Friday, August 6, 2010

Unspoken pacts in Egyptian Cinema on Nationalism, Corruption and Religion

Unspoken pacts in Egyptian Cinema on Nationalism, Corruption and Religion
Quatrain 51
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.[1]

It is interesting to note that people often attempt to correct their past by simply thinking it never happened, or through the passing of time assume it will be forgotten by the race it was committed by, upon or through. Censorship, social repression and higher orders of government controlling media production are however the perfect breeding grounds for a particular type of expressive art – one prone to rebellion against a stagnating socio-economic culture. This essay aims to describe and interpret the micro and macro effects of media upon a broader Egyptian populous with specified focus on the two primary ethnic-religious groups present; namely Muslims and Christians. A focused exploration on Orientalism and its lasting effect over the course of the modern era will also be noted.
Methods involved within this study have included informal interviews, specified questioning in reference to certain texts and the comparative results between Muslim and Christian views of said texts. One is in awe at the amount of information available from Egyptians as they are not short of self expression, historical keepsake stories and a general eagerness to be heard and understood.
As a country straddling both Eastern and Western hemispheres; dealing with ancient and modern contexts as well as socio-political and religious facets – Egypt presents itself as a vital indicator of a population’s mental climatic conditions. This is primarily due to its postcolonial status both as a nation and an ethnic group, Sturken and Cartwright (2001) describe this as a mix of identities, languages and influences within a complex system of both dependence and independence.[2] This amalgamation of culture, history and religion causes intense and instantaneous escalation of violence at the slightest hint of conflict of interests.
Consolidating the definition of the socially constructed identity is an aspect Hughes–Warrington (2007) explores and eventually presents as the, ‘...Moral, religious, public political, professional, family and gender discourses...may foster competing notions of self identity’.[3]
Within the scope of the creative arts in particular, one can observe the effect and result of these aspects upon the native population and their interactions with each other based on the media and texts presented to them.
This project will therefore present common texts in the form of films and plays to further compare the state of Egypt to both its people and within the broader ethnic community.
Prime writers in the area of Egyptian and Arabic Cinema such as Walter Armbrust and Ataa Elnaccash confirm that the complexity and purpose of pre 1970s Egyptian cinema is immensely different from the later nationalised cinematic industry.[4]
Armbrust examines the liminal boundaries a film such as ‘Bayn al Qasreyn’ have; this triptych film was partially produced under private cinema regulations but completed as nationalistic and socialist theory were permeating the community’s mental fabric. Elnaccash described this as:
‘...the lack of a social, political, or economic understanding of the structure of society; and the lack of a personal point of view, philosophy or attitude...’ [5]
It is against this impersonal approach (almost as comical as a Charlie Chaplain film clip) that subsequent directors and producers began attempting to implement and weave deeper and more subtle meanings to their productions. This intellectual secrecy was immensely useful in masking the essential social issues within a cocoon of comedy and satire. Religion, Politics and Corruption (regarded as the most debated, contested and taboo subjects to the Egyptian populous), could now be tackled head on through mass media.
Quatrain 25
Why, all the Saints and Sages who discuss’d
Of the Two Worlds so learnedly, are thrust
Like foolish Prophets forth; their Words to Scorn
Are scatter’d, and their Mouths are stopt with Dust.[6]

