Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Yacoubian Building

The Yacoubian Building is the title of an Egyptian novel published in 2002 and of a film released four years later. Alaa el-Aswany's novel tells the stories of some half-dozen contemporary inhabitants of downtown Cairo. I found it interesting but not compelling. Usually I try to give a novel and its film some inbetween time, whichever I experience first. For reasons I can no longer remember (perhaps because I wasn't that impressed with the novel or didn't expect to be with the movie) I didn't and I saw the movie a week after I'd finished the novel. The novel and the film have been wildly popular in Egypt. That's certainly one reason to read and see them, i.e. if you have an interest in Egypt or Arab culture more generally. Another is that one of the novel's main characters, Hatim Rasheed, is homosexual. Hatim is a successful newspaper editor. He's not "out" (nobody apparently in Egypt is) but he's unmarried and makes no pretense of being a ladies' man. After years of various failed arrangements he hopes to mentor a young man into a lifelong companionship. Not that the young man need live with him (that would be asking too much!) but that he might become near, dear and particularly attentive. Hatim thinks he has found such a companion in the person of a policeman, whose career and marriage (!) Hatim promotes. None of it however works out and Hatim is sad, aging and lonely at book's end. Reading The Yacoubian Building will take you back to sometime in the early last century. El-Aswany does not introduce Hatim to damn him, but whenever he writes about his condition there's much talk about "the homosexual". These passages read as though they were put there to enlighten an uninformed but excitedly curious public.

The movie is almost three hours long. It's striking how effortlessly exotic it can be, just the sights and sounds of Cairo bring that about. Most of the novel reaches its apogee of unfamiliarity merely in the characters' names. Viewing the movie I was continually struck by how much had been left out and how confusing it might be to a naive viewer, but that underspecification might have given it a mysterious momentum which it lacked for me. The homosexual Hatim is of course in the movie too, but cinema being a more popular genre it's not enough that he be left sad, aging and lonely. A hustler (the cutest actor in a decidedly uncute cast) sees to it that Hatim has an appropriate terminus.

Bottom line: the book and the film are must read/see if you're interested in homosexuality in contemporary Arab culture. Otherwise, stay home and re-view The Children's Hour.

1 comment:

Terry said...

I thought the translation a bit lame and stiff, and not sure why because the translator has an excellent grasp of Arabic and has done a lot of very fine work. But somehow the sparkle of the people and the city didn't really manifest themselves in the English text.

I agree that the author's discomfort with the gay character made his treatment of that subplot seem a bit cold -- contrast, for example, the very interesting, warm and even moving treatment he is able to give to Buthayna as she moves out of her lower class origins and into a richer world, from abused female to manipulating female with a heart -- but it's not his world and so we must be grateful for any kind of treatment. Aswani is not the first to introduce gay characters into modern fiction -- Mahfouz's novels have several -- but it is timely because of the reputation of one of the current government ministers whose preferences seem to be widely known and excused. I personally didn't enjoy the book as much as the movie, and that has to be because of the excellent cast and filmography.