The Yacoubian Building (2006)
by Marwan Hamed (in Arabic with English subtitles)
Reviewed by Living Abroad Contributing Editor Volker Poelzl
“The Yacoubian Building” is a compelling portrayal of Egyptian society in the late twentieth century. It is based on the homonymous novel by Alaa Al Aswany (published in 2002), who practiced dentistry in the Yacoubian Building in Cairo for many years, an experience that inspired his novel.
The movie follows a number of residents of the Yacoubian building through their daily lives. What makes this movie so fascinating is how it gradually reveals the hypocrisy, duplicity and conflicts present in contemporary Egyptian society. The movie not only shows the personal frictions in the lives of the main characters, but also makes a poignant characterization of a country in the throes of change. As viewers, we learn about the stark difference between the old and new Egypt—a theme that is cleverly introduced in the documentary-style opening of the movie, which features black and white historic footage to set up the theme of decay and decadence. “The country was beautiful, and the building was also beautiful.” But after Nasser assumed power in 1956, Egypt apparently took a turn for the worse. The Yacoubian building, a grand building in Cairo and once home to Cairo’s upper class, began to decay and offer housing to people from all walks of life. “Everything was beautiful,” the commentator explains at the beginning, but the documentary introduction concludes with the observation that: “The building had changed, the whole country had changed.”
As the movie progresses, the outer facades of the characters begin to break down, and viewers begin to take a look at the private lives of the main characters—where drugs, alcohol, prostitution, corruption, sexual desire, and religious extremism seem to dominate the outwardly decent inhabitants of the Yacoubian building. During an editorial meeting, Hatim Rasheed, a gay editor, downplays the importance of reporting on gay issues in his French-language Egyptian newspaper. Zaki, the son of former Egyptian aristocracy, is an aging playboy who lives in the family apartment with his sister. He does not work for a living and depends much on his sister’s good will to maintain his dandy-like lifestyle, but he revels in the defunct family title of “pasha,” which everyone uses to address him. Fanous, Zaki’s obedient servant and a Koptic Christian, reveals himself as a plotting and conniving individual when he pulls some strings to ensure that his brother can rent a space on the roof of the Yacoubian building for his tailor’s shop. Haj Assan, the devout self-made businessman is sexually frustrated with his wife, and secretly seeks the approval of his Imam to take another wife--a young widow--but does not tell his current wife about it. Taha, the intelligent but poor janitor who lives on the building’s roof, is refused access to the police academy because of his humble background and gradually drifts into the camp of radical Islam, which in turn alienates his girlfriend Buthayna. Attractive Buthayna—who wears short skirts—and no longer wants to go out with Taha—who wears a religious beard—has her own problems. She frequently changes jobs, but continues to be sexually harassed by her aging bosses. Yet despite the ever-present nostalgia and social conflicts, the movie also has a light-hearted side, as the characters seem almost comically trapped in their chosen personas and the roles that Egyptian society bestows upon them.
The “Yacoubian Building” is not only a great story about contemporary Egypt, but also a feast for the senses, featuring great photography and a great soundtrack that supports the movie’s nostalgia for the superior past and a longing for an improved future.