Al-Ahram Weekly Online   24 - 30 March 2005
Issue No. 735
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The lodgers' discontent

Yasmine Fathi registers the effect of a bestselling novel on a downtown apartment building

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At his office in Yaquobian Building (above), Rami Khela (top) points to the photograph of his father, the late Malaak

In one of the most restless parts of Cairo -- 34 Talaat Harb Street, to be precise -- residents of the by now famous Yaqoubian Building had been idling away the years in relative oblivion, unaware of the media attention Alaa El-Aswani's eponymous bestselling novel was about to force on them. "It's a novel of which the hero is a place," the author explains. When they are turned into films to be shot on location -- written by Wahid Hamed and directed by his son Marwan, The Yaqoubian Building, said to be the biggest production to date in Egyptian cinema, will star such household names as Adel Imam and Nour El-Sherif -- the hullabaloo such novels can generate is evidently irksome.

"But this has precedents," El-Aswani goes on, all too aware of the negative impact the film has made on the residents in question: "A novel about the River Drina by the Yugoslav author Ivo Andric, for example; also a good half of Naguib Mahfouz's work -- Sugar Street, Meddaq Alley..."

The choice of downtown Cairo, he says, has its roots in his upbringing: "That's where I'm from -- its upper middle-class echelons. So it's where I grew up, attending the Lycée Français. Traditional, grassroots neighbourhoods make up the world of Naguib Mahfouz, downtown Cairo makes up mine." He first came to know the building, he recounts, through his father's office -- later transformed into his own dentistry practice -- one of its flats: "It also has a striking name that attracts attention. But it must be noted that, in the novel, the building is a technical device, nothing more."

Yet, as the responses of both historical and recently arrived lodgers show, even a technical device can prove profoundly problematic: "We are talking about people whose place of residence no one has heard of, and suddenly there are cameras and two to three interviews a day."

And notwithstanding the fact that two other Yaqoubian buildings exist -- one in Heliopolis, one in Beirut -- both hullabaloo and negative response have invested this one with a peculiar sense of importance.

According to lawyer Fikry Abdel-Malek, the agent of the building since 1961, Nishan Yaqoubian, an Armenian, had the six-story construction built in the 1930s; the bottom floor, Abdel-Malek adds, consisted of the Yaqoubian's huge silverware store. In the 1940s ownership of the building was transferred to Dekran, Nishan's son: "The building was occupied by Armenian, Italian, and Greek lodgers as well as prominent Egyptian figures."

The latter have included Zaher Abdel-Rahman, governor of Marsa Matruh, Mahmoud Talaat, governor of Damietta, and the famous actor Zaki Rostom. The Yaqoubian family divide their time between Egypt and Switzerland, and this is why it has been in the care of Abdel-Malek for over 40 years: "Dekran and I maintained contact throughout this time -- until one day I received a furious call from him about the book... I hadn't heard of it, so I bought it and started reading it. I was appalled."

In contrast to the gritty realism with which El-Aswani imbues the building, older lodgers remember it in glowing terms. "In the old days," one Greek resident who would rather remain anonymous reminisced, "the building was very elegant -- beautiful. I inherited the apartment from my father, and I've been living here since 1962." She has not yet read the book, but she has "heard rumours" that it speaks disparagingly of her neighbours: "Which is wrong. This has always been a clean building, with a spick-and-span reputation."

Magdi Shaker, an Egyptian who has lived in the building for the last 12 years, agrees: "The author might claim that all he says is the product of his imagination. Well, he should realise that this imagination of his has hurt a lot of people..." Drugs, prostitution, women discussing sex on the roof -- according to Abdel-Malek, all this undermines the reputation of the building: "El-Aswani gathered every social disease into our lodgings."

