In fiction, as in therapy, the guiding analytical frame must always be “Why now?”: how is today different from any other day? Why this precise moment in history to tell this particular story? These are neither interesting nor especially novel inquires, but they are ones for which every narrative, whether personal or literary, will inevitably be called to account. Works in adaptation are no less immune to this line of inquiry: a work is adapted for the stage because either author, adapter, or audience have deemed it salient enough to be brought to the public’s attention. Sometimes, this calculus functions purely as a matter of capital (nobody necessarily needed a Broadway adaptation of Mean Girls or Pretty Woman, but here we are.) And other times it functions purely as a matter of urgency.
These very issues of urgency and timeliness hang over Kareem Fahmy’s adaptation of Alaa al-Aswany’s novel, The Yacoubian Building performed in reading at the Rough Draft Festival in New York City on March 26 and 27, 2018. First published in 2002, translated into English the following year, adapted for film in 2006, and eventually made into a TV series, The Yacoubian Building is the rare Egyptian novel to have achieved global acclaim recently. A roman a clefabout the inhabitants of a once luxurious apartment building in downtown Cairo, the book shattered taboos surrounding homosexuality, sexual assault, economic injustice, religious hypocrisy, public corruption, and the superstructure of state impunity giving rise to violent extremism. It also brought Aswany, a multi-lingual, University of Illinois-educated dentist turned author, an unrivalled and historically unprecedented media platform for an Egyptian writer in the West.
More than anything, Fahmy’s adaptation is an exercise in relocating power throughout the story, in disrupting and therefore repositioning meaning in ways the source material does not necessarily contemplate, and indeed could not possibly have foreseen. This emphasis on relocation and disruption creates a potentially powerful staged work, one that could not only revivify the source material, but well eclipse it as a transgressive, even revolutionary piece.
Reviving the Yacoubian Building
Described as, “A Love Letter to the Middle East,” and, “The Novel of the Arab Spring,” The Yacoubian Building is quite plainly neither, both in terms of chronology (the events of the novel take place, somewhat irrelevantly, during the First Gulf War), and overall tone (the Egypt of these events is far too complicit, implicated, and compromised of a place to be looked upon altogether fondly). Aswany’s own relationship with the Arab Spring further complicates the work’s connection with recent history. Vocally critical of the regime of Hosni Mubarak, fiercely supportive of the protests in Tahrir Square, Aswany’s weekly salons in the years following the 2011 revolution became widely-attended public events, bringing together activists, intellectuals, and victims of state violence to organize and respond, but also simply to share and give meaning to their stories. But, Aswany’s support for the 2013 ouster of Egypt’s then-newly elected Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi and his early backing of Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi did not go unnoticed, either by Western media or in the extant and endangered community of Egyptian democracy activists he once championed. Aswany has since retracted his support for Sisi (Sisi, for his part, has effectively banned him from publishing or giving speeches in Egypt), and is currently based in New York City teaching workshops in creative writing.
If past is prologue, what then does one make of a work that is, effectively, a prologue to the past? Does The Yacoubian Building offer more than simply one author’s very temporal experience of Egyptian culture, or can it still possess the power to disrupt as it did on first encounter? Fahmy’s adaption shows us how it just might.
Perhaps the first notable relocation is the envelope of the story itself: an overview/interlude that begins by walking you through the lives of the building’s very poorest inhabitants, who reside on its rooftop: Busayna (Nikki Massoud), a young woman forced to endure ceaseless sexual assault by her clothing store employer in order to support her widowed mother and siblings; and her boyfriend, Taha (Saamer Usmani), a pious doorman’s son, preparing himself for police officer exams. The viewer is then brought briefly into the home of Hagg Azzam (Amr El-Bayoumi), a wealthy retailer who has recently taken a second wife, Souad (Marjan Neshat), who effectively serves as a secret concubine, then to Hatim (Ahmad Maksoud), the gay editor-in-chief of a French language news weekly, who sits alone in his apartment, bored and listless.
