Saturday, August 12, 2006

A Little Slice of Egypt

Egypt struggles with a constant tug of war between the conservative Islamic world and the modern western world. This past week, I have had the pleasure (and at some points, shock) of witnessing the frontlines of this battle as it played out in the world of popular culture. It took about a second and a half after I arrived in Egypt before I first started hearing about the phenomenon of The Yacoubian Building. Written four years ago by an Egyptian dentist, this novel raised some eyebrows and earned moderate sales at the time, but when the region’s most famous actors came together last year to make it into a movie, the book became iconic and explosive, and hardly a day goes by that I don’t hear some discussion of it.

When I went to the American University bookstore a couple weeks ago, I asked the manager what books were the biggest ones in the country at present. He said two things: anything by Naguib Mahfouz and The Yacoubian Building. Aside from it being fascinating that books Mahfouz wrote fifty years ago are still hot, I became enthralled with the whole culture surrounding this other book that everyone was talking so much about. I had heard descriptions of The Yacoubian Building that ranged from “Oh, it’s not that bad!” to “It’s disgusting, some of the things he wrote,” and I realized that this book held a major key to understanding the war over social decency in Egypt.

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 Yacoubian Building. The stories are interwoven, with each chapter lasting just a couple pages before leaping to another character’s tale. The beauty of the book is that each story plods along, granting an intriguing look into Egyptian society, until they all reach jarring, but unforced, climaxes at the end.

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 Egypt’s conservative social norms. But as I read on, I understood the mastery of the writing, that this was an amazing character study that showed how often survival in Cairo meant a betrayal of one’s values.

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 Yacoubian Building, was faced with providing for her whole family. A good and modest girl, she was appalled to learn from her friends how easy it was to make a few extra pounds a day by letting her employer take her for ten minutes into the back room. Her initial discomfort turns to easy submission as she realizes how much more she can bring to her family for a few minutes of displeasure everyday.

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 Cairo, and she accepted this because of the great income it would bring her family. When she becomes pregnant, in violation of their marital conditions, Hagg insists she have an abortion. When she refuses, he sends people to her house in the middle of the night to forcibly abort her child. This decision was made not for financial reasons but because he knew a child with his secret wife would destroy his social standing and likely get him removed from parliament.

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 Cairo!” His point is that before Nasser’s populist movement took hold, the city was fresh and European; it was clean and thriving until the past fifty years laid it to waste.

Where the Bey represents all that Egypt once was, the doorman’s son Taha represents what the country has become. It is also an interesting argument for how terrorists come to be. Straight edge and well meaning, Taha has fought the social odds and excelled at school. The novel begins with him interviewing for a job to become a member of the police force. The interview goes well and Taha feels confident until the sergeant interviewing him asks what his father does. “Civil servant, sir,” Taha replies. Pressed further, Taha admits that his father is a bowab, or doorman. As soon as the word “bowab” slips from his mouth, the sergeant roars, “Dismissed!” From there, Taha begins his studies at Cairo University where he comes to embrace Islam and meet a radical Sheik who organizes a political protest that he asks Taha to lead. When he’s arrested at the protest, Taha refuses to give the police the name of the Sheik who’s responsible for it all. From there, the author graphically details how Taha becomes violently molested by the police for weeks until, frustrated, they let him go. From there, Taha becomes hell-bent on revenge and joins an Islamist group that trains him in the ways of terrorism. Taha finally gets his chance to enact his revenge, which he does furiously by gunning down the man who had led his interrogation, before being gunned down himself.

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 Middle East’s most famous actor, the Bey stood stalwart as a remnant from the old days, and his was the only story that did not end in Shakespearean like tragedy. While all the other stories were like watching a train-wreck in slow motion, the Bey rose in the face of his tribulations and closed the film with his engagement party to a girl he had grown to love. I thought that this made for intriguing social commentary.

