Thursday, May 3, 2007

National Stupidity and The Yacoubian Building by Alaa al-Aswany

Objectively marginalised (published in Al-Ahram, July 2006)
In contrast to the MP who last week accused the film The Yacoubian Building of sullying Egypt's reputation, Raouf Moussad finds in the novel on which the film is based a depiction of minorities so tendentious as to smooth the feathers of even the most conservative ideologue
In an article entitled "History and National Stupidity" published in The New York Review of Books on 27 April, 2006, Arthur Schlesinger Jr, writes that "history is not self- executing. You do not put a coin in the slot and have history come out. For the past is a chaos of events and personalities into which we cannot penetrate. It is beyond retrieval and it is beyond reconstruction. All historians know this in their souls. 'There is no such thing as human history,' one historian has told the New-York Historical Society."

We have all long been aware that there is no purely objective view of history. Bearing in mind this tumult of fact and counter-fact, the notion of national stupidity is justified, particularly given that neither rulers nor ruled have learned any lessons from history, however elusive history is. A glance at the repeated massacres and persecutions of the "other" from the beginning of the human race confirms "national stupidity", with national used here in an ethnic sense, and stupidity in the sense of a people not learning from their collective memory.
What is the relationship between national stupidity and a novel that speaks of a homosexual, a Nubian, a Christian pimp and a member of an armed fundamentalist Islamic group? I choose ' Imaret Ya'koubian ( The Yacoubian Building ) as a model of national stupidity for two reasons. First, this is a historiographical novel; it claims to represent a period of Egyptian history from 1934 until the first years of the new century, as the blurb on the back cover of the first edition says, through the space of this downtown building. In tackling the themes -- political Islam, homosexuality, political corruption and prostitution -- novelist Al-Aswany's approach is clearly a moral one, as is made clear in the "punishment" through murder of two of his characters, the homosexual Hatem whose lover kills him, and the officer who tortures members of Islamic groups. Second, there is the huge popularity of the novel which has been seen as a document diagnosing contemporary Egyptian history. ' Imaret Ya'koubian became an instant bestseller, has been translated into several languages, and has now been turned into a film (see Mohamed El-Assyouti, "To balance the scales" and Hani Mustafa, "Novel drama", Al-Ahram Weekly, 29 June-5 July, 2006). It is a phenomenon worthy of analysis.
How does this novel constitute Al-Aswany as a repressive novelist? Where does the writer stand vis-à-vis marginalised groups in his society? Does he treat them with objectivity or does he condemn and blame them for social ills? In other words, does he represent them as models of corruption or as victims of it?
Publication of the first edition of the novel was concurrent with the court hearings for the Queen Boat case, which the Egyptian press preferred to refer to as "the case of the people of Lot and Devil-worshippers" -- a fabricated case which exposed the homophobia of Egyptian society. This bias was evident in the testimonies posted, in Arabic and English, on the Human Rights Watch website, including police officers who asked the young men to dance while in custody and the humiliating language used by forensic doctors, judges and the press. Eventually, under international pressure, most of the accused were cleared, in face of conspiracy theories that suggested the men had connections with Israel, and that homosexuality is a product of imperialism.
Arab society practices all manner of sexual acts in secret, but condemns sexual acts that are acknowledged regardless of whether they are sanctioned by religious jurisprudence or not. These double standards have come to the fore in recent writings which reinforce dominant values and society's tendency to offer up the "other" as scapegoat.
Al-Aswany attributes the same- sex practices of the newspaper editor Hatem to his parents' mixed marriage (his mother is French) and his sexual molestation as a child by the Nubian servant, Idris. As the novel explains, Hatem has since been searching for a lover who resembles Idris. The novelist has Abdou, Hatem's lover who is a soldier in the Central Security, kill him for reasons that are not altogether clear but that may well be a blend of awakened conscience, growing religiosity and wounded pride. Setting aside the question of the artistic function of the murder, it ultimately betrays the novelist's unmistakable attitude towards the murderer and the murdered.
The novel also establishes a parallelism between Abdou and Taha, the doorman's son whose working class background bars him from joining the Police Academy, and who consequently joins a fundamentalist group. The reader is made to sympathise with Taha, who finds justice nowhere but in the mosque and who takes justice in his hands when he decides to murder an officer known to torture members of Islamic groups. We find out nothing about the fate of Abdou after he has murdered Hatem. However, the novelist cuts between Taha's movements in the last hours before he kills the officer and Hatem's search for Abdou, who will later kill him. Tellingly, the transition between Abdou's killing Hatem and the beginning of the sequence of events that leads to Taha's murdering the officer is effected via Quranic verses extolling the virtues of fighting for God.
By comparing the Arabic original to the English translation, by Humphrey Davies (American University in Cairo Press, 2004), I noticed a remarkable difference in the terms used for same sex practices. The Arabic uses terms like " shuzuz " (meaning deviancy or abnormality) and its derivatives, which correspond to English usages such as "fag", "faggot" and "poofter". By contrast, the English translation replaces shaz and shuzuz by "homosexual" and "homosexuality", which do not imply sexual practices that are deviant from the social norm. It's as if the Arabic original urges the reader to condemn people who practice same sex, whereas the English version sympathises with them.
The treatment of homosexuals at the hands of Al-Aswany is similar to the treatment of Nubians and Christians -- two groups marginalised in Egyptian society -- in the novel. With all three groups, we need to ask why it was that Al-Aswany chose to represent them only to vent his venom against them. Is it because they cannot answer back, because their complaints will fall on deaf ears in a society that consistently ignores them, or casts them outside?
The article above is a version of a paper originally presented at a conference on the Arabic novel and its resistance to hegemonic discourse, organised by the Institut national des langues et civilisations orientales and UNESCO (Paris, 22-24 May, 2006).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for being the only person to point out Al-Aswany's failures in representing marginalized groups!!!!!!