The Egyptian Cinema and Awareness of the Revolution

12 - May - 2013

Anticipating the Revolution in Egyptian Fiction and Movies

Films produced in Egypt between 1992 and 2010 – that is, in the period just before the revolution of January 25, 2011—construct an “imagined society” that contains within itself aspects of both unity and fragmentation. In these works of art, unity is generally expressed in terms of the nation and the family, as well as in terms of an assumed collaboration among different classes. Disunity is generally portrayed as a consequence of injustice against low-income groups and women. These films are representations in the service of ideological positions constituted within a discourse on the social good. The film producers are themselves members of urban elite. They speak on behalf of the entire society but draw on their own feelings; among these are feel-ings of anxiety, mistrust, and fear. These filmic representations need to be critically examined in the context of diverse lived experiences, and thus as enabling an uprising that was itself a result of many factors.

Before the revolution:

The 1995 film "Traffic Light" has a rather simple plot. A traffic light goes out of service. It is located at the end of Tal‘at Harb Street leading to Tahrir Square. The whole street is jammed with cars, and people are sitting in or hanging around their cars. When traffic finally starts moving again, it is not because the signal is fixed but because of an obscure explosion at Tahrir. Until that point, however, individuals from different social backgrounds, who did not know each other before, have a chance to meet and talk, interact, and even start relationships. The characters include a young man looking for a job; he meets a woman facing pressure to accept a low-status job as a belly dancer. There is a businessman in a Mercedes with a wireless phone on which he makes continuous calls directly to high officials, including the country’s president. He is assisted by an ambitious policeman who originally came to help clear up the traffic jam. There is also an old man and his pregnant wife. The man, a history teacher, got caught in the jam while driving his wife to the hospital for the birth of their long-awaited baby. While the wife is stranded in the car, the teacher delivers speeches to the stranded crowds about Egypt’s glorious past and its possibilities for a better future. The crowd has no choice but to listen to his flamboyant mono-logue. Toward the end of the film the baby is born almost at the same time as the explosion.

This film may not be the best representative of Egyptian cinema of its time. However, it is among the first of what can be called a critical cinematography associated with intense socioeconomic transformations prior to the uprising of January 25. In the following years, many works appeared that dealt explicitly with the social problems experienced by different social classes and society as a whole. I believe these films reveal the general mood prevailing at the time of their production. Some of them even contain scenes similar to those of the uprising, both verbally and visually.

"Al-irhab wal kabab" (Terrorism and Kebab), from 1992, is one such film; it shows the (fictional) occupation of a major complex of government offices by a group of ordinary citizens who are angry about the laxity and corruption of social and political life in general. "Heyaa fawda" (This is Chaos), produced in 2007, also ends with a demonstration; in this film the crowd attacks a police station and kills a corrupt policeman who is believed to be behind various forms of corruption and abuse. Some of these scenes have made recent viewers exclaim: What is this? Were these films produced before or after the revolution? In this way  they raise the question about the general relationship between society and art represented by these films.

I believe cinema in contemporary Egyptian society contributes to shaping and sustaining ideas and feelings across different social categories, including class and gender.(1) Films in recent years have dealt with governance, society, and the social good, as well as with conveying a general sense of crisis in contemporary life. They have helped create a common sense about society as a whole. Most crucial in this context are the politically significant categories: “history” in "Traffic Light" (1995), “the nation” in "This is Chaos" (2007), “social class” in "A Citizen, a Detective and a Thief" (2001) and in "Ibrahim al-Abyad" (2009), and “generation” in "The Aquarium" (2008).

I assume that all the films under discussion belong to ideological positions regulated by a general discourse of power that transcends those involved in reproducing them. Central to these films is the assumption that society is composed of social forces contributing to its unity as well as to its fragmentation. Thus the public grows increasingly restless about social justice issues that form the basis for legitimate governance. Slowly, a sense of dissidence grows among segments of a society that had imagined itself unified, and this fragmentation eventually leads to open confrontation with those in power, represented in many films by police officers. Society is represented as consensual but not totally at peace; lower classes and women are portrayed as potential sources of violence and chaos. The producers of these films and the privileged class to which they belong, however, are themselves presented in one film that shows the producers as conscious of the limits of their own power. These limits, I would argue, call for further examination of the works in contrast to the lived experiences of different sections of society.