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 Cairo’s major newspapers. Hatim makes a habit of wandering the streets in search of one-night stands. He practices a more sophisticated form of prostitution, showering his would-be lovers with gifts and wine until they are flattered enough and drunk enough to get into bed with him. Neither the book nor the movie really give good insight into popular opinion of homosexuality. Rather, it was the movie going experience that said it all. Hatim finds himself a boyfriend, Abduh, and is very happy for most of the movie until Abduh’s baby son becomes sick and dies at the hospital. Hatim comes home to find that Abduh and his wife have vacated the room that he had given them on top of the Yacoubian building, and that they left no note telling where they were going. In a dramatic moment, Hatim opens the door to the tiny rooftop room to find it completely empty of Abduh’s possessions, and he starts bawling at the realization that he’s just lost someone he loves. What was so incredible was that as soon Hatim started crying, the audience in the movie theater began to howl with laughter. They roared on for several minutes as Hatim pours all of his emotions out in heaving sobs. I, along with the other Americans who I was watching with movie with, all exchanged bewildered glances as the hoots of laughter continued on. This, I thought, was the most telling scene in the film. The Arab movie goers found it uproariously funny that the gay man would cry at the loss of a lover, and I completely understood what Arab perception of homosexuality was.

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 Cairo that still believes in the days when the Nile flooded and noblemen ruled the land. Most of all, it showed me that at the heart of this culture, there is something far darker and more complex than I had expected, and that I’m much further from understanding this place than I could ever have imagined.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

i have read the book, although of course i have not seen the movie. i felt that the corruption of both Egyptian politics and personal lives was the theme that ran through all the stories.
kktm

Peggy said...

Theo:

That last line says it all. And it's not cause for discouragement--in fact, just the opposite. It's truly a mature and realistic realization. What a journey this has been already in less than two short months.

How are your Arabic language skills coming along?

Anonymous said...

FASCINATING.....
MY BROS SIS

Anonymous said...

Hey Theo
It's Mohammed ! am glad that you made it to Egypt Cairo, a place I being an Arab didn't feel very comfortable with... I was reading some of your postings and am impressed that you are getting to the point of fully understanding the egyption way of thinking , which needless to say, took me some 10 visits to Egypt to understand Egyptions.

One thing is egyptions are emotional and when I say emotional am saying every egyption think with his heart and often neglect the mind and that's different from the western way. Moreover most of Egypt is illiterate and poor which explains why egyptions bug foreigners all the time. they think white guy is rich + Iam poor =I have the right to take some money from him. don't let that affect your judgment though !!

also from my experience in Cairo or egyptions is that words are everything How -this is really important- when egyptions say america is evil they probably saying american government is evil ! you can't expect the western accuracy in egypt . also egyptions like many arabs when they think of america they think of foreign policy directly ... america means foreign policy in the middleast in a sense that's the whole egyption mind set function on america's policies that affect egyptions or their fellow arabs.

my dad - who is blacklisted by the egyption government because when he was a college student in egypt he protested and insulted the egyption government- always used to say egyptions are like a tank of explosive you give a little tapping or fire and it will burst so expect egyptions to be ultimate emotional inaccurate speakers but they have a unique culture of their own which you should enjoy.

well i am happy if you went this far reading this , enjoy egypt dude!

Anonymous said...

Hey Theo
It's Mohammed ! am glad that you made it to Egypt Cairo, a place I being an Arab didn't feel very comfortable with... I was reading some of your postings and am impressed that you are getting to the point of fully understanding the egyption way of thinking , which needless to say, took me some 10 visits to Egypt to understand Egyptions.

One thing is egyptions are emotional and when I say emotional am saying every egyption think with his heart and often neglect the mind and that's different from the western way. Moreover most of Egypt is illiterate and poor which explains why egyptions bug foreigners all the time. they think white guy is rich + Iam poor =I have the right to take some money from him. don't let that affect your judgment though !!

also from my experience in Cairo or egyptions is that words are everything How -this is really important- when egyptions say america is evil they probably saying american government is evil ! you can't expect the western accuracy in egypt . also egyptions like many arabs when they think of america they think of foreign policy directly ... america means foreign policy in the middleast in a sense that's the whole egyption mind set function on america's policies that affect egyptions or their fellow arabs.

my dad - who is blacklisted by the egyption government because when he was a college student in egypt he protested and insulted the egyption government- always used to say egyptions are like a tank of explosive you give a little tapping or fire and it will burst so expect egyptions to be ultimate emotional inaccurate speakers but they have a unique culture of their own which you should enjoy.

well i am happy if you went this far reading this , enjoy egypt dude!

Anonymous said...

Great post, I am almost 100% in agreement with you

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