* “El ‘Alma Basha” (1987-1989) – translated as ‘The Madam Master’.
This on-stage musical play examined and attempted to highlight the immense propensity corruption could sway political votes in Egypt. Government kick backs and the black market were hinted at while untrained and ill-informed politicians regarding their unsound economic decisions were exemplified through satiric comments and anecdotes.
The plot to the play places the main actress Suheir el Bably as a ‘Alma; this word is a derivative of the Arabic word for teacher (‘Alem).
Makeshift belly dance academies regard senior mistresses as teachers of the art and therefore ‘Madams’ – this in itself exemplifies the way in which power and authority are distributed by arbitrary and un-moderated means rather than a voted, democratic or wholly agreed method; an aspect believed by both Muslim and Christian audiences to be parallel to the Egyptian bureaucracy.
It is the existence of a parallel country representing Egypt (satirically named ‘Zambo ‘ala gambo’ metaphorically meaning ‘Whose law is unto itself’) which draws the attention of the audience towards ignorance induced plight and the unawareness of their condition. This country’s ruler is good natured and kind but highly naive due to having no actual knowledge of the ministers’ effect and corruption over the native people. Year after year of ruling with the same cabinet, he realises that the economic advances he hoped for were not coming to fruition and decides to commission a professor of social and economic reform in the pursuit of betterment for his country. (A small note is to be made here regarding a permeating corruption within political plays themselves; namely that portraying the ruler as being kind hearted and not responsible for the socio-economic deficits vindicates the current leader but not any before or any after. (A sort of ‘blame passing’ which transcended silently between eras of different rulers and their political frames.)
The records he commissions the name of the professor from are in fact quite outdated and the result is that the intended professor’s address coincides with the ‘Alma’s address and she goes to ‘fix’ this country thinking that the invitation is for her academy. This very aspect draws emphasis towards the lack of archival and administrative ability of this government – a parallel to the Egyptian government with emphasis on administrative inefficiency and bureaucratic processes which slow the advancement of the peoples.   
The ensuing plot allows the audience to partake in the realisation of poor choices such as over-population, selfish capitalist pursuits and the dysfunction of society in dealing with a bias social security system favouring people with government ties. Her lack of political experience is ridiculed and she unknowingly has the advantage of pure and unadulterated faith in human goodness. Through her folk-like dealings with the native populous, she is able to alter them and awaken the sentiment of self-advancement repressed by the power-hungry cabinet.
Comparative results from different age groups exposed to this text would be valuable data in a study regarding audience perception of the theatre with an emphasis on corruption of the state and its portrayal both within the audience’s mind and external influences as found in the Arabic world.

Quatrain 27
Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and Saint, and heard great Argument
About it and about: but evermore
Came out by the same Door as in I went.[7]

* “Seket Salama” (2000-2001) – translated as ‘The Peace Path’ (a reappropriation of an early 1960s play of the same title).
This play is basically a revised production of a preceding version created about forty years prior. The goals and aims from an artistic and plotting point of view are however distinctly different as explained by a mature age Muslim man interviewed after watching the play – the former version he explained, ‘’...was dealing with the philosophical sense of one’s self when met with eminent death whereas the latter emphasises loyalties within the Egyptian and broader Arab peoples towards Palestine’s plight and Israel’s tyranny.
The older version entails a busload of people leaving from Cairo to Alexandria which takes the wrong highway by accident and ends up near El Alamein. Their epiphany is evident when they are met by an excavated minefield resulting from the Allied-Axis battle held there around 15 years earlier. Slight comedy and anecdotal plotlines allow the audience to relate to one or more of the 10 characters lost in the Western Desert; they are rescued by local law enforcement and return to either Alexandria or Cairo enlightened and more focussed on living their lives rather than thinking about the unchangeable past and uncontrollable future.
The plot in the modern version follows the same concept of a bus becoming lost in the desert with the same number of people becoming lost however their location is revealed to be approximately twenty kilometres from the Israeli border but still in Egypt.
The following two hour performance outlines the deep seated malice and selfishness inherent in each of the ten characters but alludes to each being affected and in turn influencing different aspects of their native society.
Included within the cast of characters is a senior journalist, a lawyer, the CEO of an international company, a spoiled teenage boy, a couple who are together solely for the benefit of their children (children are not present), the ‘omda (head of a province), an unrealistic B-grade actress with her runner boy (a lackey character who exudes self-worth; his existence is not vital to anyone though), a quiet elderly man and the modest bus driver.
The critical part of the play is the realisation evident on the conscious mind of the characters as they approach the Israeli border to within visible range; they are as such faced with the prospect of asking for help from mortal enemies. This question wavers between the moral boundaries of preserving life and the offset created by an intense patriotism inherent in some of the passengers.
The relationship between nationalism and the human condition are intertwined and transcend the notion of heritage, pride and history; these being primal features to the development of Egyptian nationalism.[8] It is due to this that the functionality of the play to indicate Arab-Israeli relations is evident – this is extensively useful when examining the influence of mass media and performing arts’ ability in creating national mindsets with deadly consequences as exhibited by the current Middle Eastern political climate.
One could even say that although these plays seek to unify the national sentiment of ethnicity, heritage and history - it also plays a moderate part in the future generation’s relationship with prior enemies. This aspect bears heavily on the Arabic conscious as youth who were not present during the inception of Israel (1948), the Egyptian Revolution (1952), Six Day War (1967) or the Israeli-Egyptian War (1973) still find it necessary to take the responsibility of vengeance upon their shoulders in the stead of their forefathers and on behalf of future generations.     On the subject of Ethnicity and Nationalism, Wolff draws upon two important facets; the scope of ethnicity[9] and ethnic minority[10].
Such a fine-line barriers these two aspects of social structure as the ethnic minority in this case is minority due to its population and not its migratory status as other minorities are in various countries. Examples include the Jewish community in Egypt present until the 1940s. Christian Egyptians did not move to Egypt after being present in another country, but rather they are a native population outnumbered by influxes of Persian, Arabic and Turkish migrants.
Although both Christians and Muslims in Egypt are legally Egyptian by nationality, there is a distinct difference in ethnic alignment between them.
Mrs L., a 55 year old Muslim lady re-iterated this by describing the similar customs in celebrating religious events and her memory in a time gone by where the distinction between Christian and Muslim was not for the purpose of segregation but for advancing one’s social etiquette in being courteous around the other and making their presence welcomed and seamlessly accepted.
Although a writer of general and social interests, Christopher Catherwood places a relevant analogy when dealing with the ‘Arab Street’; in this he draws an image of a raging Islamic population readying for war with the West, however this same street is not only at odds with the United States but is also under immense pressure from its oppressive and dictatorial governments.[11] It is therefore acceptable and even logical to an extent to expect the Islamic nation to be at odds with the primarily Western influenced Christians.
As aforementioned in this essay, the micro effects of Egyptian Cinema upon both the native and diasporas of Egyptian extraction have very little bearing as both are able to co-exist with the other on a small scale.
The introduction of political and bureaucratic functions however amplify and exaggerate the differences between Christians and Muslims which in turn escalates minor conflicts into both civil actions and guerrilla tactics. Further to this realisation by Egyptians is a secret but well circulated theory that it is the Western powers who seek to keep Egypt and once influential Middle Eastern powers like it divided, and therefore unable to stand against Western capitalism. The macro scale of ethnic relationship differs greatly from the neighbourhood niceties seen between Christians and Muslims.
Quatrain 24
Alike for those who for TODAY prepare,
And those that after a TOMORROW stare,
A Muezzin from the Tower of Darkness cries
“Fools! Your Reward is neither Here nor There!”[12]

