At this time when Egypt is electing a new president, one of some 13 candidates vying for the position, and the prevalent question is what do Egyptians demand of their new
At this time when Egypt is electing a new president, one of some 13 candidates vying for the position, and the prevalent question is what do Egyptians demand of their new ruler, my thoughts ran to the long list of rulers depicted in such variety in Egyptian cinema. I found myself tempted to browse through the archive of Egyptian films for rulers, kings and presidents, some with real historical backing, others fictitious.
Dealing with the character of the ruler in the Egyptian film shifted between history and fantasia. Some rulers were mercilessly disfigured while others were glorified and sanctified to the extent of adoration.
Once the topic of rulers in film comes up, the mind instantly goes back to the 1938 movie Lasheen which was directed by Fritz Kramp, and starred by an unknown actor named Hassan Ezzat as Lasheen and Hussein Riyad as the tyrannical ruler. The events take place in an undetermined historical era and capture the revolution of the hungry 14 years before the 1952 Revolution. In the original story, the ruler was supposed to be decapitated but the censorship objected to this ending and threatened to ban the movie unless it is changed. Beheading the ruler was just unacceptable. The end was therefore altered in a way that the PM became the villain, the people cheered for the ruler and for the army chief Lasheen. The film can be seen as a sociopolitical document that depicts the people’s wrath against oppression and tyranny.
In 1965 al-Mamalik (The Mamluks), directed by Atef Salem, the role of the tyrant ruler is again played by Hussein Riyad. The historical era in which the events take place is also not specified and there is no reference to any known names in the history of the Mamluks who ruled Egypt during the period from the 13th to the 19th centuries. The plot reveals the cruelty and tyranny of the Mamluks and the pleasure which their ruler had in killing innocent Egyptians; consequently, his PM and the people revolt against him and eventually kill him.
Another renowned movie about the Mamluk era is the 1962 prodution of Wa Islamaah (Oh, Islam) in which reference is made to Shagaret al-Durr who ruled from 1250 to 1257, and was the only woman who ruled Egypt under Islamic rule. Shagaret al-Durr was a Turkish woman sold into slavery to the Sultan of Egypt Saleh Ayoub who defeated the Crusaders. She was a favourite with him, and he subsequently married her. When Ayoub died of a deadly wound in battle, she concealed the news lest his soldiers become discouraged, assumed command and, once combat was over, declared herself sultana of Egypt. Her enemies, however, complained about her to the Caliph in Baghdad who then sent a message leering at the Mamluk army chiefs: “If you have a shortage of men [to rule], tell me. I can send you one.” Shagaret al-Durr realised she was being threatened and rushed to marry her army chief Ezzedin Aybek, but she later killed him when she learned he had married another woman. Rioting broke out and, spurred on by Aybek##s former wife, Shagaret al-Durr is beaten to death by the slaves of the harem with their wooden clogs. Her half-naked body is thrown into the moat of the citadel. Eventually, her bones are taken and placed in the mosque known today as the mosque of Shagrat al-Durr.
Shagaret al- Durr was brilliantly portrayed in Wa Islamaah by the belly dancer turned actress Tahiya Karioka. The film was an Egyptian-Italian co-production, directed by Enrico Bomba and Andrew Marton. In the Italian version, Shagaret al-Durr was played by Silvana Pampanini.
The last to know
The tyrant Mamluk ruler Qaraqosh, who levied taxes for minor issues such as growing beards or shaving them, was the subject of the 1953 film Hukm Qaraqosh (The Rule of Qaraqosh). A revolution was also conducted against him and his despot dependents.
The theme of the basically ‘good’ ruler surrounded by a corrupt PM or chief of police dominated the 1950 production of Amir al-Intiqam (Prince of Vengeance) and the 1964 Amir al-Dahaa’ (The Crafty One). Both tell the story of the tyrant chief of police who imprisons the innocent while the naïve ruler is busy watching the dances of the concubines and praising the report of the chief of the police regarding the stability and security of the land. At the end, as the king discovers the truth concerning the tyranny of the chief of police, the impression that is given is that the king is always the last to know.
