13 February 2011
Given the sloppy state-of-affairs in Egypt throughout the last decades, it comes as no surprise that no-one paid much attention to the numerous studies, Egyptian or international, which warned that the economic hardship and social and sectarian tension in Egypt were becoming increasingly untenable. But I find no excuse for overlooking some very obvious signs of anticipated crisis depicted by the cinema as far back as the 1970s, but especially during the last five years.
Tharthara fawqal-Nil (Chattering over the Nile) written by Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz in the 1960s and made into a film produced by Hussein Kamal in 1970 predicted Egypt’s current state of chaos. The film depicted how, under a totalitarian regime, people would resort to drugs as a means of escaping a reality fast moving towards the abyss. “The world is upside down”, was a phrase repeated incessantly by the film’s star Emad Hamdi; as well as “the abyss is opening its mouth to swallow up the entire community, but no one appears to notice”. The theme is all-too-familiar today, with the conditions that led up to the 25 January protests and the chaos which ensued.
The year 2007 saw the late Youssef Chahine’s film Hiya Fawda? (Is This Chaos?), written by Nasser Abdel-Rahman, hit the market. Even though the film was widely applauded on the artistic level, some critics described it at the time as an exaggeration. The film depicted the authoritarianism exercised by a police officer who allows himself the freedom to frame innocent persons, or commit crimes of rape, murder and all sorts of tyranny.
With his legendary mastery of cinematic art, Chahine candidly exposed the tyranny of the security apparatus and the feelings of hatred and fear it inspires in Egyptians. The film makes it clear that the hatred and distrust are but the predictable outcome of the oppression and injustice inflicted by that apparatus. The rampant corruption and election fraud do not help; these traits end up almost second nature to the Egyptian community. The end comes with the people revolting against the police officer, who represents the regime and who finds no way out but to commit suicide.
The intricately woven events of Hiya Fawda? appeared to come to life in the recent events when the security authority retreated, as if claiming its own life, as police stations were attacked and burned, giving the go ahead to an ongoing state of chaos.
At the time Hiya Fawda? was produced the censorship authority insisted on adding a question mark to the title of the film in order to imply a questioning of whether we are living a state of chaos rather than confirming it. Today, however, time has proved the point that Chahine tried to make some four years ago: yes, this is chaos.
Yacoubian and the cook sound an alert
Another novel which read into the future some six years ago is Emaret Yacoubian (The Yacoubian Building), written by Alaa al-Aswani and directed by Wahid Hamed. The novel exposed the rigging of parliamentary elections, and the figures responsible for that rigging. The film was among the very few which explicitly depicted real life corruption rather than make the point indirectly through the use of symbols and comparisons as is customary with Egyptian cinema. Yet despite the blatant directness of Emaret Yacoubian, the film’s message was lost; no one bothered to notice, let alone observe it.
Is the president aware of what the poorer people in his country suffer from? Or is he just content to receive the surreal reports presented to him by his deputies? In 2008, this perspective was discussed by Tabbakh al-Rayyiss (The President’s Chef), a film that was screened in theatres with the approval of the Egyptian presidency. Tabbakh al-Rayyiss was written by Youssef Maati and directed by Said Hamed. Did the presidency grant its permission to produce the film merely as a nod of approval to freedom of expression? The President and the regime should have been alarmed by the figure of the out-of-touch president who is informed by his chef of details he could never have dreamt of, as depicted by the film. Unfortunately, this does not appear to have been the case; the film was merely considered by all a credit to the democratic regime which allowed it to see light.
Several other films depicted the rampant, ever-escalating corruption, and the latent threat it posed to the regime, but they were all seen as as leisurely film entertainment, and were never taken seriously.
Living the scenes
A very significant production which read into the future and predicted images of the recent devastation was Dukkaan Shehata (Shehata’s shop), written by Nasser Abdel-Rahman and directed by Khaled Youssef in 2009. There were different facets to the events of the film, most prominent among which were scenes of fighting over a loaf of bread, stealing wheat, and the corruption which has become deeply engrained in the Egyptian community. Throughout the film a voice-over is heard of a poem written by Gamal Bekheit. Among the lines he wrote were:
“Nothing is left in me
But some blood
Tainted with trouble
Bitter, and full of venom.”
On corruption he said:
“The wealth of the nation is protected
Protected by thieves.”
And on the shortage of bread:
“No tank, no army;
The war is over the loaf of bread.”
The film ends with corruption overcoming innocence, putting the nation on fire. This we lived to the letter in the recent events when thugs spread everywhere jeopardising the security of the nation and inflicting chaos everywhere.
Dukkaan Shehata was a staggering warning of today’s turmoil.
Even if reading is no longer a pastime Egyptians readily engage in, watching films is. Yet the warning sent out so clearly by our films went unheeded.