These films are statements about society produced by an urban elite functionally linked to exiting forms of governance. They are a kind of self-portrayal of these elites in the context of a society of their own making. I discuss the films as if they were segments of one single scenario focused on society as embodied in various roles or characters, including those of ordinary citizens, policemen, businessmen, government officials, wives, husbands, friends, siblings, and so on. The films’ discourse is, of course, multi-vocal vis-à-vis existing power relations; here we find a range of positions represented, from complacency to critical engagement to open confrontation and violent challenge. Despite this variety, however, the films have a unitary logic stemming from a set of assumptions about society and the social good. It is still too early to evaluate these assumptions, though they are not totally alien to liberal traditions.

Across the films there is a constant call for collaboration between different components of the social body on the one hand and the government on the other. When this collaboration proves finally unattainable, the government is accused of corruption and thus considered responsible for producing what now emerges as disunity.

As elsewhere, cinema in Egypt attempts to influence feelings. It is produced by an established and respected industry that has enjoyed a steady audience for a century. Given the high rates of illiteracy among Egypt’s local populations, film often substitutes for otherwise inaccessible or poor schooling. Furthermore, it provides an essential medium in which to present inaccessible works of fiction to diverse social groups. Film, too, is far more representative of the public mood than other forms of representation, such as literature or painting, which are significant only for elite groups. More important, for decades films have been broadcast on television and recorded on portable record-ing devices. Lately they have been carried over the Internet, although this medium is not generally accessible to the mass of the population. Cinema therefore is a viable cultural site for the examination of the general mood in the particular historical period under consideration in this paper.

The film Traffic Light exemplifies the link between films and the general mood of the public. I have been living in Egypt for several years, carrying out in-depth research on health care and perceptions of illness. I have been fascinated by the ways in which general social problems are lived and articulated by individuals and groups as forms

of unbearable pressures that may lead to explosions. Various narratives in my research illustrate that singular individuals are connected to society through a traditional notion that is called in Arabic "al-nafs", which can be understood as a cultural capacity that enables individuals to respond to and represent socially experienced realities in moral terms. The most talked about of these experiences is represented as “pressures of life” "dughut al-hayah", which in my view is part of the precondition of the uprising. Interestingly, traffic jams and congestion were understood by people both as a direct cause and as a symptom of social (and individual) sickness. Traffic Light should be seen as part of this representation. It validates people’s feelings and contributes to prevalent patterns of interpreting social problems.

All the houses in Cairo that I visited during my research had at least one television, located in the living room, which was sometimes turned on for many hours at a time. People were very familiar with the films being broadcast and would continue to watch them repeatedly. Some had memorized particular scenes and quotations by heart.

Aziza is one such person. A 35-year-old woman, married with one son but still living at her father’s house due to the inability of her own family to pay for a new apartment, Aziza was able to complete actors’ sentences before they finish speaking. She recited entire scenes in her conversations to make various points, including mocking an event or idea or person. Aziza was not unique in her attention to films. Young Egyptian men and women play a popular game involving films, in which one person utters a line from a well-known film. The next person is supposed to recite a line from a different film that starts with the syllable that the first quotation ended with. This shows how pervasive films are in society now, especially among the younger generation.

The directors, producers, and actors associated with these films were not always critical of the government. In the years preceding the revolution, however, many of them changed in this respect. They moved away from the cinema of entertainment, prevalent immediately following the introduction of the market economy in the seventies. The new cinema shows that filmmakers have become increasingly engaged with the concerns and aspirations of the public. I have met and talked to many viewers of films in the last few months, some of whom were very involved in the protests. All insist that cinema played a major role in the sawrah, or uprising. Most of them are able to list films by title, year of production, plot, and main political message. Some could even cite the names of the protagonists and interpret the characters as representing major issues, problems, and institutions.

The main characters in "Traffic Light", for example, are seen as being closely connected to problems that led to the uprising of January 25: a general feeling that the future of society is blocked; an awareness of high rates of unemployment; a perception of collusion between the state and the market economy associated with evident or even blatantly visible forms of corruption across all social categories. Nevertheless, even in the midst of the social crisis, the film presents symbols of hope—the arrival of a baby to a man representing the past (the history teacher) and the marriage of the young job seeker and the unhappy belly dancer. And yet these elements are associated with an explosion that is left unexplained.

