Egyptian cinema’s most famous film director, Yousef Chahine was neurotic, self-obsessed, and a searcher for love. The love stories he weaved in his films were intense, deliciously sinful, and complicated: little romance, but lots of passion; no flowers and soft words, but meaningful glances and shared secrets. And they were always rooted in Alexandria. He preferred the city’s nickname, “Maria”, which evokes its Greco-Roman heritage. For Chahine, Alexandria was much more than the Mediterranean coast, the sea-cornice, the belle époque buildings, the small groceries owned by aging Greeks. It was the soul of cosmopolitan Egypt of the first half of the twentieth century, in which Muslims, Christians, Jews, Levantines, Greeks, Armenians, and Italians, rubbed shoulders in not only tolerance, but as he depicted in his films, harmony.
In perhaps the most memorable scene of his 1978 “Alexandria….Why”, Chahine chose to give his audience a panoramic shot of Alexandria, from the sea, through the eyes of an elderly Jewish man (played by Egypt’s theatre grandee Yousef Wahby), fleeing Alexandria after the Nazis’ crossing of the Libyan-Egyptian border in 1942. Chahine’s words, uttered slowly by Wahby while his eyes stare at Alexandria for, what he knows will be, the last time, reminisced, not just on the man’s youth spent in this city, but on the era that the Second World War, had brought to an end. As the ship taking him away from Alexandria moves, he tells us: “I look at Alexandria, I look at the past.”
Egypt’s cosmopolitan, tolerant, and culturally-rich Mediterraneanism was gradually, slowly, but decisively crushed in the second half of the twentieth century. Most of the Europeans, Armenians, Greeks, and Jews left. The elaborate buildings crumbled and were replaced by towers and shambling flats; sectarianism rose; a colossal bureaucratic public sector and militarised administration marginalised the private sector; entrepreneurialism collapsed; and at the core of all of that, the meaning of Egypt changed. Arab nationalism, belligerence towards the West, the rise of the poor and the lower middle classes to claim their social and economic rights, altered the Egyptian society. Egypt’s orientation shifted from Paris, London, and Rome, to Damascus, Algiers, and Riyadh. The tolerant and sophisticated Alexandrian paradise was lost.
Chahine understood – and often sympathised with – the change. He was not blind to the social injustices of Egypt’s first half of the twentieth century. He appreciated that, to a large extent, his cosmopolitan, Egypt – and especially Alexandria – was a bubble from which large sections of the Egyptian society were excluded. In “al-Ard” (the Land), he zoomed in on the struggles of ordinary poor Egyptian peasants, the nameless millions toiling the land, breathing life into Egypt’s mud, while “el-afandiyat” (the urbanites) remain disconnected from the roots of what Egypt is: a cycle of life perpetuated on the Nile’s valley. In the final scene of the film, the aging villager (played by the versatile actor Mahmoud el-Meligi) is brutally punished for his futile attempt to preserve “the land” from the encroachment of “el-afandiyat”: his feet bound, his body tied to the legs of a horse ridden by the village’s sheriff, so that his clothes are torn and his body bleeds. And yet, he refuses to let go; his hands clutch the earth; his blood blends with the mud.
Understood and sympathised he did. But Chahine’s heart was in another Egypt. He returned to his milieu: cosmopolitan Alexandria. In the 1989 “Alexandria Again and Again” he created a surreal world, a mix between his lost paradise and the reality he saw Alexandria – and behind it Egypt – descending into.
Having lost his paradise, Chahine failed to connect with 1990s and 2000s Egypt. And so in his last few films, he was confused, alternating between hope (as in “al-Aakhar”, the Other, in which he wished young Egyptians would rediscover tolerance, plurality, and experimentation) and despair (such as in “Hiya Faouda”, It’s Chaos, a cry of disgust at the mess and ugliness around him). And yet, he remained involved, looking at Egypt from up close and personal. Unlike most artists and writers of his generation who took refuge in the tranquillity of old age, Chahine refused to give us remote assessments from a certain remove.
Chahine was neither a storyteller nor a crowd-pleaser. His films hardly revolved round exciting, multi-layered plots. He never resorted to popular themes, and almost always casted actors he liked, rather than stars who have huge followings. But his narratives’ flow, scene cuts, zooming, and dialogues were daring, experimental, spontaneous, expressive, and deeply personal. His films were primarily about himself – not merely episodes from his life, but analyses of his anguish, anger, desires, and (again and again) reflections on his love for “what Alexandria means”.
I once accused him in his presence that he had a small cinematic world that revolved round the same (“repeated”) patterns. Without a second of hesitation, and in his almost stuttering voice, he replied: “how can you say so, I mix Alexandria with California”. I was wrong. He indeed mixed the east with the west, liberal Alexandria with the conservative agrarian Nile Delta and valley.
Full of charming encounters, poetic possibilities, and intriguing potential, Chahine’s complicated love stories were quests for a heritage he strived to understand and portray; homages for and shouts against what he loved and hated about Egypt; and his blending with a city he was obsessed with.