The Yacoubian Building/ Omaret yakobean (2006) Marwan Hamed

July 22, 2008 at 12:38 am

The Egyptian Yacoubian Building, based on Alaa Al Aswani’s 2002 novel by the same name and set in Cairo of 1990, begun as a neighborhood saga and went on like this until the middle, pretty reminiscent of other international films of the sort. It reminded me very much to the Mexican blockbuster Midaq Alley (El Callejón de los milagros, 1995), which is, notably, based on another Egyptian novel by Naguib Mahfouz, and while originally set in Cairo, it is transferred to Mexico City for the film. The other film to which it compares directly is the Turkish Agir Roman (1997), also based on a popular novel (by Metin Kaçan) and set in Istanbul, and similarly tracing the evolving relationships and complex dynamics of the life in a neighborhood.

About an hour into the Yacoubian Building I thought it would stay confined to tracing the relations within this large apartment building in Cairo, pushing its several parallel narratives evolving around sexual, power and commercial intrigues, and revealing various aspects of human lust and greed. In spite the somewhat pompous black and white overview at the opening, placing the building and its inhabitants in a wider historical context, there was very little to suggest that there may be interest to linking to some bigger overarching themes.

But then the story gradually begun addressing deeper issues, to turn into a subtle political critique of a society that is undergoing Islamic radicalization. An impoverished student grows estranged from his pragmatic upwardly mobile fellow-students. Soon he is brainwashed at the nearby Mosque, takes part in street confrontations, is then arrested, tortured and raped, later on breaking up with his girlfriend and renouncing the world at large, descending irrevocably into radical Islamism and resorting to terrorism at the end. Even if his final desperately suicidal act is a personal revenge and does not allow him to ascend to a true confrontation of ideologies, the downward path of this protagonist persuasively reveals the factors that lead to the radicalization of young men who begin by receiving Westernized education but are then rapidly disillusioned and easily descend into the more welcoming and comfortable milieu of fundamentalism.

The adverse consequences of radicalization are powerfully ridiculed in Persepolis (2007). Tackled in a very different but equally powerful way, related matters of personal descent into the abyss of grass-roots level fundamentalism were addressed in the more intimate Pakistani-British film Silent Waters (Sabiha Sumar, 2003). There is a range of other recent films that, similarly, take the effort to clarify the logic of indoctrination and reveal the powerlessness of those who try to pull young people off the slippery path of Islamic fundamentalism. Typically these are films made elsewhere (India, Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan, Iran) and very little seen or covered in the West. Their effort is to offer a glimpse into the logic of radicalization and explain the triggers of personal dissatisfaction and disillusionment that are behind it all. It is about loss of trust and abuse. It would be worthwhile to pay more attention to these films and to the stories that they are telling.

© Dina Iordanova
22 July 2008