This social realist gem is a literary adaptation of Naguib Mahfouz’s al-Qahira al-Jadida (1943), rendered by eminent director Salah Abu Seif (1915-1996). The late leftist intellectual Lutfi al-Kholi wrote the screenplay; artistic collaborations don’t get much better than that. Both the novel and the movie are saturated with class, politics, and contests between rival visions, making it one of the few successful movies of ideas. It’s no coincidence the film was made in the 1960s. The Nasser years were a paradoxical fertile ground for engaged art and daring criticism. High-quality artistic collaborations were the rule and not the exception, and politics were ubiquitous and never shunned. Art, theater, film, and literature all thrived. I can scarcely imagine anything even remotely similar in our own day.
The year is 1933, and the country is in upheaval against the repeal of the 1923 constitution by the repressive Ismail Sidqi government. Cotton prices are falling, class inequalities are glaring, street demonstrations are legion, and government bureaucracy is rotting with corruption. Students and roommates Ahmed Bedeir (Abdel Moneim Ibrahim), Ali Taha, and Mahgoub Abdel Dayem (a novice Hamdi Ahmed) are about to graduate from Fuad I University (later Cairo University) and make their way into the class and status obsessed society of Cairo. They live in a boarding house with fellow students where they discuss the burning political issues of the day, under the watchful portraits of Ahmad Urabi and Mustafa Kamel (one of Abu Seif’s less subtle allusions!) Abu Seif seamlessly twines the political, personal, and comical, all in one perfect bundle. I love the hilarious Abdel Moneim Ibrahim as he tries to bum a tie off any of his roommates, warbling “brothers, can anyone lend me a tie for the sake of the constitution?!”
The three principals are a study in contrasts: the journalist Ahmed is comical and freewheeling, adept at hobnobbing with the rich and powerful to extract sensationalistic stories for his paper. The cerebral and intense Ali is a brooding intellectual who’s convinced that only socialism (of the Comtian and Saint-Simonian variety) can solve Egypt’s crippling problems. And then there’s Mahgoub, the embittered, impoverished layman who cares not a whit for grand ideas but is consumed by resentment at his poverty and hard luck; his motto is “Toz”. To survive in the dog-eat-dog world, Mahgoub quickly learns the arts of sniveling and finagles a Grade 6 government job out of the unctuous bureaucrat Salem al-Ikhshidi, an actor whose face I know well but whose name I’ve forgotten. He does a wonderful job of embodying all the trademark qualities of the proverbial Egyptian bureaucrat, the kind of man we all love to hate!
Ali is in love with high school student and coveted neighborhood beauty Ihsan Shehata (Soad Hosni), who loves him back but tires of his constant carping about the ills of “society” and his unusual, progressive socialist ideas. There’s a wonderful scene of both of them walking the streets and discussing the play they’ve just seen, Alexandre Dumas’ drama Camille, a story of the evanescence of love under the pressures of life (featuring cameo performances by the great thespians Yusuf Wahbi and Suheir al-Murshidi). As the camera follows their heated conversation as they stroll past loaded billboards featuring the latest (unattainable) consumer commodities, we watch riveted at the disintegration of their idealistic union under the pressures of life and their irreconcilable worldviews, echoing Camille’s tragic storyline. When I saw this scene again recently, I was amazed at the depth and careful aesthetic construction of this one frame, and the entire film is full of them. I couldn’t help but rue the loss of such perfectionism in contemporary Egyptian cinema (such as it is).
Ihsan is driven to despair by her grinding poverty and ravishing beauty, a typical Mahfouzian conundrum that Abu Seif brilliantly amplifies. As the oldest daughter of a dirt-poor couple, she feels pressured to help her family and finally succumbs to one of the many moneyed suitors who approach her father, masterfully played by veteran Tawfiq al-Diqqin in one of his most delightful roles. Ihsan’s successful suitor is Qassem bey Fahmi, also played to perfection by Ahmad Mazhar, complete with grizzled sideburns and hair parted down the middle, 1930s style. In the pictured scene (above), the charming, honey-tongued Fahmi plies Ihsan with rum-filled chocolates, beautiful dresses, and a fur coat. Despite the tragedy of the situation, Abu Seif never fails to pack it with genuine humour and whimsy.
The plot’s shocking twists and turns bring together Ihsan, Mahgoub effendi, and Qassem bey in an utterly unholy alliance, a microcosm of societal exploitation and political corruption. al-Qahira ‘30 embodies Egyptian realism’s outrage at the blight of poverty, class exploitation, and the destruction of all that is beautiful and noble under the forces of poverty and despotism. It’s a highly satisfying if didactic morality tale, the standard-setter for many subsequent themes in neorealist film and fiction. Yet the characters’ conversations are never wooden, staged, nor preachy. I was completely moved by the scene where the valiant Ali and his committed comrades discuss their new socialist magazine, al-Nur al-Jadid (the New Light). As the camera hones in on Ali’s intense face (played by an unknown but great actor), he intones, “The masses need new ideas, and they always respond to those who honestly engage with their problems.” The film’s final scene is a paean to human emancipation, evincing the same exuberant spirit as the ending of Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1965). Ali Taha is being chased by the political police; he hides by mingling with the crowds. As he runs, he flings up in the air his political pamphlets, and they cascade down to the hands of curious passersby. The camera pans out over the minaret-dotted Cairo skyline, leaflets descending from the sky, rousing music heralding a new era.
I wish more Egyptian art would return to Cairo 30’s spirit of superior aesthetics, thoughtful politics, and careful reflection on decisive moments in Egyptian history. Anyone can craft a socially realist film, but not anyone can imbue it with the highest-quality production values of Abu Seif and Henry Barakat and Kamal al-Shaykh and the early Yusef Chahine and the rest of the gallery of Egypt’s cinematic greats. There’s so much rich social material out of which to make a compelling movie, why is it that contemporary directors prefer derivative storylines and substandard acting? And why do capable realists like Magdi Ahmed Ali have so little cinematic art in their films? When it comes to the current status of Egyptian cinema, it seems to me nostalgia is wholly (if sadly) justified.