As in all contemporary societies, films in Egypt represent the feelings of discrete individuals sharing the same public space of society. Such individuals must have watched TV news or heard about the attack on All Saints Church in Alexandria and soon discovered that the atrocity had been carried out by the corrupt Department of Central Police. Around the same time, they also learned that a young man had been tortured in a police station and killed while in custody. Pictures of the victim’s disfigured body were displayed all over the country, on diverse media outlets and, most significantly, on the web. January 25 was actually the annual holiday to celebrate the national police (‘id al-shorta). That is the day hundreds of young men and women led small demonstrations from different starting places predetermined by activist groups around Cairo toward Tahrir Square. There they clashed with hundreds of policemen summoned to disperse the angry crowds. Curiously, many of the events that ensued and were broadcast echo particular scenes from films. In addition to "This is Chaos", many other films end with demonstrations marching toward governmental headquarters: "Sweet Sleep" (1996) even ends with demonstrators crying out with sounds that seem to express pain.

These observations suggest a direct link between film and every-day life in Egypt. Viewers may particularly identify with the characters displayed in particular films; conversely, films can stir viewers to adopt the feelings of the characters they repeatedly watch. Furthermore, some viewers may reenact film scenes in real life, imitating bits and pieces of what they watch at the theatre as a way of constructing a sense of coherence in late modernity’s condition of fragmentary reality.

More crucial for my suggestion, however, is the fact that much of what is represented by the media requires little if any attention, as Aziza’s case illustrates. A public composed of subjects like Aziza would be a public of passive observers, what Egyptian activists call Hizb Al-Kanaba (the couch party), referring to the majority of citizens who are passive with regard to major changes their society is undergoing. Paradoxically, a factor contributing to this passivity is the numbing effect or sense of complacency produced by watching films. A signifi-cant part of my argument is that the fictional society is supposed to reflect what happens in real life. Interestingly, this imagined society is used by the public to review their daily life. The society in cinema is realized in practical life.

Society in Cinema:

As noted earlier, complex concepts are represented in films by characters and performed by individual actors. These films imagine that Egyptian society as a whole is suffering: the middle classes suffer fear and a strong sense of loss, but the suffering of the lower classes and women is much greater and may make them grow violent. At the same time, these films tend to present Egypt as unified by a sense of nation-alism that grows out of collaboration across such boundaries as social class and gender and exists despite noticeable divisions and conflicts.

"Al-erhab wal kabab" (literally, Terrorism and Kebab [1992]) is the earliest film to introduce open protests against the government and the threat of using military confrontation. Authored by Wahid Hamed, a highly respected screenwriter, directed by renowned filmmaker Sherif Arafa, and starring major actors such as Aadel Emam and Kamal el-Shennawi, this film deserves credit for shaking up a traditionally complacent cinema and challenging a passive audience to oppose unbearably difficult life conditions. Emam plays the role of Ahmed, an ordinary citizen having a hard time moving his child from a distant school to another closer to his home. The events of the film take place in Mugammaa al-Tahrir, a government office complex famous for being very crowded, slow, and excessively bureaucratic. An argument occurs in the complex and a fight breaks out. Ahmed is caught in the middle. A guard standing by is caught up too. His gun accidentally falls into Ahmed’s hands. Confused and petrified by the dangerous machine gun, Ahmed unintentionally causes it to shoot once.

The rest of the film focuses on how many of those standing by join in support of Ahmed. Those who do not join are taken hostage. The government is represented by the Ministry of Interior, known to be the main sponsor of the notorious State Security Police, which is known for its pervasive surveillance and brutal torture of dissidents. They try to release the hostages both through direct force and by responding positively to the supposed terrorists. To their surprise, the demands of Ahmed and his “accidental supporters” are personal, local, and mundane: they want to eat kabab, the icon of good and expensive food among the lower classes. However, the film ends with the government letting the hostage-takers go home peacefully. The only small hint of a growing anti-government feeling is the hostages’ decision to surround Ahmed as they walk out so he is not arrested. The film as a whole is imbued with intense and longstanding anger stemming from a variety of issues relating to social injustice in the entire polity. The relationship between state and society, however, remains intact when the former agrees to recognize the legitimate needs of the latter. The resolution presented by this film is ultimately that of unity between state and society within the larger frame of the nation.

