There’s A Man in Our House — Egypt

We’re familiar enough with movies about daring resistance fighters in wars or to oppressive regimes –if they are French, Spanish, British, American, Norwegian, for example.  If Egyptian, not a clue.  Not a clue about much of Egypt after the Pyramids for most of us, unless it is that Napoleon brought his armies and archeologists there.  There is much more of a story to be told, of course, and many stories could be told to get at the larger one.


Henry Barakat’s 1961 A Man in Our House, tells one such story, very much in the European style.  Using the 1952 Free Officers led revolt against King Farouk as the context, a  brave young man hurls himself against the unjust government — Omar Sharif, as Ibrahim,  assassinates the Prime Minister– and has to go into hiding in the house of ambivalently supportive citizens.  His presence endangers the whole family, particularly since they are not as partisan as he is.  The father has to make difficult decisions about how much can be risked, and is pulled out of his a-political stance by his son and daughter, the maternal feelings of his wife for the young man, and her empathy with the likely worries of his mother.  There are several good scenes arguing and worrying over what being caught would imply.  And, despite the danger [or because of it?] Ibrahim falls in love with the daughter, who reciprocates and gets drawn into dangerous message carrying.  Love is always a problem for militancy, of course and he is pulled in the two directions of safety and sacrifice.  That’s the movie, in a nut-shell.  Contrary to the happy ending possibilities of such stories, Sharif decides his place is with the resistance fighters, and in a desperate attack on the Army Barracks manages to ignite the ammunition storage, destroying the base, and himself.

Filmed in black and white, with decent sub-titles and good story line it’s worth watching.  The relations in a “good middle class family” of Egypt of the 50s are on display.  The sense of fear for the young woman on the street by herself will grip everyone, and not just because of her role as a messenger.  Even though she could go out uncovered, in a conventional 1950s skirt, the fact that everyone else in the street and in the cars are men, makes us realize how precarious her situation is.  When Sharif masquerades as a taxi driver to be able to talk to her we are almost knocked off balance by the audacity:  this is not New York City of the same decade, where young women regularly went to work and took taxis.   Sharif, young and beautiful, is persuasive as a young militant — though his deference to the wishes of the father, and willingness to keep running, have an oddly obsequious note, probably only to western ears.

Barakat was an old hand in the Egyptian film business when he directed this, his 37th film.  The lighting, camera work, claustrophobia of the small house, the realistic sense of the dialog [of course we’re seeing a reduced version in the sub-titles] are all marks of this.  He was also the credited screen writer for some 18 movies, though this is not among them.  [His Curlew’s Cry was reviewed here a few weeks ago.]  The ad-hoc nature of the militants’ attacks will strike most of us as unrealistic, not something likely to topple entrenched power [he killed the Prime Minister without a safe house to go to?] Presumably, the film-time needed to be spent with the family, and their representation of other civilians in such times, rather than on the organizing prowess of the militias.    The pyrotechnics at the end however, will impress, even in black and white.


And, for added interest, the screen play [if not an entire novel, it’s unclear] was written by Abdel Qoddous, a well known opposition journalist of the era, and much called-upon screen writer.

A Poem from Egypt

from The Utopia of Cemeteries

Unpainted walls,
stone filled ground
fragile bones not even able to stand
and my bones are stuck in the middle
I am thinking of a small demonstration
to protest against the angels
who deprived us of the necessary calcium
God is above the ditch extending His shadow over us
and letting us sleep late
A drop of light falls from His hands
A darkened body enters
The drop dries
and we get to know our new colleague
with an open heart.
He gives us cigarettes with extra generosity
We like his voice when he mutters:
“What the hell is happening here?”

Ahmad Yamani, Egypt

from Beruit 39: New Writing from the Arab World, edited by Samuel Shimon, Bloomsbury Press, 2010

I’ve been pouring over anthologies of Arab literature and hope to have some reviews coming up. Meanwhile, I liked this poem from Egypt, or perhaps Spain, where the writer, Ahmad Yamani, born in 1970, is now studying.