Only in the second scene are we introduced to Zaki Bey (James Hallett), an aging, rakish engineer of Pashawial descent with an insatiable sexual appetite. As Zaki prepares himself for the evening’s latest conquest with the help of his servant, Abashkaron (Louis Sallin), it is a scene suffused with pity: a dissolute old man of elite circumstances struggling to maintain the idea of his own virility, with the assistance of an underling who privately despises him and seeks his ouster.
In the original book, Zaki functioned as almost the central intelligence of the novel (and the closest thing to an A-Plot in the film) walking the reader through the historic core of downtown Cairo, a crumbling, almost dowager space of striking neo-baroque and art deco architecture, once home to a foreign, and foreign-aligned, elite that either long ago left the country or was displaced from power by the military. In Fahmy’s retelling, however, it is Shazli (Brian D. Coats), the doorman, who presents the audience with the building’s particular history, from its illustrious Armenian namesake, to the former servants’ quarters on the roof now overtaken by the poor. His personal investment in this history is limited, perhaps even transactional.
Fahmy presents a story where nobody has full authority in its telling, where there are competing claims to meaning, even the claims of history itself over the precise meaning of the past. For all the nostalgia surrounding pre-1952 Cairo, its communities of Greeks, Jews, and Armenians, its nightclubs and cabarets, it is a nostalgia that by necessity occludes a culture of impunity and deeply entrenched poverty for the vast majority of Egypt’s inhabitants. Indeed, Fahmy’s adaption heightens the tension between elite and working class that suffuses the core relationships of the story, even those relationships where class is not the defining tension. Taha and Busayna’s courtship fizzles upon the former’s misfortune. In its place, Busayna pursues a relationship of convenience with Zaki, which slowly evolves into something more. Souad is, in her own words, a kept woman of modest means, living at the mercy of her husband’s influence, while Hatim takes a lover, Abd Rabbuh (RJ Brown), an Upper Egyptian soldier with a wife and son.
Centering Gender and the Queer
Where this adaptation truly places the source material on its head, however, is on the subject of gender. The women of The Yacoubian Building, previously portrayed in isolation to one another, are here presented as friends, confidantes, persons whose relationships create meaning in the context of power. Souad is introduced to us in conversation with Busayna, relating her contractual obligation to have sex with her husband to the ritualistic rape Busayna must endure at the hands of her employer. Both women are very aware of the bargains they have been forced to make, in order to provide for their families (Souad is separated from her young son as a condition of her marriage to Hagg Azzam). Of one another, they ask, “Aren’t you tired of performing all the time?”
The later introduction of Abd Rabbuh’s wife, Hidiya (Deonna Bouye), further enriches this circle of meaning making. Portrayed in the book as superstitious and intense (in line with popular cultural depictions of Upper Egyptians as wild and irascible, country and backwards), here Hidiya is literate, almost defiant, easily in communion with The Yacoubian’s other women. She recognizes the world of men, and struggles with her husband’s role in it, as clearly and as angrily as Souad and Busayna do within and outside of the building.
It is this creation of meaning, this space for female narratives and personhood, in what is a novel of largely male stories, that is the most vivifying part of Fahmy’s adaption. This aspect also relocates the story in the context of recent events, by centering it at the intersection of private hierarchies and public violence that (per Corey Robin) are the twin pretexts of reactionary regimes. Issues of women’s autonomy and violence against women permeated the events of 2011, and remained a constant flash point in the years that followed. It was a young Egyptian woman, Asmaa Mahfouz, who took to YouTube in January 2011, excoriating her countrymen – particularly men– for standing idly by while female protestors were beaten by state security. During the revolution, female protestors were also subject to invasive and humiliating “virginity tests,” ostensibly to refute claims they had been raped in detention. In December 2011, a brutal police crackdown on female demonstrators led to one unarmed woman being dragged and truncheoned on live TV, her upper body exposed, save for a blue bra, as her niqab(face veil) was stripped away. In their brief turn at the helm of power, the Muslim Brotherhood sought to decriminalize female circumcision, while President Sisi has defended the use of virginity tests in his previous role as Defense Minister. Fahmy allows the women of The Yacoubian to place themselves within this very recent and troubled history, to create meaning for themselves inside that history, and, in doing so, to create a place apart from, and in defiance of, the very power underlying that history.