Cultural memory of a nation with a glorious past and promising future is a theme in many other movies. However, it is diversely represented. "Traffic Light" has themes similar to Terrorism and Kebab but it focuses more closely on the composition of society: the rich and the poor (the businessman and poor job seekers); the corrupt and the pure (the policeman and the young man who rescues the history teacher when he sets himself on fire); the past and the future (the history teacher and his wife’s newborn baby). However, it is a fidgety, restless society inhabiting a public space congested with contradictions. No one has a clue about the possible results of their interaction. Most interesting about this film is the fact that despite the crisis of the traffic jam, despite poverty and a sense of defeat, life itself goes on; individuals just seek continuation. This perfectly corresponds to the constant sense of everyday life in Cairo. The hope that arises out of life just going on under the auspices of the state is reiterated in other films, such as Abu Ali (2009), which focuses on a young man forced to commit crimes to buy medicine for his very sick mother. He is helped by a surviving conscience among some state officials.

This sense of trust between society and state wanes in "Ennoum fi al-‘Assal" (1996), which literally means “Sleeping in Honey.” The film, starring Aadel Emam (of Terrorism and Kebab), bluntly presents a kind of public obliviousness to major social disasters. It focuses on social congestion, so to speak. The issue at stake is a general sense of disability represented by complete sexual impotence among all men in Cairo. The film ends with a demonstration, the protestors marching toward the parliament, which has long been perceived as associated with rigged elections. The narrative unfolds to reveal a society plagued with an obscure malady resulting in various forms of disability, deficiency, and incompetence, resulting in a state of paralysis among all citizens, ranging from a lay person working as a plumber up to the president of the country.

(Sleeping in Honey) opens with a young man committing suicide the night of his wedding under the wheels of a train after failing to prove his manhood. Simultaneously, a plumber kills his wife because she made fun of his impotence. More victims fall in marital fights. Magdy, the chief detective of Cairo, is assigned to investigate the alarming epidemic. The link to a growing sense of frustration in achieving life’s ambitions emerges and remains as a constant motif throughout the film. In the face of official denial of the problem, Magdy fails to recognize a single cause of it himself, and then he too falls victim to it. In his frustration he goes with his wife for a night excursion into the desert outside Cairo and is surprised that his sexual energy is restored while there. The government continues to deny what has already become obvious to the public: that the problem is not caused by a single agent but by conditions in the city. Magdy resigns in protest of the official denial and manages to lead an angry demonstration with one outcry of “aaahhh!” as if to say, “We are all in pain!” Compared to Terrorism and Kebab and Traffic Light, which were also produced in the early nineties, this film brings to light an entirely new dimension of growing public awareness about the state’s indifference to its own inability to accept or deal with the basic social problems of society. The root of the crisis, though, is presented unequivocally: the whole of society shares in the failure.

The same theme of a diffuse sense of corruption and failure is brought up repeatedly through the two decades preceding the uprising. Interestingly, the same actor, Aadel Emam, plays the leading role in many of these works: the ordinary citizen in (Terrorism and Kebab) (1992); the detective in (Sleeping in Honey) (1996). Much later, in 2009, he performs the character of a businessman in "Bobboss" ,playing Muhsin al-Hindaawi, a businessman who fails to repay a national bank for a huge loan he took in order to invest in the private sector. The film highlights a whole class (traditional and newly emerging in the free market economy) entangled in a corrupt relationship with the state. The problem, however, is left unresolved when the state is exposed as incapable of lifting itself from an entrenched society that reproduces corrupt governments. We are left to understand that a revolution occurs at the end of the film but we are never shown how it comes about. The closing scene shows the protagonist walking into the office of the official responsible for issuing loans to discover a new person who, however, has the same name as his predecessor, and whose children have the same names as his predecessor’s children. This film, then, shows a society infiltrated with corruption all across its components so that a revolution would merely lead to changing individuals rather than social relations.

