The Egyptian Film "The Yacoubian Building" Breaks Every Taboo

It has been years since an Egyptian film aroused as wide-ranging public interest as "The Yacoubian Building". In this interview, screenwriter Wahid Hamed talks about the legal proceedings threatening the film, its sex scenes, and freedom of opinion in Egypt

​​112 members of the Egyptian parliament have demanded that several sex scenes be cut from the film "The Yacoubian Building", as they supposedly damage Egypt's image. The residents of the Yacoubian Building are threatening legal proceedings because they feel offended by the film. How do you explain the vehement attacks on the film?

Wahid Hamed: The film has met with harsh criticism, but also a great deal of support. I don't want to weigh the two against each other; I respect both attitudes equally.

I leave it up to the viewers to decide. It seems to me that the positive reactions to the film are in the majority – after all, audiences are still pouring into the movie theaters, and the film is making huge sums of money. That means viewers are using their own judgment rather than listening to the film's opponents. That makes me proud and shows progress in the mindset of Egyptian audiences.

I don't deny that the film is shocking. It always causes a painful shock when you show unvarnished reality. Truthful cinema reveals society's weaknesses and ventures into forbidden areas, which naturally entails risk. This is especially true given that for the past five years Egyptian cinema has not produced a single film with serious content, only light comedies. Of course viewers are startled when they're shown something serious.

It really surprised me that Egyptian parliamentarians, people one might expect to have a certain degree of intellect, are demanding that we cut scenes showing homosexuality because they are supposedly immoral and damage the country's image.

photo: Nelly Youssef
Screenwriter Wahid Hamed, does not deny that the film is shocking

​​The Egyptian Parliament appointed a committee to watch the film, but it decided not to cut a single scene. That was an embarrassing setback for all those who want to restrict freedom both for artistic creativity and for the Egyptian people.

I wish people would stop attacking the film without thinking and without legitimate arguments. I have nothing against people criticizing the film or rejecting it. But I am opposed to the demands to confiscate it or cut certain scenes.

The film shows the decay that imbues our reality. Corruption has eaten its way into all areas of Egyptian life. And homosexuality, as it is shown in the film, is also part of our reality. Art's job is to make people think. Our opponents want to keep that from happening; audiences are supposed to watch only movies that lull their minds to sleep.

I find it just as strange, even ludicrous, when members of parliament or whoever say that the scenes showing homosexuality are immoral or can't be reconciled with our faith. Why do they get worked up about that and not about the corruption in politics and in the government that the film shows? Isn't that also immoral and incompatible with religious doctrines?

I think the whole thing is pure politics. The outrage about the scenes thematizing homosexuality is just an excuse to block the film. None of the complaints filed against the film were upheld. Even when the occupants of the building tried to keep us from filming there, they achieved nothing. That's a sure sign of the victory of freedom of opinion in Egypt.

Some viewers left the movie theater before the end of the film, others closed their eyes during the homoerotic sex scenes or the scene in which a destitute young woman lets her boss sexually abuse her so that she can feed her family. The dialogue was also seen as offensive and improper in places. What is your assessment?

Hamed: I find these statements odd – no one is humiliated in the film. The film's opponents are waging psychological warfare to create sentiment against it. In our society, when someone wants to a person or a thing in an unfavorable light, it is enough to cast doubts on its moral integrity. My film did not offend against the audience's sense of modesty; as an attack on hypocrisy and mendacity, it created a severe shock, especially given that it criticizes both the government and the opposition.

A scene from the film "The Yacoubian Building"

​​Even veiled women saw the film, even some with facial veils. Some of them criticized it harshly. That's the double standard we live with here, a familiar problem. Only adults are allowed to view the film. If people don't want to see something like that, why do they put themselves through it? No one's forced to go to the movies, after all.

All at once, the film breaks all the taboos that exist in the areas of sexuality, religion and politics by showing the corruption that prevails in these three areas in Egypt. The unifying element is the Yacoubian Building, whose inhabitants embody all the problems Egypt is struggling with:

A corrupt politician, an aristocratic womanizer, a destitute young woman who lives on the roof of the building and is sexually abused at work, a talented student who mutates into an Islamic terrorist after he is denied the opportunity to study at the police academy because his father works as a janitor and has a low social status, a journalist who suffers because of his homosexuality, and a shoe-shine boy who rises to become a member of parliament and misuses religion to pursue his own interests. The film is a document of the time we live in, because it shows very openly what many are thinking in secret.

Do you think that freedom of opinion exists in Egypt, even though it is not governed democratically? Does the film censors' approval of the film represent the beginning of a film era in which the free expression of views will be unrestricted, or is it more of an exception?

Hamed: The right to express opinions freely does exist in Egypt, at least that is my experience. I never had problems with censorship, and that is not because of my fame as an author. The censors do not reject good films. I rely on the decision of the viewers who are thronging into the movie theaters by the millions to see the film. That confirms my conviction that I do not need to be ashamed of its content in any way.

The novel the film is based on was published four years ago and sold a large number of copies. Unlike the film, however, it did not spark heated controversy. Is that an indication that Egyptians do not read very much?

Hamed: It's true, Egyptians hardly read at all. Besides, literature and film are two completely different media. A film's moving images are capable of making a deep impression, which is what makes it so dangerous. Film is art for the broad masses, especially in the Arab world, where so many people are illiterate.

It's quite normal and logical that the film is discussed and attacked, considering how complicated the present time is in every respect. We have different opinions about the war that is going on in Lebanon. How could we fail to have very different views on a film!

Interview by Nelly Youssef

© 2006

Translated from the German by Isabel Cole

Wahid Hamed has written over 50 screenplays, among others for the films "al-Irhab wa-l-Kebab" (Terrorism and Kebab), "Tuyur al-Zalam" (Birds of Darkness), "al-Raqisa wa-l-Siyasi" (The Dancer and the Politician), "al-Naum fi-l-Asal" (Sleeping in Honey), and "al-Bari'" (The Innocent).

Interview with Youssef Chahine
"Tenderness Has Dissapeared"
Youssef Chahine is the grand old man and the enfant terrible of Arabian cinema. Moritz Behrendt and Christian Meier met the 80-year-old director in Cairo, who on the occasion certified his reputation as one of the most vociferous critics of Egyptian politics

Syrian Sitcoms
Religion, Politics and Sexuality Are Sensitive Issues
The series Hakaya wa Khafaya will be shown on Syrian television during Ramadan. German actress Meike Schlüter played a role in the production that also features Andrej Skaf, one of Syria's best-loved television actors. Manuela Römer reports

Brian Whitaker – "Unspeakable Love"
Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East
Homosexuality in the Middle East is still largely a taboo subject. Now Brian Whitaker, the Guardian's Middle East editor, has written a book about it. Anne Françoise Weber has read it

Website "The Yacoubian Building"