And I don’t mean that a cell phone went off a couple of times. Without fail, not five minutes would go by without a ring. Literally. And the ringtones were all Arab pop songs so that I began to feel as though I was in some sort of disco. On top of that, half the people who received calls, answered them and began talking! They made evening plans, checked in with loved ones, etc. This was enough to put me in an edgy and annoyed mood, which the film exploited so that when I left three hours later, I was angry and disillusioned.
There were two insights I gained from watching the film. While in the book all the characters earned somewhat equal billing, the film shifted the focus so that Zaki Bey became the main character. Played by the
While the book described many of the sex scenes in graphic detail, the movie was cautious to not over-expose the scandalous scenes. For example, the cameras would cut in just as sex had finished or would cut out just as sex was beginning. While suggestion was strong, the filmmakers played to the more modest sensibilities of the Egyptian moviegoers. But what was so shocking was the gruesome detail that the filmmakers include in the scene where Taha is shot dead while taking his revenge. While they wouldn’t let you see a moment of sex, the filmmakers slow the film down to agonizingly slow motion to show Taha get pumped full of bullets and his blood flying everywhere as he staggers to his death. The last you see of Taha is as he’s lying on the ground, body riddled with bullet holes and blood trickling into the nearby gutter. This is a scene that would have been graphic by American standards, but it is in which the makers of the movie spared no expense in showing Taha’s slow death.
One final observation. One major character who I have not yet mentioned is Hatim, the gay editor-in-chief of one of
This movie-book combo did as much for my understanding of the Egyptian world as any day spent out on the streets. It showed to me Egyptians’ accepting of death and terrorism and their discomfort with sex and homosexuality. It showed me that at the heart of Egyptian culture is a certain pressure to betray one’s values to get ahead. It showed that the system in place is easily exploited and that there is a need to take advantage of that. It showed me the existence of the old