Zaki Baih is another character played by Emam in the film "The Yacoubian Building" .This character belongs to the bourgeoisie, someone who survived Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt. He is a life-loving man in his sixties, residing in the apartment he inherited from his family, located in a once-fancy building that is now totally inhabited by new tenants coming from diverse social backgrounds. All of them moved in after Nasser came to power, thus radically transforming the entire social character of the building. Nevertheless, Zaki Baih continues to live there. Unlike his conservative sister, who lives somewhere else, Zaki is a hedonist who does not care to hide that side of his life. He closely inter-acts with the other, much less fortunate tenants. He marries Buthainah, a much younger woman who had to sell her body to support her family. Aadel, a young man studying extremely hard to become a police officer, was in love with Buthainah, but their relationship falls apart after he fails to be admitted to the police academy (only the sons of policemen succeed in the admission test, and Aadel’s father holds the low-status job of bawwab, or residential building doorman). Infuriated, Aadel becomes a fighter for a radical Muslim group, is imprisoned, and then tortured and raped by the police. Azzam is a rich man who has worked his way up from being a shoeshine boy to a businessman and then a member of parliament. He marries for the second time but divorces his new wife when she becomes pregnant. Hatem is a journalist and son of a wealthy family. He is a homosexual and exploits a much younger man working for the police.

The entire film portrays a mixture of social characters in motion. Based on the novel The Yacoubian Building (2006) by the renowned author and political activist Alaa al-Aswani, the film is a dark comedy bitterly narrating how Egypt has been transformed into a polity topped by a corrupt leadership and sustaining a hierarchy composed of social classes that are mostly obedient to the leadership. The only exception is Aadel, who is transformed into a terrorist and kills the man who raped him. This film portrays society as composed of those who possess power and those who do not. The reaction it foresees, however, is one of violent attacks by the lower classes on representatives of the government perceived as responsible for preserving the system that reproduces their underprivileged status.

The film "Muwatin wa Mukhbir wa Harami" (A Citizen, a Detective, and a Thief [2001]) goes one step further and draws a clearer scenario for the theme that I describe as “class collusion.” The citizen of the title is a middle-class individual leading a comfortable, Western-style life. He lives alone in his family’s old villa, where he hosts his open-minded girlfriend at night. When alone, he is busy “writing a novel” and listening to classical music. The detective is presented as a low-paid reporter, though he knows many details he could mobilize to control those who possess more money or greater power. The thief is a man with low taste but is street smart; he has the savvy to respond positively to the rising demands of the market, such as pop music, superficial detective stories, etc. While he is in prison his wife works as a maid for the citizen, who has a fling with her “as means of reinvigorating his stalled imagination,” as he puts it. When she discovers she is pregnant she runs away. On her way out, she steals the citizen’s savings, his novel and, of course, his future child. She and her husband blackmail the well-intentioned and rather naïve citizen, then burn his novel because it violates Islamic teachings. The citizen fights back, attacking the thief by gouging out his eye. The detective mediates between the two sides to create a working relationship that the film presents as a triad of corruption.

This characterizes the period since 1980, when Egypt turned toward a free market economy. As time passes the detective changes career and somehow becomes rich. He then wins a seat in the parliamentary elections. The thief also manages to become extremely rich. The festering relationships among the three are further complicated by the thief’s son marrying the citizen’s daughter. Interestingly, Bobboss also points to marriage as a social construct linking individuals who belong to disparate classes. A Citizen, a Detective and a Thief is significant because it presents a continuation not only of "Bobboss" but of "The Yacoubian Building" .In particular, it suggests that lower classes are a threat to society because they are corrupt and seek to appropriate fundamentalist forms of religion to cover up their immoral practices.

“This is Chaos!” (Heyya fawda! [2007]) marks a turning point in contemporary Egyptian cinema. It is the first film to portray corruption in the context of politicized lower middle classes who witness their country being raped by a corrupt police state, represented by Hatem, a sergeant able to live off bribery and willing to commit the ugliest acts to satisfy his desire for wealth and power. Most interesting in this film is that Egypt is represented by four women, which is a traditional trope in Egyptian cinema. The first woman, Bahiyaa, represents old Egypt, and the second, Noor, represents the new generation. Hatem, who is not well educated and is from a poor background, is obsessed by his desire to possess Noor after he supposedly controlled her mother by fear. The third woman is Wedad, who represents the Nasserite generation. She continues to adhere to the national morals and values propagated by the regime and embraced by her and her deceased husband, whom she continues to see in their son Sherif, a general prosecutor. The son, however, falls in love with the fourth woman, Dora. She is the daughter of a nouveau riche family, void of good manners, alien to the high morals that characterize an idealized Egyptian nation with traditions that respect family values. The feeling propagated by the film is hope for the revolution.