Struggle on the Nile: Three Tough Guys and a Dame in Egypt

In Struggle on the Nile, a 1959 movie from the golden age of Egyptian cinema, you will encounter a young Omar Sharif as you’ve never imagined him — after witnessing the wonder of his stately good looks in Dr. Zhivago (1965), Lawrence of Arabia, (1962) and other movies of his Hollywood years.  Sharif was Egyptian of course.  Somehow though, we never think of him as Egyptian Egyptian — a young man, speaking Arabic and floating down the Nile with an older friend engaged to teach him how to be a man.  Yet that’s what we have in Struggle on the Nile.

Muhasab, [Sharif,] is a very young, very innocent — and very pretty — man, dizzily in love with the belle of Luxor village, Ward [no credits found], and is being sent off to Cairo by his recently blind father, to sell the last of the lateen sail feloukas of the village, “The Bride of the Nile,”  and buy a big motorized barge to compete with the other traders and boat owners along the river.  “The future is in steam and gasoline,” says one of the elders.  A long time friend of his father, Mujahed [ Rushdy Abazza] is to be the Chief of the boat. He is handed the sack of money collected by the village, much of it from selling their own boats and,  in a show of trust, and respect, gives the money to Muhasab for safe-keeping.

The scenes along the river and on the boats are filled with period detail — men handling rope, scampering up the mast, furling the large tri-corner sail.  The voices of the  old men in the village are filled with consternation over the coming changes —  “No one can defy time.” Read more of this post

A Citizen, A Detective & A Thief: Comic Relief in Egyptian Cinema

Up to this film I was prepared to believe Egyptian movies only dealt with serious matters in serious ways.  Adrift on the Nile, and The Curlew’s Cry, both in stark black and white, look at small groups of people and how they treat one another, some tenderly, some horrifically.  Both are undergirded by the question of sexual morality, freedom, class, the treatment of women by men.  As the credits roll, one reflects and thinks, but does not laugh.

That has changed with A Citizen, A Detective & A Thief, a 2001 madcap tale of these three fellows, and of course, the women in their lives — in the central case, the one woman in two lives.   It’s hard to slot this film in any well known space of western cinema.  By turns droll, silly, sad, and brutal, with long musical numbers thrown in, from a prison mess hall to a hip-and-belly churning wedding it too deals with class relations, corruption, the relations between the sexes and the social lubrication in a garrulous culture of “arrangement.”   There’s a lot to like in it, and a few things that could have used some editing.  Though, as the main story comes to a culmination and the director, Daoud Abdel Sayed, keeps going with an enormous long tail of more scenes to show several generations following the main characters, we continue to be tickled, even if only for the comic effect of speeding through so many important events.

The crux of the story is that The Citizen, a well education, monied and handsome young man, Selim [Khaled Abol Naga,] is in the throes of writing his first novel.  An old family friend, Fathi, The Detective, wonderfully played by Salah Abdallah, who arrives to help track down The Citizen’s stolen car, persuades him he needs a housemaid, being a bachelor and all.  The very tempting Hayat, [Hend Sabri] arrives.  Not only is she good looking, she is bright and tough, more than a match for the educated Selim.  She is also the girlfriend of The Thief, [Shabaan Abdel Rehim] who is in prison as the movie begins.  Rehim is, in real life, a popular singer and  he puts this to good use in the movie,  often singing a kind of Egyptian “corrido,” telling of the events of the day or week, how he feels and wants others to look on him, or what they are going through — a day in prison, for example.

Selim, though he has an upper class girlfriend is, naturally, attracted to Hayat and they find themsleves beneath the sheets — with a bit of his bare chest and her bare arms showing.  She has not yet been forthcoming about her other friend, and Selim is still blissfully unaware.  When she steals a few of his things, including the novel, the story gets really silly and rich.  It turns out that the Thief is extremely well read and fancies himself the literary critic.  In his opinion, Selim’s novel would be more useful keeping them warm. Into the fire it goes.  In the fight that follows, the Thief loses and eye, which being a singer, he sings about to help him through the pain….