* “Hassan w’ Morcos” (2007)
The 1967 defeat of the United Arab Army (Syria, Egypt and Iraq) at the hands of the Israeli army was the catalyst in arousing the dormant Arab consciousness from an extensive hibernation. Awakening the Arabs from their dreams and ethereal ideology shook the very foundations the native populous had in nationalistic slogans; it also brought into question the ability of the military to deliver the promised victories so blatantly advertised in the years prior.
Bouzid and el Ezabi maintain that this was the perfect environment for the re-haul of modernist theory in Egypt and indeed leading onto the contemporary directors and producers of the day.[13]
This is summarised by:
‘...And so there he was the Arab intellectual, including the Arab film-maker, endeavouring for his creative work to emerge against this backdrop of failure and disintegration.’[14]
Hassan w’ Morcos represents the summation of this concept by blending religion, perception of the other and underlying  tensions between religious entities in Egypt; it is indicative of the struggles governments and their people face when wanting to approach life in a secular manner but are constantly reminded of the religious and military spheres imposed on their daily life patterns.
The plot can be summarised by two families being persecuted in their separate home towns, one is Muslim and the other is Christian. To keep the peace, local provinces agree to move these two families in order to protect them and the social order of the neighbourhoods. Both the Muslim and Christian families are re-located to the same neighbourhood in a third and neutral area. To further protect their identities, the Muslim family is required to take up Christian names for their members and the Christian family vice versa.
In this, the producer has attempted to re-organise and highlight the few differences between any Christian and Muslim families to begin with; their customs, habits and etiquette do not change – merely the heirlooms, symbols and common phrases are aligned with particular religious traditions. I.e.: the Christian turned Muslim mother wears a veil while the Muslim turned Christian father removes pictures of Mecca and replaces them with crucifixes.
Although a Muslim family enlightened me with their views on this text, I was still perplexed by connotations the film portrayed which were neither entirely applicable nor acceptable in either Muslim or Christian understanding. These included aspects such as Sheiks and Priests charging their respective congregations against other denominations – an act seen in neither moderate mosques nor churches.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics places the total Egyptian origin populous in Australia at close to 35,000 (as at 2006 census)[15], of these it can be noted that the proportion of Christian-Muslim ratio in Australia is heavily favoured towards those of Christian denominations (Anglican, Catholic, Coptic and Protestant). Comparable Muslim migrant numbers in Australia originate from Turkey and Iran, neither of which is Egyptian by nationality or Arab by ethnicity.               Muslim-Egyptians are therefore regarded as a minority in Australia. These aspects point towards a parody when compared to the native condition of Christian-Muslim ratio in Egypt where the estimated average is 1 Christian to every 9 Muslims.
Mr M. And Mrs L. (Muslim Egyptians) constantly brought reference to how segregated they were from any Egyptian or Muslim communities in Sydney, Australia. They explained that although Turks, Iraqis and Egyptians may be of the same strain of Islam, the language barrier between them (Turkish, Kurdish and Arabic respectively) presents itself as a force of separation and alienation from folk traditions, religious celebrations and secular socialisation.
One cannot hope to encapsulate all facets and underlying aspects of modern Egyptian society, but the interviews conducted for the purpose of compiling this essay presented marked evidence that both Muslims and Christians are almost homogenous in their respective approach and regard for the other; namely slight superstition mingled with an ancient knowledge of the other’s existence as well as cultural and customary similarities mirroring the other.
It is for this reason that neither is able to completely sever its ties with the other; the Muslim identity is much more similar to the Christian persona than either would like to admit. In this, both are wary that the consequences of their unsubstantiated anger at each other will inevitably tear the fabric of their identity. Both Christians and Muslims have supported each other’s opinions on the problems encountered within their native country, and they bring this opinion to the countries they migrate to.
