“The Yacoubian Building”; Architecture as a Metaphor for Egyptian Society

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Malmö University, COMDEV
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“The Yacoubian Building”; Architecture as a Metaphor for Egyptian Society

Introduction
Alaa El Aswany, the author of the novel “The Yacoubian Building”, (Sherif, 2011) by birth has carried the two intellectual and aristocratic sense with parents from two different layer of Egyptian society (an ex-aristocratic mother and award-winning author father). He is a dentist which has got the experience of living and studying in the US with background of a French private school in Cairo; his political characteristics mostly has been shaped as a “founding members of the political democratic opposition movement, Kefaya (Enough), meaning enough of president Mubarak’s undemocratic, oppressive regime and its corruption”, founded in 2004 which was one of the active parties in the revolution. Although he is a Muslim, he has been known as a “secular and free thinker” with a reputation of many “articles for Egyptian newspapers on political issues, social matters and literature”. He used to have his clinic in Yacoubian Building.

Firstly the book was rejected for several times by Mubarak’s censorship system which had been applied by the “Egyptian Book Organization” and finally was published by a small, private publisher in Cairo in 2002; soon after, it was translated into 27 languages in 2006 it was made into the biggest budget ever Egyptian film (Hamed, 2006). In the story the building has metaphoric situation for the changing Egyptian society.

Yacoubian Building as Metaphor
As it has been emphasizes in social science (Nederveen Pieterse, 2010, p.2), “realities are socially constructed” and technically one of the best way of analysis of these realities is modeling them; in the modeling process, the author has selected an existing symbolic building which has been constructed in the Art Deco style (Vivian, 2005) in Cairo by “Armenian businessman Hagop Yacoubian” in 1934. In its 18 first years of age, it was used as one of the most luxurious and prestigious apartment blocks for wealthy residents and foreigners which by the revolution of 1952 and starting the period of G[J]amal Abdel Nasser, most of the residents fled the country and the building was occupied by a military officers, a new born powerful social caste with lower attitudes. The most interesting part of the life cycle of the building was roof small rooms (50 rooms which originally was used as stores) which were taken over by poor Egyptian migrants shaping “a slum neighborhood”, symbolizing “the urbanization of Egypt and of the burgeoning population growth in its large cities in recent decades, especially among the poor and working classes” (http://www.nationmaster.com/encyclopedia/Yacoubian-Building). The story begins in early 1990’s and the author tries to represent all main social castes of new Egyptian Society by the current building residents.

Yacoubian Building as Metaphor
As it has been emphasizes in social science (Nederveen Pieterse, 2010, p.2), “realities are socially constructed” and technically one of the best way of analysis of these realities is modeling them; in the modeling process, the author has selected an existing symbolic building which has been constructed in the Art Deco style (Vivian, 2005) in Cairo by “Armenian businessman Hagop Yacoubian” in 1934. In its 18 first years of age, it was used as one of the most luxurious and prestigious apartment blocks for wealthy residents and foreigners which by the revolution of 1952 and starting the period of G[J]amal Abdel Nasser, most of the residents fled the country and the building was occupied by a military officers, a new born powerful social caste with lower attitudes. The most interesting part of the life cycle of the building was roof small rooms (50 rooms which originally was used as stores) which were taken over by poor Egyptian migrants shaping “a slum neighborhood”, symbolizing “the urbanization of Egypt and of the burgeoning population growth in its large cities in recent decades, especially among the poor and working classes” (http://www.nationmaster.com/encyclopedia/Yacoubian-Building). The story begins in early 1990’s and the author tries to represent all main social castes and classes of new Egyptian Society by the current building residents.
“The Yacoubian Building” and its Social Impact
The author emphasizes the kind of interconnectedness (Hemer, 2012) between the various classes of residents in case of struggling to survive under Mubarak’s regime and the “run-down building is a metaphor for the state of the country” (Vivian, 2005). The cultural branch of this run-down in a combination with questioning the power (Nederveen Pieterse, 2010, p.65) is the main path of the story. The path just in the case of the character Zaki (65-year old, retired Francophile engineer) was reflecting the western developmental-ism (McEwan, 2009) effects which eventually is useless comparing the dominancy of religious powers (the character Taha El Shazli, the son of the building’s caretaker, which became Islamist militant under the pressure). Even the the rich character, middle aged, homosexual, successful newspaper editor has been introduced as a person which is under the effect of bad childhood which shows the authors negative cultural approach to the issue homosexuality. If we consider romanticism as the opposite of rationalism (Nederveen Pieterse, 2010, p.114) in the general Enlightenment movement and accept the traditional powers in the societies like Egypt, we can to some extend understand the situation; a combination of religious and aristocratic nostalgic attitudes beside the west-oriented approaches is shaping the current (even after the spring) Egypt. This synthetic movement which is mostly based on common enemy (the previous regime) could possibly be resulted as a cultural catastrophe instead of development.

