I recently watched The Yacoubian Building for an assignment in my colloquial Arabic class. The movie, released in 2006, is based off a book by the same name, and both gained immense fame in Egypt where they take place. The explanation for their popularity becomes quite apparent upon watching the movie (as well as reading the book, I’d assume).
Guided by the prose of the author, Marwan Hamed weaves together multiple narratives to create a jarring yet powerful vignette about the modern strife that grips Egypt with a nefarious fist. At the heart of the movie’s criticisms is Egypt’s ruthless social hierarchy which leads to the exploration of a whole host of other problems such as religious extremism, government corruption, and female subordination.
I believe the movie was so popular in Egypt because of its audacity and unapologetic candor directed at topics that had originally been muzzled by people in power for years. However for me, as someone who has never spent any time in that region of the world and whose only knowledge about the area comes from American media and Arabic language classes, The Yacoubian Building served as a tool of cultural edification. For the first time, I witnessed an open dialogue about homosexuality in Middle Eastern culture. The movie also exposes the progressive state concerning gender equality in Egypt as a thinly veiled facade halfheartedly attempting to extricate itself from archaic gender roles; women in Egypt tend to dress more contemporarily than many of their counterparts in the Muslim world, which is proven to be a simple illusion of progressivism as they are commanded to preserve their virginity until marriage while allowing their male supervisors to sexually assault them at work so they may maintain their income and support their families. I observed the existence of painful ironies such as young, intelligent men turning to religious extremism with few other options because they are denied, based on their fathers’ social statuses, access to resources that will help them become worthy additions to society.
Watching this authentic Middle Eastern film gave me more knowledge concerning the societal adversities that riddle the Egyptian citizenry and government alike than any MSNBC broadcast or Arabic textbook ever could. However, if there is anything I learned from watching the movie, it is that knowledge rarely equates to an advantage in a corrupt society.