To be Egyptian is to find one’s self fragmented under the separate frames of identity. Neither Arab nor African, Mediterranean nor Asian but a wholly multi-ethnic comprised within the consubstantial Egyptian personality. Multi-ethnic and not multicultural as the culture is the same for both Muslims and Christian Egyptians; it is however their ethnic binding – namely their customs, religious tolerance of the other and traditions which separate them.
A question remaining in the Muslim-Egyptian conscious is their place as Muslim-Arab world due to their tolerance of what extremists would call ‘infidels’.
While this moral dilemma is a clear issue, Christian-Egyptians have found themselves displaced in a country they inherited from Pharaonic origins, but since being the minority cannot hope to impress any permanent widespread changes.
A very cold civil war brews under the seemingly constant surface; building pressure over the course of the modern era and has not abated for secular purposes, turned into full scale civil war or initiated a religious revolution – examples of these scenarios are Turkey, Lebanon and Iran respectively.
All of which are seen as possible outcomes for any Egyptian revolution which could occur in the future; although becoming like Turkey could be beneficial both socio-economically for Egypt and for its status on the world stage, becoming highly secular will cause rifts between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. A Lebanese re-incarnation is a police enforced peace status only reached after 25 years of civil war – an experience the Egyptian populous seems to wish avoiding at any cost. Iran’s model is dangerous for Egypt due to being a comparable power in the Middle East to the Shia’ Muslim Iran (Egypt is primarily Sunni Muslim which could be a catalyst for all out religious warfare in the Middle East). Egypt is also a key player in the peace process between Palestine and Israel; its transformation into a clerical state would significantly harm this and is highly feared for by Western powers.
To encapsulate the process, result and eventual annexation[16] of Egyptian identity – one only needs to return to the primal text which has shaped a multitude of people’s notion of the East; ‘Orientalism’ by Edward Said.
In writing this text, Said unknowingly (or knowingly) further moulded and directed Orientalism towards main stream knowledge. His noble and unprecedented attempt at identifying the main factors whose presence created the ‘Orient’ had a profound effect on the history and understanding of colonial Egypt. These aspects in due course transcended time and have still tainted the identity of the modern Egyptian. They, the Egyptians were seen as the midpoint between historical memory and modern actuality; due to this their future was no longer theirs but belonged to the aspiring European powers.
Said emphasises further that Egypt’s status as the birthplace of the arts, sciences and government inevitably caused it to become the prime target as the ‘plot of land’ for European advancement.[17]
This in itself could be regarded as the nexus point for the East’s dissolution as a modern power – one would not however agree with Said that this is solely the Occident’s fault; but rather it seems that victimising the East has only furthered their demise. By repetitively calling an entity weak, you demoralise and lower the propensity for this entity to advance on its own accord.
Orientalism bears heavily on the concept of Egyptian nationalism within the psyche of both Muslims and Christians; unfortunately neither realises why they’re in such a position. The concept of Orientalism is not known to the common Egyptian household; their responses to ethnic threat are therefore based on immediate circumstances – lacking context, historical basis or patience for further understanding the other.
The lack of reconciliation, both within the Muslim-Christian Egyptian community is a question which bears heavily on the outcome of the Egyptian populous. Such a question is summarised and supported by Said’s re-iteration that the subject of study for Orientalism placed ‘Egyptians’ within the frame of ‘Oriental’, however it was a structured position rather than a real geographic difference. This was a difference ‘...only the scholar could see, and manipulate, [and switch] between the two levels.[18]
Due to these socially and to an extent academically structured frames, laypeople would therefore have no chance to understand the circumstances which have shaped their existence and current condition.
Echoing throughout the plethora of coffee houses and food stalls of modern day Cairo, the deep and evocative voice of Om Kalthoum (one of the most respected Egyptian singers of the 20th Century)  attests to the nationalistic remnants in Egyptian memory, Nasser’s era and religious piety; the final line crescendos in typical Arabian ascension:
“S’tashreko shams ‘ala omaten, le gh’ayre wagh e’lah lam tas godi.”
For the sun will rise over (you) the nation, to none other than the face of God shall you bow.