Hatem finally rapes Noor after beating her unconscious. The end of the film shows the entire country standing up to kill Hatem. This is in defense of the nation represented by Noor, the Egypt of the future. Even her name, which means “light,” is carefully chosen to evoke the knowledge and, probably, European Enlightenment highly valued by members of the urban elite. This film is focused on women and the nation but only in symbolic ways. Its major concern is with the same theme of the previous film: it portrays the government as being run by members of the lower classes who threaten the integrity of the social fabric not because they have monopolized religion, as in A Citizen, a Detective, and a Thief, but because they obtained power in illegitimate ways.

I argue that those who are responsible for producing these works of art belong to urban elites. Underlying their position is the assumption that all of society is in trouble. A major transformation is giving the lower classes control over mainstream culture, as in “A Citizen, a Detective and a Thief”; the majority of society is suffering, as in “Sweet Sleep”; and as in “This is Chaos,” disadvantaged groups like the very poor and women may revolt violently. All this is happening under the rule of government that has lost much of its legitimacy. It has also been run by individuals coming from lower classes.

This crisis of the urban elites, who I think belong mainly to middle classes, is self-reflectively depicted in a film called "Ginainit al-Asmak" (The Aquarium [2008]). The title is actually the name of a real place in Zamalik, a formerly colonial enclave and currently a Cairo central neighborhood inhabited mainly by Egyptians from well-to-do families and by foreign diplomats. The aquarium is situated in a complex structure made of artificial rocks built in a way as to create narrow corridors leading to various fish tanks. Its secluded atmosphere provides quiet spaces to couples seeking to hide from onlookers, including relatives who might be opposed to premarital relations. Curiously, the damp, convoluted paths also provide cover for those who like to secretly observe the hiding couples. As a central motif for the film, the aquarium stands for a public space representing the whole of society made subject to containment, surveillance, and ultimate control by a centralized gaze that is not properly authorized. The film’s characters are Yousef, an anaesthesiologist, and Leila, who runs a radio program called “Assrar al Leil", (Night Secrets). Both characters are filled with an intense sense of fear permeating their lives. The film opens with a scene that includes the voice of a man calling the program to complain about his unbearable sense of fear of terrorism, the bird flu, and even his neighbors because they raise chickens: “This is of course next to my innate fear of the government, of Israel, America, terrorism to count but a few,” the apparently exhausted voice adds.

Yousef owns an apartment located near the aquarium but does not stay in it. He feels safer sleeping in his car. In his work during the day he tries his best to collect personal information about his patients while unconscious during operations; he listens to their mumblings. He spies on them. At night he performs illegal abortions in a private clinic. He also offers operations restoring women’s virginity. Dissatisfied with the way life has turned out, Yousef visits his father, who is repeatedly hospitalized for prolonged periods due to various chronic illnesses. The son/father relationship is characterized by blame: the father is unhappy about the kind of life the son has been leading, and the son is dissatisfied by the lack of care his father has shown for his health.

Leila asks people to tell stories about their private lives, but she does not tell anything about herself. She is also engaged in a blame-relationship with her mother, who thinks Leila belongs to an “obscene generation” engaged in irrelevant and useless stuff. Both Yousef and Leila are implicated in the kind of power that characterizes their institutions. Significantly, neither is authorized by the public they are trying to control. They are aware of the limits of their power and thus afraid.