Conclusion
A glance to the attitude of books like “Culture and development: a critical introduction” (Schech, & Haggis, 2000) could lead the us to the idea that, in general, the researchers mostly try to explain the existing situations using case studies, instead of suggesting any culture-oriented development methods. The facts shows that in spite of globalization or other movements it is not easy to recognize a fundamental sustainable development which could be considered as a cultural native alternative to the western one. It is a disappointment that in many aspects Nederveen Pieterse (2010, ch.10) sounds right when talking about “cyber apartheid” as a “new mechanisms to reinforce dependency” which widen the gap between south and west; even it could be imaginable that the ICT facilities in south countries is mostly used to serve the northern world benefits and somehow westernize the south culture. In this direction even globalization could be considered as a “homogenizing process” since it is not easy to find any success story of localized and non-euro-centric integrated development in south countries. The film/novel “The Yacoubian Building” is full of stereotypes (almost all of characters) and the creator from the first scene tries to symbolize the realities of Egyptian society. The last part of the film/novel is also mentioning kind of hope (as the youngster female character marries the old Francophile) which could be defined as a west-oriented nationalism. It seems that the author is making the same mistake of south countries elite; again the solution is in the west/north and the south has no way but following the north. Nowadays, after the Islamists took the power in Egypt, it seems that the intellectual movement of Egypt is not happy; they ignored the power of tradition/religion in their assumptions (even in the movie the Islamist character was killed by the regime taking part in a terrorist attack). The current situation in Egypt which brought the Islamists/traditionalists to power with minimum cost for them could be repeated in similar south countries since the tradition and culture (with all related aspects) still sound the most powerful inspiring motivation among the majority and even the democratic models supports their empowerment. Now the value of the idea of (Nederveen Pieterse, 2010, p.164) summing up the development as “a collective learning process of human self-management according to the most comprehensive standards conceivable and practicable” is more clear.

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Hamed, M. (2006). The Yacoubian Building [Film]. France: Bac Films.
Hamed, M. & Aswa?ni?, A. (eds.) (2009). Yacoubians hus ‘Imarat Ya’qubiyan = The Yacoubian building. Stockholm: Paramount Home Entertainment (Sweden).
Hemer, O. (2012). Fiction and truth in transition: writning the present past in South Africa and Agentina. Wien: LIT.
McEwan, C. (2009). Postcolonialism and Development. London and New York: Routledge.
Nederveen Pieterse, J. (2010). Development theory: deconstructions/reconstructions. (2. ed.) Los Angeles: SAGE.
Schech, S. & Haggis, J. (2000). Culture and development: a critical introduction. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.
Sherif, C. (2011, October 29). [Web log message]. Retrieved from http://www.1stbookreview.com/the-yacoubian-building-by-alaa-el-aswany/
Vivian, S. (2005, December 08). A Tale of Some Egyptians: As Yacoubian Building Heads West, the Author Discusses the Story’s Message. Daily News Egypy. Retrieved from http://dailynewsegypt.com/article.aspx?ArticleID=157