July 12, 2011
I know very little about Egyptian Modern art. I was most recently exposed to it at the Christie's Dubai sales, notably through the collection of Mohammad Al Farsi. The paintings that sold in Dubai were of landscapes and peasants. I have only seen his nudes in photographs but when I saw them I was reminded of the painter Mahmoud Said from theYacoubian Building and his image of a sensual nude.
Alaa AlAswany does not worry about censorship in his novel. All topics are mentioned: adultery, sex, homosexuality with the detailed naturalism of Zola. Sensuality permeates his novel. I considered the cover of the book, in French translation, as ill-fitted to the images I had imagined myself while reading it.
While reading the Yacoubian Building, photographs by contemporary Egyptian artist Youssef Nabil sprung to mind. Amongst Youssef Nabil's rich repertoire, are Egyptian movie actresses and singers, preserved in large photographs to which he adds his signature paints to render them nostalgic and hyperbolically sepia toned. These photographs are sensuous and sultry, as are the descriptions of AlAswany. Nabil's male models, in galabiya also could inhabit The Yacoubian Building.
This novel has become a contemporary classic with large success. I am almost certain to have read it before viewing the breakthrough film. It hit box office records in the Middle East because it was the first time an Arabic movie actually raised so many controversial topics, social and political.
But my father recenly purchased the book for me as a surprise and dedicated it to me: "With the January 2011 Revolution in Egypt, it is time to read Aswani".
I am sure not to have first read it in French, so I decided to read it again in this translation gifted to me. As I read, and the story unfolds and the characters' destinies progress, I cannot help making the cliche link to Naguib Mahfouz's Midaq Alley, in their similar ambiance of debauchery.
An Egyptian friend of mine told me as we discussed the similarities: " both stories are based around the tales of normal Egyptians, Midaq tells the tales of a working class area in Old Cairo, Yacoubian in a more middle class neighbourhood in Downtown Cairo. This was the heart of Cairo in 1950s,60s and early 70s. The buildings, like their inhabitants, are past their prime, yet they are still trying to hang on to their former glory. "
The Yacoubian Building has become a figure of speech, in reference to the gossip and stories that happen in apartment buildings, where neighbors know each other all too well. It stands as the Melrose Place of Egypt! While my father invited me to reflect on the political dynamics of the novel, to better understand the social roots of the January 2011 Revolution, I somehow skipped the political analysis (I am halfway through) but I did grasp the artistic undertones.