Yet, to listen to him speak, at least, such was far from the author's intention. "Some residents," he explains, "spotted similarities between themselves and the characters, and so they decided to take both me and the production company to court. It's terribly silly. None of the characters in the book are real, it's a work of fiction in which I've used my imagination, for I am a writer," he exclaims, "and this is what writers do."

Many however believe they have plenty of evidence that El- Aswani was depicting them in person. Abdel-Malek, for example, believes the character Fikry Abdel-Shaheed to be him: "He is the agent of the Yaqoubian Building; everyone knows I'm the agent of the Yaqoubian Building. All that El-Aswani changed is half of my last name. And he says that I'm an alcoholic womaniser who would do anything for money -- there goes my reputation." (In response to this line of thinking, El- Aswani points out that there were four lawyers in the building, all named Fikry. "Nor did I mean any one of them, as it happens.") Yet such characters as Zaki El-Desouqi and Hatem Rasheed, Abdel-Malak insists, are similarly libelled.

For their part Yasser and Rami Khela believe the character Malaak to be identical with their late father. The brothers were aware that El-Aswani was writing a book on the building, but had paid little attention at the time. "Until one day," Yasser recounts, "I read a newspaper review of the book and found my father's name in it -- a sleazy opportunist, apparently." Nor is there any doubt about the character's identity: "He had the gall to use the full name, Malaak Khela, and he described him as a tailor, which he was."

According to the elder brother, Rami, Malaak Khela had at one point shared an apartment with Zaki El-Desouqi and Alaa El-Aswani: "Each had a room, which was turned into an office." Disputes erupted, he recounts, when, in 1989, El-Aswani decided to take over the reception area as well as his room, building a wall around it to prevent the other two from claiming it: "My father sued him and we've been enemies ever since."

The character, the brothers believe, was conceived by way of revenge. "He basically says that our father performed illegal activities," Rami explains, "that he was the kind of person who could sell his mother..." One anecdote they find particularly enraging: In the book Malaak fabricates a Christian Science Monitor article about "a great Egyptian tailor" and puts it up on the wall. "This article exists," Yasser explains. "It is real, it was published, and my father did put it up on the wall of his office."

Typically, El-Aswani downplays the similarities between the two Malaaks, pointing out that the name of Rami and Yasser's father was Malaak Makhael and that he was widely known as Mikha: "Maybe Khela is their fourth or fifth name -- it's a fact of which I had no awareness." And rather than being a tailor, he claims, Khela senior owned a factory. Though he concedes that there was a legal dispute between him and Malaak, El-Aswani insists their relationship remained strong.

"Besides," he adds, "there was another Malaak who worked in the ground-floor shop -- why should they assume that I mean their father?"

Nor is this all they assume, indeed: other family members are similarly defamed. "The character Malaak just happens to have a nasty brother called Abskharon," says Yasser. "What a coincidence that my uncle's name is also Abskharon." The brothers are deeply upset by the book. "What do I tell my friends?" asks Rami. "How do I face fellow merchants? Should people avoid arguing with authors for fear of being defamed in their books?" And Yasser agrees: "My mother has not stopped crying since she heard the news. My father was a respectable man, widely loved. He really does not deserve any of this."

As a writer of fiction, however, El-Aswani contends, he cannot be held accountable for people's reputations: "If I was writing a documentary about the building and I made up stories then I could be held responsible. But this is not a documentary."

His belief is that the Khela brothers are suing him for the sake of money: "It's when they found out that the movie is costing LE18 million that they thought of suing me for LE2 million; maybe they think I'm getting all the money. No one has the right to get into a writer's head, making assumptions about his intentions. This way no one will ever write again."

Yet Abdel-Malek and the Khela brothers are already in the process of having El-Aswani prosecuted for libel. And the book's being turned into a major commercial venture has contributed to the tenor of their rhetoric: "I have sent warnings to the director, producer and the Ministry of Culture," Rami declaims. "And unless they change that character's name and are willing to protect my father's reputation, I will not allow this movie to be made -- over my dead body."

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