Arabic Literature the Yacoubian Building Essay

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Yacoubian Building

Often a writer goes about the process of adapting a story from one type of media to another certain components of the original story have to be altered. This is particularly true when adapting a book into a screenplay and then into a film, all the more so when that novel has gained a great deal of financial and critical success. The difficulty of this process is that the adaptation forces a medium where the reader has to utilize their own imagination and modifies the work into a format where the director and actors choose how the words are to be interpreted. It is a far less personal experience because the film version will have someone else's vision of the story instead of a creation of the images between reader and author. The interpretation is also dependant on the culture of the interpreter. In looking at the film and movie versions of The Yacoubian Building, it is easy to see how the director adapted the text to fit his unique perspective. In making a comparison of the two medias, it also must be noted that there is a different perspective of the piece that will be based on the heritage of the observer. Though all societies of the world have similar issues regarding gender discrepancies and many difficulties with government hypocrisy and corruption, each sees their own nation in a more favorable light than other countries. The United States is no exception, but the perspectives of Americans in regard to the Egyptian society as related in The Yacoubian Building will be different than a nation's reflections upon their own.

Both the film of The Yacoubian Building and the book are interesting stories which tell about what it is like to live in the modern Egyptian society. The novel focuses on the class differences of the older age of Egypt and the poorer modern age. In the book, each of the main characters struggles to achieve personal happiness in the new Egypt following the revolt of 1952. After that event, the title building, the Yacoubian, turned from a luxury apartment for the ultra rich into a decrepit building, not much more than a slum whose function is to house only the lowest of society. Al-Aswany writes:

In 1952 the Revolution came and everything changed. The exodus of Jews and foreigners from Egypt started, and every apartment that was vacated by reason of the departure of its owners was taken over by an officer of the armed forces, who were the influential people of the time. By the 1960s, half the apartments were lived in by officers of various ranks, from first lieutenants and recently married captains all the way up to generals, who would move into the building with their large families (12).

This reflects the very nature of modern Egypt which, Al-Aswany seems to say, is the deterioration of a once promising society. The movie version, however, seems to be more concerned with the characters rather than their representations of societal implications and the changing mentality of the nation. The alteration of focus is reflective of the media choice and the intention of the artist who is creating the piece. In a film, the audience is asked to relate to the story through characters, while in a book the author can persuade through tone, imagery, and allusion.

Before the revolt of 1952, the Yacoubian was an extremely expensive apartment complex designed for the very wealthy, including Egyptian wealth and foreigners staying in Egypt for prolonged periods of time, such as people from England and other European nations. However, when the wealthy people left the building in the post-Revolution, what was expected to become a utopian society crumbled in the wake of power struggles and in-fighting. The novel begins with the introduction of the character Zaki Bey el Dessouki. This man has an office in the Yacoubian and is emblematic of the old world order. Dessouki has been educated in another country and so his intelligence and thus the whole of his character has been influenced by foreign lands. In the pre-Revolution Egypt, Dessouki was living well. His father was a wealthy politician and his means would have fallen to his son. "It had been expected, of course, that he would play a leading political role in Egypt using his father's influence and wealth, but suddenly the Revolution erupted and everything changed" (Al-Aswany 4). Instead of the posh lifestyle that his upbringing had promised, Dessouki exists in a version of Egypt in the years after the Revolution where all he can now experience is the semblance of luxury of the currently-decaying society.

His societal counterpart in terms of class and financial situation, is the young male character Taha el Shazli, who has discovered that the financial circumstance of his father has put him in a class determination which gives him little movement for social ladder climbing. Al-Aswany writes:

These were the commonplaces of his day-to-day life -- poverty, back-breaking hard work, the arrogance of the residents, and the five-pound note, always folded, that his father bestowed on him every Saturday and on which he practiced every stratagem to make last the whole week; the smooth, warm hand of a resident extended lazily and graciously from a car window to give him a tip (at the sight of which he had to raise his hand in a military-style salute and thanks his benefactor enthusiastically and audibly); that look, impertinent and full of smugness or covertly sympathetic and tolerant, inspired by embarrassment at the 'issue'…and the deliberate slowing down of the residents as they entered the building so that he would hurry to relieve them of whatever they were carrying no matter how light or unimportant (19).

Here is the opposite side of the spectrum. Taha is extremely poor and finds himself having to hide his origins if he has any hope of making it out of the life of hard work and tedium that his father led.

Within the country of Egypt, The Yacoubian Building has been subjected to massive negative criticisms and a desire for censorship on behalf of the government. In the United States, the 1st Amendment to the Constitution protects the freedom of speech and so it is much more difficult for material to be censored. Although certain material may be offensive, the government can only create sanctions to ensure that younger audiences do not have easy access. The only challenges to the Amendment in the past have concerned things like child pornography and obscenity. If the creation of art physically or emotionally damages an innocent person, then there are potential ramifications. However, in Egypt, the government's ability to censure art is stronger and there is no legislation designed to hinder the process. The Yacoubian Building, which would have been an important film no matter what country made it, has enough controversial subject matter to enrage the government and have the authorities determined to censure the project.

One of the things that have caused the Egyptian government to become so perturbed with the film is the explicit and subtextual homosexual content of The Yacoubian Building, particularly in the film version of the story. In the novel, there are characters who engage in homosexual activity (Lake). It is one thing to read such passages, but here is where the film version creates a more powerful statement. Chief of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammad Habib stated that the reason for the move for legal censorship was that it did not truly reflect Egyptian life. He said:

The scenes related to perversion and almost endorsing it in the movie have torn down a big part of the movie's quality. We wish that those scenes would have been omitted, especially since this group does not represent the Egyptian society. In addition to that, these scenes are in contradiction with the Egyptian values, which we are very careful to protect (Lake).

It is more difficult to ignore the physical image of a homosexual act than a written description. In the United States, the government and the general population are far more lenient and understanding about homosexuality and the rights of gay or lesbian people. Al-Aswany, in response to the criticisms about the novel and film was quoted in a BBC interview as saying, "Why aren't Italy, France or the U.S. defamed by movies dealing with homosexuality?" (Egypt). The author has been influenced by the western cultures enough to compare his own situation with that of similar scenarios in other nations. Although there is still a big legal difference between the rights of straight and gay couples, seeing same-sex couples in the media is less likely to be shocking to an American audience than to an audience viewing the movie in the Middle East.

Another discrepancy between the United States and Egypt is that in America, women have achieved a larger degree of equality than many of their Middle Eastern counterparts. In the U.S., women can now take almost any occupation, attend…[continue]

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