Armbrust W. New Cinema, Commercial Cinema, and the Modernist Tradition in Egypt. Journal of Comparative Poetics, No. 15, Arab Cinematics: Toward the New and the Alternative (1995) pp. 81-129. American University in Cairo: Cairo, Egypt.
Australian Bureau of Statistics: Accessed 7th May 2009
Catherwood C. Christians, Muslims and Islamic Rage. (2003) Zondervan: Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA.

El Ezabi S. and Bouzid N. New Realism in Arab Cinema: The Defeat-Conscious Cinema. Journal of Comparative Poetics, No. 15, Arab Cinematics: Toward the New and the Alternative (1995) pp. 242-250. American University in Cairo: Cairo, Egypt.

Elnaccash A. Egyptian Cinema: A Historical Outline. African Arts, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Autumn, 1968), pp. 52-71. UCLA James S. Coleman African Studies Centre.

Hughes-Warrington M., History Goes to the Movies: Studying History on Film (2007) Routledge: New York.

Said E., Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient. (1995) Clays Ltd: London.

Sturken. M and Cartwright. L, Practices of Looking: An introduction to Visual Culture (2001). Oxford University Press: New York.

Wolff S. Ethnic Conflict. A Global Perspective (2006). Oxford University Press: New York, USA.

Yogananda P. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam Explained (2008). Crystal Clarity Publications: California, USA.

[1] Yogananda P. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam Explained (2008). pp. 236
[2]  Sturken, M and Cartwright. L, Practices of Looking: An introduction to Visual Culture (2001) pp.362
[3] Hughes-Warrington M., History Goes to the Movies: Studying History on Film (2007) pp. 86
[4] Ruz el Yousef as cited in New Cinema, Commercial Cinema, and the Modernist Tradition in Egypt pg 85
[5] Egyptian Cinema: A Historical Outline pg 54
[6] Yogananda P. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam Explained (2008). pp. 110

[7] Yogananda P. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam Explained (2008). pp. 118
[8]  New Cinema, Commercial Cinema, and the Modernist Tradition in Egypt pg 84
[9] Wolff S. Ethnic Conflict. A Global Perspective (2006). OUP: New York, USA. Pp.31
[10] Wolff S. Ethnic Conflict. A Global Perspective (2006). OUP: New York, USA. Pp.40

[11] Catherwood C. Christians, Muslims and Islamic Rage. (2003)Zondervan: Michigan, USA. pp. 189
[12]  Yogananda P. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam Explained (2008). pp. 106
[13]  New Realism in Arab Cinema: The Defeat-Conscious Cinema pg 242
[14]  New Realism in Arab Cinema: The Defeat-Conscious Cinema pg 242
[15] ABS:
[16]  Said E., Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient. (1995) pp. 85
[17] Said E., Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient. (1995) pp. 84
[18] Said E., Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient. (1995) pp. 234

As written for ANTH385 - Semester One 2009 - Macquarie University, Sydney

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