Hollywood Reporter says the film may “offer a revealing window into the secular world of a modern Islamic country — its indulgence in alcohol, sexual promiscuity, political corruption and personal betrayals. From such ‘deformities, the movie argues, Islamic fundamentalism gains its most passionate adherents.” But we can do better than this crude analysis. Moroccan-born ,western educated novelist Laila Lalani points out the book (and consequently the movie) is full of prejudices against gays, resembles the old “large-scale melodramas” produced by Egypt’s “huge film industry,” with their “young idealists, desirable ingénues, old predators, and so on,” and is crudely moralistic — with almost every character forced to make choices that “ultimately result in either their downfall or redemption.” It’s also full of heavy-handed emotional manipulation, cliff-hangers, and so on. Alaa Al Aswany is no Naguib Mahfouz. Aside from the prejudice against gays, we’re told that mixed marriages produce confused children, that all women love sex enormously, and so on. It’s important to realize that however engaging the film is and notable the actors are in the Egyptian film world, it’s made out of dross, not gold.
In the figure of the Yacoubian Building we can see the crumbling of the old order. In a short prologue which begins the film, a voice-over narration explains how the Yacoubian Building serves as a monument to the old Egypt, an Egypt of European splendor and a polyglot, Levantine culture; an Egypt where the rich and poor mingled in a complex stew of imperial gloriousness and utter squalor, an Egypt of Jews, Europeans, Muslims, Copts, Greeks, Armenians and many others.
“Things are moving in the Arab world and people are becoming more and more aware of the importance and vitality of having freedom of expression, so cinema would definitely reflect this,” says Cherif el-Shoubashi, the head of Cairo’s International Film Festival.
Sadly, much has changed since he said that.
We discussed the book in May 2009