Just as revivifying is how this adaptation addresses ideas of the queer. Portrayed as a self-loathing predator in the movie, and a feckless Bohemian in the novel, Hatim here is more recognizably gay than in either the book or film, moving through the storyline less as a potential victim, than as an individual whose class and status have given him perhaps misplaced confidence in his own security, making him, in this respect, more noticeably analogous to his neighbors, Hagg Azzam and Zaki Bey. Most notably, he and Abd Rabbuh are allowed to be in love: it is a relationship freed from ideas of the homosexual as predator, as exploiter of weak men in vulnerable positions. Abd Rabbuh remains as conflicted as ever, but it is a conflict given more depth and meaning because his relationship with Hatim has been located outside of ideas of domination and predation, or even more recent critical discourse surrounding same sex desire in Arab cultures.
Coming Nearer to the Truth
Where this adaptation is perhaps most faithful to the source is in its unflinching portrayal of the prurient: this is, to put it mildly, a play full of climaxes (nearly every major male character comes once over the course of forty-plus acts). It is also mostly unchanged with respect to its most damning story arc –Taha’s turn to radical jihadism. It is a storyline that complicates both Western and Egyptian ideas of political Islam. Taha yearns only to serve, and has been nurtured by his doorman father with the belief that he can become anything he wants, a belief that runs headlong into deep-seated ideas of class, poverty, and entitlement. He is turned toward the Brotherhood by a blissfully pious picaresque figure (Damon Owlia) who appears throughout the play, while a sheikh’s (Nathan Hinton) sermon presents a frighteningly persuasive critique of state power. American involvement in the Arab World represents only one part of Taha’s radicalization, and it is his rape at the hands of State Security that compels Taha to take up arms.
Taha’s story arc disappears for large stretches of the play; indeed, it seems almost to bookend it, one of a handful of areas where the adaptation still struggles with the source material. The story of Hatim’s childhood, which presents him as the victim and perhaps potential perpetrator of sexual molestation, remains a problem point for the novel that the adaptation does not fully finesse. As in the film version, the most archaic element of Fahmy’s adaptation (involving Zaki and the deed to his apartment) takes up the most amount of time. With a constant rotation of intersecting plots, the play is perhaps far longer than it can afford to be, and often scrambles to give due attention to every character in the story.
The urge to add dimensions to every character also does not go quite far enough at times. The one Coptic character in the play, Abashkaron, is an amoral schemer, given one line to account for his amoral scheming (“It’s easy to hide when you’re invisible”). Christine (Antoinette LaVacchia), a world-weary chanteuse of Greek descent, remains stock and underexplored. Zaki’s sister Dawlat (also played by Antoinette LaVacchia), otherwise portrayed as a scolding harridan, is only allowed one scene to reveal a life filled with disappointment, loneliness, and inner shame brought by her family’s social and economic debasement. Hagg Azzam is given a much softer touch than in the novel, portrayed as well-meaning, almost bumbling, more ambitious than avaricious, somebody whose ultimate ugliness emerges seemingly despite himself. The identity of “al-Malek,” a shadowy political boss assumed to be Hosni Mubarak in the novel, but completely absent from the film, remains a complete mystery in the play.
Ultimately, the greatest power of Fahmy’s adaptation is its ability to provide the audience with few obvious escape points, fewer firm assumptions to which to return safely. Even the characters’ best dreams for themselves seem illusory, almost ill-gotten. “Let us get out of Cairo. Out of the Yacoubian Building,” Busayna muses to Zaki, “we’ll be free. We’ll be together.” But few in this world have the luxury of escaping their own history: that history lives above you, works at your feet, sticks to you like the residue of centuries, and is liable to kill you in the end.
There are small victories to be had, victories of hope over cynicism, love over ruin, but these are victories bargained against the ever-present specter of death. “Love’s the thing that keeps this place going,” Zaki attests, less out of sentiment than for lack of any other explanation. It is a love less for the place itself, than for the relationships that sustain its residents. The place is inseparable from them because of the power it holds over who they are, because of the way that power has forced them to create meaning for themselves. While this is the stuff of neither love letters nor liberation, it carries the more daunting virtue of coming far nearer to the truth.