It had to wait for Saladin, however, for a ruler to be exalted and glorified in an unmatched way. Al-Nasser Salah al-Din (Saladin the Victorious) produced in 1963, directed by Youssef Chahine, and starred by Ahmed Mazhar portrayed Saladin as the perfect man on both the humane and war-hero level, a righteous human being and a conqueror.
Discrediting the monarchy
In the era following the 1952 Revolution, filmmakers flirted with the new regime by defaming all the rulers of the Mohamed Ali Dynasty who had ruled Egypt since 1805. There is no more obvious example of this behaviour than the 1963 movie Almaz and Abdo al-Hamouly directed by Hilmy Rafla.
The film portrayed the Khedive Ismail, the ruler of Egypt from 1863 to 1879, and under whose reign the Suez Canal was dug and inaugurated in 1869, and much effort was done to modernise Egypt, as a corrupt man who only followed his lust and sexual desires. Ismail, who was played by Hussein Riyad, was made to appear as though he cared for nothing but to avail himself of the beautiful singer Almaz, played by Warda. The movie goes to the extent of showing a scene of the Khedive discussing a military campaign in South Africa while thinking of a way to drill a hole in the bathroom door to see Almaz. Such stories strongly discredit the achievements of this ruler who transformed the face of the Egyptian cultural scene and built its first opera house ever.
The defamation of former rulers went on with King Farouk who was portrayed as sexually obsessed in many films including the 1955 Allah Maana (Allah is With Us). Although the character of the king does not appear in the film because all the events take place after his departure, his chief of staff, again played by the ‘villain’ Hussein Riyad, keeps telling of his extreme corruption in all fields. These films did not rely on any accurate historical facts but were rather a way of using history to present a spicy commercial box-office hit. The negative image of King Farouk was kept throughout the years until the 1995 film Imra’a Hazzat Arsh Misr (A woman who Shook the Throne of Egypt, 1995) which starred Farouq al-Fishawy as King Farouk.
The year 1996 saw the film Nasser 56 hit screens; the main idea pivoted around the 1956 nationalisation of the Suez Canal by the then president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, masterfully portrayed by Ahmed Zaki. Ayam al-Sadat (Days of Sadat), was produced in 2001, again starring Ahmed Zaki, and presented the biography of President Sadat who ruled from 1971 to 1981 when he was assassinated at the hands of Islamists. The film, however, was criticised for providing justifications for all of Sadat’s political stances.
Under the cover of comedy
During the Mubarak times, several films have used the cover of comedy to criticise the president. Among these were the 1994 Ziyaret al-Sayed al-Ra’ees (Visit of the President) which told the story of a poor village where a rumor spreads announcing the arrival of the American President for a short visit. After the entire village arranges painstakingly for this visit, the train passes by and doesn’t stop at the poor people’s station. There was also the film produced in the 2000s Tabaakh al-Rayess (The President’s Cook) which depicted a president who was out-of-touch with the people, and the cook who used to tell him of what went on in the streets. Talaat Zakariya, who played the cook, had sat with Mubarak for long periods while he played the role. Zakariya defended Mubarak very warmly following his ouster by the 25 January 2011 Revolution, and praised his geniality and sense of humour. Zakariya reminded that censorship authority had wished to ban the film, but it was the former president who insisted it should be screened to the public.
Another film entitled The Air Strike was under preparation, and was to handle the October 1973 War between Egypt and Israel. Since Hosni Mubarak is known to have been among the prominent heroes of this war, and to have played a pivotal role in the air strikes against the enemy, the production was halted once he stepped down as president in February 2011. Obviously, no-one had the guts to go against the tide to glorify the war hero.
27 May 2012
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