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'Yacoubian Building' Houses Uncomfortable Truths

Director Marwan Hamed (right), 27, on the set of  <i>The Yacoubian Building</i>. The movie will cost about $3 million -- two times more than any other Egyptian film.
Director Marwan Hamed (right), 27, on the set of <i>The Yacoubian Building</i>. The movie will cost about $3 million -- two times more than any other Egyptian film.
Author Alaa Al Aswany has been criticized for his unflinching look at Egyptian society.
Julia Buckley, NPR /
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Author Alaa Al Aswany has been criticized for his unflinching look at Egyptian society.

The controversial, best-selling Egyptian novel The Yacoubian Building describes a country that is corrupt, unfair and thuggish. It follows the lives of residents both rich and poor of the Yacoubian, an actual apartment building in downtown Cairo.

Now, the novel is being made into a star-studded, $3 million film -- a large budget by Egyptian standards -- which the producer hopes will be "an Egyptian Ocean's Eleven."

But the significance of The Yacoubian Building transcends its record-setting budget and its pantheon of top Egyptian actors.

Yacoubian takes a look at sometimes uncomfortable truths about life in contemporary Egypt. It tackles subjects considered taboo in traditional Egyptian society, such as homosexuality, and even features a corrupt imam.

Wahid Hamed is Egypt's most celebrated screenwriter and wrote the screenplay for Yacoubian. "I think [the movie] will be like a document of the time we live in," he says, noting that the movie says in public what many citizens are thinking in private.

Underlying the novel -- and the making of the film version -- is a fundamental question: How undemocratic is a society that tolerates such scathing criticism?

Robert Siegel talks with the creative minds behind The Yacoubian Building -- author Alaa Al Aswany and father-and-son team, screenwriter Wahid Hamed and director Marwan Hamed -- about sex, religion, filmmaking, literature and freedom of expression in Egypt.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.