“I am the question and the answer. I am the key to the secret and the solution to the riddle.” With these words Osama Anwar Okasha started his tv-series Zizinia, one in a sequence of highly successful dramas about Egypt and its society.
Egypt’s identity is the question, the riddle that Osama diligently addressed throughout his career. In Zizinia, the potential answer, the thesis that Osama proposed, was that the protagonist - “Bishr” - comprises in the constituents of his consciousness different aspects that form Egypt’s identity.
“Bishr” comes from “al-Bishara”, the gospel, the good news. In this view, Egypt is a representation of a divine expression, a meaning in which the sacred meets the secular. For ancient Egyptians, that meeting manifested in the land of Egypt, which they considered a reflection of the heavens. In their belief system, the Nile Delta and valley which appear from the sky as a lotus flower, represented life, for lotus was a symbol of life.
But the sacredness transcended the land to the intangible, to the meaning of the land. In this understanding, Egypt denotes nature, the archetypal mother, and the queen who shelters, protects, and provides.
For Isis, Egypt’s ultimate mother-goddess, “Bishr” could be the husband, Osiris, or the son, Horus. In either case, the masculine learns from the feminine, and through her giving, grows. Through the queen’s flowering into her very best, through the best manifestation of her sacred meanings, the king perfectly commands his kingdom. This connection between the land and the king was a fundamental element in the belief in any pharaoh’s ascension from the human to the divine, a symbol which denoted the society’s prosperity and harmonious living.
Osama Anwar Okasha made “Bishr” an urbanite, Western-educated Alexandrian, yet whose origins, to which he is solidly connected, are from al-Saeid, Egypt’s south. Bishr moves seamlessly between Alexandria’s chic spots and its popular, less affluent quarters and haunts. Bishr has a northern Mediterranean genetic lineage that he nurtures and is proud of, a sliver of Europeanness that connects him to modernity. But this sliver of Europeanness exists amidst an ocean of Egyptianness, his strong attachment to the Nile Delta and al-Saeid. Often the sliver of Mediterraneanism guides the Egyptian vastness around it; and often it is submerged in it.
Bishr loves Aida, who like him is Egyptian to the core, yet because of her social status and education, is also culturally connected to the West. Often, however, Bishr is drawn to Western ladies in Alexandria’s velvety society. The glamour, European refinement, and sensuality have major pulling power over him. But when Bishr decides to marry, Osama Anwar Okasha makes him choose a cousin of his hailing from the depths of the Nile Delta’s and al-Saeid’s cultures. To Bishr, it’s like coming home, a retreat into Egypt’s core culture. And yet often Osama leaves Bishr, and us (the audience), longing for Aida, for the refinement of Egypt’s upper middle classes, for the meeting between Egyptianness and Europeanness.
Part of the genius of Osama Anwar Okasha was his ability to divorce the meaning of Egypt from the struggles of its people, only to find ways of connecting them, and of showing how the society’s trials advance its understandings, its internalisation, of Egypt’s identity.
In “Asfour el-Nar” (The Bird of Fire), Osama explored the society’s search for a political saviour, often with calamitous results. In “el-Shahd wa-Domoua” (Pleasures and Tears), he explored the troughs and peaks of humanity in Egyptian society. In “Layali el-Helmeya” (Helmeya’s Evenings), he weaved a rich intricate canvas of the society’s march throughout the twentieth century. And in his last work, “al-Masraweya” (The Egyptians), he wanted to tell the story of modern Egypt from its beginning, and so took us (his audience) to the moment of transition after Mohammad Ali’s and Khedive Ismail’s transformations.
In other works - which often seemed the closest to his heart, such as “al-Shawagheesh” (Sea Hustlers), “Abla Hikmat”, “el-Raya al-Bidaa” (White Flag), as well as Zizinia - Osama took us on long sojourns in his beloved Alexandria. There, on Egypt’s Mediterranean shore, Osama repeatedly made al-Saeid meet the Delta, and together seep into the country’s openness to the fresh winds coming from the north, Mediterraneanism. Osama showed the distinctions between the different configurations of Egypt’s identity, and yet how harmonious their coming together is.
Osama presented the struggles of the Egyptians as the paths through which the society accrues experiences. In his imagination, modern Egypt’s long march in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including the many ordeals the society endured, and the rewards it reaped, were slow transformations through which our collective psyche grew and matured. We have come closer to figuring out the riddle of Egypt’s identity, to holding the key to the secret.
Osama’s marvellous oeuvre stirred our imagination to give forms to the different meanings of Egypt, the different facets of her consciousness. We imagined Fatma, a strong, independent, conservative young woman denoting the Delta, who is in a continuous interaction with Maria, the outgoing, often rebellious young woman representing Alexandria. Fatma pulls Maria to the culture of the Nile valley and al-Saeid, while Maria pulls Fatma to Alexandria’s corniche, where she removes her scarf and her hair flies with the winds of modernity coming from Europe. In the two women’s walking together, in their loud laughs, in the harmonious merger of their psyches, the heritages and cultures of el-Saeid, the Delta, and the Mediterranean blur together into a fascinating flowering of the fullness of Egypt.
In his explorations of Egypt’s identity, Osama transcended being a dramatist. He assumed the role of a true storyteller who keeps his society’s memory of what really matters in its historical trajectory. We might disagree with Osama’s readings of certain epochs or with his renderings of certain people. But in drawing many images of modern Egypt Osama has guided Egyptians and Egypt-observers through illuminating and beautiful journeys into what Egypt means. He has blazed a trail that lovers of Egypt ought to walk.