One scene that includes Yousef and a patient called Amr illustrates this. Amr, a man in his twenties, undergoes surgery for cancer. As he awakens, he asks Yousef, “Did I mumble a lot?” “Well, yes, you said something,” the doctor says. “You are in love with Farida, a tall woman wearing a necklace around her beautiful neck.” The doctor encourages Amr to tell the rest of the story. Amr, shocked that Yousef spied on his private feelings, responds, “Farida is the heroine of my novel.” He goes on to say that he is a poet who also writes stories and that all Yousef heard is fictitious. Amr then recites a poem in vernacular Egyptian to indicate to the doctor that no one could ever capture the exact meaning of what he really is:

Time is moving backward But I say it’s okay

My heart senses I will live and die young Life experience these days is unnecessary;

Until the crisis is over my smile makes my lips touch my ears You ought to get off whatever worries you

And you know what! You ought to get to know me before hearing my name

For I go along with the music of life, no one controls me And now no one bears anyone

And my smile is thus my own.

Amr is impossible to know in a definite way. He is an everevolving self that is continuously reshaped like the “music of life.” His sense of shock at the doctor’s intrusion slowly becomes obvious on his face. Suddenly he looks upset; the triumphant expression elicited by the defiant words of his poetry slowly gives way to a sad face that communicates his lament: “What do I do with my body when I am exiled from heaven? And what do I do with my spirit when I am made of clay?”

The next scene is a monologue narrating Amr’s feelings toward the doctor. Amr stands next to his bed while speaking about himself in the second person. He confesses that the doctor bothered him a great deal because he forced him to face up to things he does not normally like to see or openly think of. “What the doctor did to Amr was so simi-lar to what politicians and secret police do to others when they want to know everything about them but are keen to hide their own feel-ings and thoughts from everyone.” For Amr these people are “troubled because they are exceedingly afraid.” Then he reports that shortly after the encounter with the doctor, he suffered from writer’s block. “He probably felt too nervous or disgusted,” the narrator explains. Finally, however, “Amr resumed his writings. That was when he managed to visualize Yousef as Dracula. The image made him laugh and feel enough at peace to enable him to go to sleep.” The next scene shows Yousef collecting red flowers from his garden. A thorn pricks his finger. He sucks the small dribble of blood.

This film represents a middle class engaged in a self-critical exercise. It shows that their power is limited and flawed. The fear, confusion, and aimlessness associated with the central characters indicate a sense of deep alienation experienced by members of this class. It is this sense that may be responsible for the construction of the kind of society imagined in the films discussed here.

The threat of social division is brought center stage when at least two particular social categories are included. These are the lower social classes and women. Films depicting these categories focus on the capacity of these groups to live under extremely adverse conditions. But they also show increasing tendencies to resort to physical violence and immoral behavior, such as infidelity and disloyalty. The focus of the films is on men and women who are perceptive, strong, and some-times good-looking, but are angry and living at the cusp of turning to violent crime. These men do not always show signs of dissatisfaction with the social or economic order. However, their occasional violence is used as an alarm for the upper classes, such as the filmmakers them-selves who, I assume, are fearful of the consequences of social injustice. "Afarit al-Asfalt" (Imps of the Roads [1996]) focuses on drivers of microbuses, who comprise a whole new section of men distinguishable by the local population for being lousy drivers, street savvy, and capable of violence.

The film portrays the life of one such driver’s three-generation family, which is overwhelmed by problems concerning the blocked futures of persons belonging to different generations and genders. The youngest in the family is unmarried and struggling to make ends meet. Members of the family are involved in premarital sex and extra-marital affairs. However, despite poverty and hopelessness, the family possesses a strong sense of solidarity among themselves and with their friends and neighbors. The film gives no indication that members of the family protest against the conditions of their lives; rather, they try to improve their conditions by creating ties through marriage with the upper classes. The results of their attempts are indefinite. The main characters of this film show hardworking, low-income men determined to fight poverty and defend their honor. The general sense is that they are stoic and accept reality as it is—there is hopelessness, but no anger.

This theme continues through to 2009 with the films "Abu Ali" (2007) and "Ibrahim al-Abayd" (2009). The conciliatory resolution in "Abu Ali" is not achieved in Ibrahim al-Abyad; there the situation is left unresolved.

These two films underscore the message that deadly forms of violence are spreading among the lower classes, though all three films show violence as something that could always be contained by the family. Curiously, the family is repeatedly depicted as a microcosm representing the whole nation.

