Cinema has shaped modern Egyptian consciousness probably more than any other medium. And Youssef Chahine was arguably Egyptian cinema’s most successful and daring filmmaker.
Chahine created two types of films. The first were semi-autobiographical. Those who loved these films saw them as courageous dives into the innermost thoughts and ideas, struggles and achievements, and insecurities and pains of a highly creative individual. These journeys within could be bewildering and often disturbing, but they were nearly always revelatory and enriching. Others, who hated these films, saw them as the grandiose expressions of an egomaniac.
Chahine’s second type of films were about Egypt. Hardly anyone disagrees that these were among the most penetrating films ever made about the Egyptian psyche.
Bab Al-Hadid (Cairo Station) was the film that catapulted Chahine to stardom, and the film’s success was the result of his innovative filming and editing by the standards of the 1950s, his insistence on using a crude form of Cairene slang for the dialogue, and his casting of Hind Rostom, 1950s Egypt’s answer to Marilyn Monroe, in the lead role.
However, the film was more than Egyptian cinema’s introduction to gritty realism, as it also inaugurated a fraught relationship between a creative and courageous mind – Chahine’s – and a city he loved but never belonged to – Cairo.
Decades later and towards the end of his career, Chahine made a short documentary about Cairo that infuriated many Cairenes. The film showed a city buzzing with life and vitality, but deprived of beauty and refinement. The Cairo in that film was suffocatingly crowded, suffering from almost continuous noise and visual pollution, and not very clean.
Chahine showed Cairo as both the pulsating heart and the representation of Egypt as it had come to be after the demographic explosion of the last quarter of the 20th century. Perhaps cruelly, he showed Egyptians what they had done to their capital city, which only a few decades before during Egypt’s liberal age had been among the world’s most glamorous and beautiful cities.
Alexandria was different. An Alexandrian to his core, Chahine no doubt felt more pain as he watched the decay of this city, something which in the last decades of the 20th century was acuter and more conspicuous than that of Cairo.
For him, Alexandria, much more than Cairo, represented modern Egypt. He saw the growth of Egypt itself in the city’s evolution over the 150 years from the rise of Mohamed Ali Pasha in the early 1800s to the end of liberalism in the early 1950s. This growth had seen the country change from being a backwater and a poor Ottoman province dominated by a narrow and inward-looking agrarian culture to the most prosperous and culturally rich area of the East.
The Alexandria of the first half of the 20th century, the city in which Chahine was born and in which his mentality had been formed, embodied the beauty, refinement, wealth, and diversity of Egyptian liberalism. He never let go of this image.
In the first of his autobiographical films, Alexandria Why, to my mind one of the most beautiful in Egyptian cinema’s more than 100-year history, Chahine gives us the city and its society in the middle of World War II when the German armies were only a few dozen miles away.
The film contains a mass of ideas, debates about conflicting political ideologies, portrayals of the city’s ethnic diversity as well as of its Mediterranean cafe and taverna culture, a beautiful but sad love story, and a dose of eroticism. At the core of the film, however, there is Alexandria’s slow transition from being a kind of capital of Egypt’s liberal age towards the 1950s and beyond.
In the film, we see Chahine growing from a child to a young man at the exact moment that his beloved city was beginning to lose its status as a worldly capital, being forced to move from the vivaciousness of freedom to a new age of mental confinement and oppression that served as the conduit of fear and ultimately the reason for its decline.
However, despite what happened to Alexandria, and unlike many of the other shapers of modern Egyptian culture, Chahine’s sympathies were not clearly on the side of fading liberalism and against the Nasserite Arab nationalist Egypt of the 1950s and 1960s. Chahine’s career began with the onset of that Egypt, and within him there remained until the end of his life a dichotomy between the wealth, charm, and, crucially, freedom of Egypt’s liberal age and the grand objectives that Nasser’s project embodied.
This dilemma was repeatedly manifested in Chahine’s oeuvre. His film A Struggle in the Valley examined the pressures that were building up in society at that moment of transition, but another film, Saladin, on the surface a marvelously executed portrait of the Sultan Salaheddin Al-Ayoubi (Saladin) who had defeated the Crusaders in the 11th century, was at its core a thinly disguised portrayal of the idea of the hero in the Arab psyche at a time when then president Gamal Abdel-Nasser was the prime embodiment of that notion.
Chahine returned to the same dilemma two decades later in the 1970s and 1980s with his film An Egyptian Tale, another of his autobiographical works, this time fusing his rise as a filmmaker in the 1950s and 1960s with the advancement and progress of Egyptian society. However, at the same time and also in the 1970s he made Return of the Prodigal Son, an incisive criticism of how the dreams and aspirations of the Nasserite era had come crashing down as a result of the disregard for freedom, Egypt’s loss of its cultural diversity, and its espousing of a culture of hero-worship and self-aggrandisement.
Despite the swings in his positions and his often-contradictory views of Egypt’s modern political history, Chahine always retained his fascination for Egypt as an idea. At times in his films, Egypt was shown as a confident female peasant from the Nile Delta. At other times, the country was portrayed as a vivacious woman with unmistakably Mediterranean features.
As the decades passed, Chahine’s imagination gave us Egypt as a sophisticated urban lady, perhaps a grand dame of Zamalek salons. Only in Al-Ard (The Land), for many Chahine’s greatest film, is Egypt recast as the soil, the background, the origin, and the manifestation of an identity and an idea that reaches back to the dawn of history.
In the film’s last scene, an aging villager, played by one of Egyptian cinema’s greatest actors, Mahmoud Al-Meligui, is brutally punished for defending his land. His feet are bound, and his body is tied to a horse ridden by a police officer, causing his body to bleed. Yet, as he is dragged along, his hand clutches at the soil. He refuses to let it go or to cut his links with the land.
The audience is left with the question of whether Al-Meligui’s hands are clutching the soil or whether the soil itself is clutching him.