Saturday, July 15, 2006

An Egyptian phenomenon

On Thursday I went to see The Yacoubian Building, a movie that follows the intersecting lives of several Cairo residents whose only common feature is that they all live at the same address. The story covers several topics that are verboten in Egyptian society; Government-sponsored torture, corruption, homosexuality. It is the first film to both talk about these issues explicitly and place the events in the present era. While initially the film had plenty of state backing, since its release, there has been talk of shutting down the show. Which, of course, has made The Yacoubian Building the most popular movie in the country.
The film is not just unique for the topics it covers. The cast is virtually a who’s who of Egyptian cinema. The film is also incredibly long, even my American standards. At three hours in the length, the film requires a ten-minute intermission. The Yacoubian building is also better financed than most Egyptian films. At 3 million dollars – according to NPR – it is one of the highest expenditures ever One reason the film was allowed to be made at all is the fact that the movie’s director, Marwan Hamed is close with Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak. During the election campaign last year, Hamed directed an interview with Mubarak that ran 6 hours on state television.

The film is certainly controversial. There’s no nudity, but the omnipresence of sex and alcohol throughout the film is jarring even for someone who has only been in Egypt for a couple months. To have a character who is clearly homosexual, and is clearly about to partake in gay sex, is unheard of, until now. The film takes place at the time of the first Iraq War in 1991, but accept for one line that refers to the impending Kuwait invasion, the film could easily take place right now. Children, accompanied by a parent or not, are expressly forbidden from attending.

I'M GOING to see the film on a Thursday night. The Egyptian weekend is Friday and Saturday (Friday being the Muslim holy day) so Thursday night is movie night. The theater entrance is pure insanity. Cinemas here partake in the bizarre practice of assigning each patron a seat, even though admission is the same price for all. I find such a policy strange anywhere, but it’s particularly absurd in a culture that does not respect the concept of ‘the line.’ The stairway from the ground floor to the theater level is an impossible crush because people are only being allowed into the main chamber three or four at a time. Ushers have to take each person to their seat individually, so by the time I get to the front of the line, it’s only 10 minutes to show time and two thirds of the seats are still empty. It’s not because no ones behind me. The ushers, all in matching blue button-downs and dark ties are now literally sprinting – and expecting moviegoers to sprint with them – from the stairwell to the assigned seat. Of course the system is a disaster, and many people end up in the wrong seat anyway, fighting with sweat-drenched ushers who demand that they find their assigned spot so that the rightful owners can take their seats. The last few stragglers are being taken to their seats as the curtain comes up and the show starts.

By the time I get to my seat, I understand why the government is concerned. As I take in the sights and sounds, I think I can imagine what the American movie-going experience must have been like before home theaters and living room surround sound made the Cineplex obsolete. There is a legitimate buzz in the air. People know they’re about to see something they’ve never seen before, something subversive, something the government isn’t exactly pleased they’re watching.

There are four main characters in the film, all of which provide different criticisms of the government. Zeke Bay is an overweight heavy drinker and smoker who loves women. His father was an important official in King Farouq’s government, a government that was toppled by Gamal Abdul Nasser’s military coup in 1952. With the new government in power, Zeke Bay remains well off, but any hope of high government service is dashed. At several points in the film he talks longingly of Cairo before the 1952 revolution, before the Nasserist regime turned its back on the West and betrayed its people. Azem Pasha is a multimillionaire who has made his fortune in the drug trade. Now rich, Azem decides to run for parliament. In exchange for a $200,000 bribe, the election is fixed, and Azem joins the government. His character is corrupt and two-faced. In front of parliament he calls on the government to clamp down on sex on TV. At the same time he takes a second wife, forty years his younger, and rents her an apartment in The Yacoubian building so that the relationship can be kept secret.

The most dangerous character though is Taha Shezli. Taha is the son of the Yacoubian Building’s doorman, and his dream is to become a policeman. He is extraordinarily successful in his studies, but when he arrives for his interview with the military university, he is quickly rebuffed because of his impoverished background (There is no doormen’s union in Cairo). Only the children of the privileged are allowed to rule the country. His dreams dashed, Taha turns to radical Islam. He is arrested during a protest and is brutally tortured. We see Taha being beaten and bloody. We see him about to be raped. After finally getting out of jail, Taha decides to take part in Jihad. In the end, he dies as he kills the officer who was responsible for his defilement.

Sitting in a theater in Cairo, in a country where freedom of speech is limited, where most political conversations happen at home behind close doors, watching this movie, I am often overcome with adrenaline. I just can’t believe these events are being depicted. The chief of police who is torturing Taha exists in real life, and he’s probably really torturing someone right now. When Taha finally gets his revenge in the end, much of theater erupts in applause. It’s exactly what the government must be afraid of. A communal celebration of a high government official getting what's comming to him. Who’s to say that sentiment won’t spill onto the street?

It doesn't tonight though. The celebration in the theater is a quick burst, full of release, but also hesitation. There must be government officials observing the crowd. What's an acceptable response, and what might get you locked up? No one knows where the line is. No one wants to cross it. The celebration may be quick, but, still, everyone in this male dominated crowd is happy that the head of secret police has just been shot in the face. Just think, this guy really exists.

The fourth main character (if you were counting, you noticed only three have been enumerated thus far) is Hatim, the editor of the French language newspaper Le Caire. Hatim is a homosexual, and because his lifestyle is so taboo here, it is the part of the film the government has stepped out to criticize. Rather than admitting that the torture and corruption depicted in The Yacoubian Building actually occurs in Egypt, members of parliament have voiced their concerns that the film will lead young men to become homosexuals. Anyone who has seen the film immediately recognizes how ridiculous this theory is. Hatim is the classic stereotype of a homosexual. He is impeccably well dressed. He walks, talks and acts, well, strangely. Not in a way that reminds me of any homosexuals I know, but rather in a way that is recognizable as 'a little off.' It’s the extra hop in his step and the slightly odd inflection in his voice. The way he pronounces the word 'very,' continually caused the crowd to burst out laughing. In the movie, Hatim tricks a young, poor soldier, Abdu into becoming his lover. Hatim buys Abdu an apartment, a dream Abdu could never realize without Hatim’s help. Hatim constantly is getting Abdu drunk in order to corrupt him. Abdu is married, and in the middle of his illicit affair his son dies of a mysterious illness. Crushed and convinced that his relationship with Hatim has brought God’s wrath down upon him, Abdu disappears.

The film does nothing to dissuade us of Abdu’s conclusion. In search for his next lover, his next victim, Hatim brings home a degenerate, who looks quite a bit like a crack-head. Amazed by the lavishness of Hatim’s apartment, the degenerate decides to kill Hatim and take his money.

It’s at this moment that the absurdity of the government’s ‘concerns’ is revealed. Hatim dies brutally. Expecting his lover to take him from behind, the stranger chokes Le Caire’s editor from behind with a belt. Hatim’s body writhes in pain, struggle, and finally falls to the bed, lifeless. As the thief begins to take Hatim’s rings and watch, a large portion of the crowd bursts into applause. Hoots and hollers echo off the walls. No one condemns the revelers. The celebration of Hatim's murder is certainly less restrained than when the government’s torturer gets a bullet to the head.


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