Finally, violence is portrayed as harbored by another section of society perceived as underprivileged: women. However, women are simultaneously represented as willing to sacrifice themselves for the continuity of the family, which ultimately contributes to the continuity of the nation. In one film that follows this narrative, "Hina maysara" (When Things Get Better [2007]), a woman is abused by her lover and then turned into a prostitute. Finally, she returns and sacrifices herself to form a stable family. In other films that tell this story, the women can turn violent, as in "Ehki yaa Shahrazad" (Tell me a Story, Shahrazad [2010]). This film narrates the life stories of six women in the context of the larger sphere of political life. Shahrazad, the main character in "One Thousand and One Nights", is likely alluded to here in order to point to the vast difference between her imagined life in traditional society and the life of real women in contemporary Egypt. Shahrazad’s life is imagined as royal. Life in Egypt now is exceedingly oppressive, both materially and morally.

Hiba, the broadcaster, is a woman around 30 years old. She runs a talk show for a local TV station that is known to be critical. She interviews people who are outspoken about controversial issues, including individuals working for the government. She is married to a man her age, Karim, who works for a major mainstream newspaper. Karim is ambitious and dreams of inheriting the position of his editor-in-chief. He is aware that his wife’s critical views have been negatively affecting his chances. He tries to pressure her into softening her views or even changing the topics for her shows. She resists, but ostensibly complies by bringing in a set of new guests, women who will speak about their emotional lives. To Karim’s surprise, Hiba’s next round of guests are all married to men in power who have cheated on them. The men, in turn, are furious at being exposed to the public in a negative light. Nahid is one such woman. She comes from a wealthy family. She was married to a man who presented himself as rich, highly educated, and working for the government as an economic consultant. He happened not to be interested in her as wife but was after her money. When she sensed this, she asked for a divorce, but he did not agree. Instead, he demanded that she pay him a sum of money equal to what he was required to pay her had he asked for the divorce. As her story was broadcast, her former husband was waiting for very important news; he was about to be named as minister in the upcoming cabinet. Another of Hiba’s guests, Amani, has experienced a similar story with a high-ranking police offi-cer. Finally, Safaa, Hanaa’, and Wafaa’ were all three cheated on by the same man who made each of them hope he would marry them.

Through this, Karim discovers that Hiba’s changing her topic to the ostensibly private realm of emotions does not exclude politics. Even worse, it brings public scrutiny onto the private lives of those in power. As a result, he loses all hope of his promotion and is finally sacked. To take revenge, he punishes his wife by beating her badly. Hiba then decides to appear on her own talk show as a guest to narrate her own story.

This film shows how pervasive power relations have been in the years that preceded the revolution. Produced in 2009, the film illustrates in sharp terms and vivid images how ultimately nothing in society can evade the surveillance of a police state with a constantly contested authority. Emotions are deployed as critical tools; they are situated in between both, a long-lasting tradition that survives in a society assumed to have helped bringing new rights and liberties to its subjects. The film creates a different reality construed through emotions employed as a means to critically judge these claims.

Capturing society’s discontents:

The films discussed in this paper did not provoke the uprising. The uprising was initiated by a set of contingencies and catalyzed by a group of organized political activists. The demonstrations were directed at realizing longstanding social demands, and their participants were diverse groups living under an oppressive state. Nevertheless, the films reveal quite plainly what was simmering beneath the surface of Egyptian society.

Acknowledgements:

Thanks to my friends and colleagues who suggested many of the films based on their active involvement in the demonstrations. Special thanks go to Sherif Younis and Randa Abu Bakr for suggesting several of the films discussed. Though brief, their initial comments have been invaluable for my work. I am also grateful to Joseph Hill for listening to and commenting on various ideas developed in this paper. The fact that he let me use his apartment to work away from my loving children was a great favor I will always remember. My longtime friend, Khadidjah Mattar, has given me invaluable feedback, which I greatly appreciate. Last but not least, my thanks go to Talal Asad for his continued support and for reading an early version of this paper. I am, however, the author of this paper and thus responsible for the way it appears now.

 

References

  1. Al-Aswany, Alaa. 2006. The Yacoubian Building. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press.
  2. Benjamin, Walter. 1969. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In Illuminations. Translated by Harry Zoh. Edited and with an introduction by Hannah Arendt. Preface by Leon Wieseltier. New York: Schocken Books.
  3. Williams, Raymond. 1977. Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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