Honest, it’s a funny movie to watch — except for a couple of more than slap-stick beatings administered to Hayat.  Upper class boy marries lower class girl; upper class girl is very content with the Thief – though they all regress to their original loves from time to time, with no hurt feelings, natch.  The constant  Thanks to God, It’s all in His hands, the praise heaped on each other, even trouble is intended,  and the wonderful hand gestures as arguments are advanced add to the enjoyment as we watch folks not too different from us act in ways that are different enough to set us up for some very engaged viewing.

The Nightingale’s Prayer – An Egyptian Movie Classic

The Egyptian classic, titled either The Curlew’s Cry or The Nightingale’s Prayer, depending on the translator, will not be for everyone. But director Henry Barakat was one of the grand old men of Egyptian cinema until his death in 1997. Faten Hamama was the most important leading lady in the Golden Age of cinema of the 1950s, and her co-star Ahmed Mazhar an Egyptian Cary Grant.   The story, based on Taha Hussein’s 1934 novel, The Prayer of the Curlew, of the scoundrel brought to goodness by the sweet, resolute young woman may be one of the favorite themes of literature around the world, second only to young, indomitable warrior stories.  Add to the transformation of the man, the lifting up of the poor girl to the life of wealth and true love and you’ve got  a winner.

In Hussein’s telling, and Barakat’s handling, we have two additional elements, not so common, at least in the European conception.  We first meet the family of three women — mother and two daughters– as they are forced by the mother’s brother to flee their village, after he has killed her husband, for adultery.   The absolute power of the dominant male in the family is understood more as history than as actuality for western audiences.  That it is not only his physical force that sends them out as beggars, but the women’s agreement — at least the mothers– that this must be so.

The two girls find work as maids in the city but soon after the oldest, Hanadi,  is seduced by her employer, the Engineer.  A charming and wealthy young man, he has little idea of the rural values she has come from.  Her uncle appears to remind her.  As with her father, the punishment for such a transgression, and shame, is death.  He is her judge and executioner.  Again, the mother seems to agree with the action.

Hamna, [Hamama] the younger sister,  however, is made of different stuff.   Brought up with traditional values, but now adapting to modernity and the city, she hold her uncle guilty for the killing, and the engineer for the dishonoring.  She arranges to become his maid with the intention of killing him — by poison, or any other means she might come upon.

Naturally, life plays its usual games.  The Engineer wants her.  She resists.  He wants her more.  She wants to kill him, but his declarations seem sincere.  She pours the poison and as he lifts the cup to his lips, seems to stumble and knock it out of his hands.  She is troubled be her feelings.  He is troubled by his.  In conversation with a prostitute girlfriend he begins to realize his true feelings.

When the uncle arrives, hot to avenge another dishonoring, this time of Amna, there is only one course left for  the Engineer – to sacrifice his life for his love.

The film, available from Netflix, [and strongly praised in the comments,] has been restored — of which there are some examples in the extra materials.  Even so it is sometimes very contrasty, and with odd light flares at transitions.  The scenes along the Nile are often too dark to be appreciated. Nevertheless, for international film buffs, or those with a particular interest in Egypt this is a must see film.

From The Arabic Film Blog, here is another review, in praise.   And here is one, which wishes it were something more.

Wind Power News

The government could issue leases for four new East Coast wind farms by year’s end as part of a streamlined approval process designed to quickly identify the nation’s most promising areas for offshore wind energy, theU.S. Department of the Interior said Monday.

The U.S. Department of Energy also said it intends to spend more than $50 million over the next five years to speed development of the farms and help meet President BarackObama’s goal of generating 80 percent of the nation’s electricity from clean energy sources by 2035.

SF Gate

Food, Floods and Drought

Krugman looks at Egypt, food prices and the fast changing world climate:

We’re in the midst of a global food crisis — the second in three years. World food prices hit a record in January, driven by huge increases in the prices of wheat, corn, sugar and oils. These soaring prices have had only a modest effect on U.S. inflation, which is still low by historical standards, but they’re having a brutal impact on the world’s poor, who spend much if not most of their income on basic foodstuffs…

While several factors have contributed to soaring food prices, what really stands out is the extent to which severe weather events have disrupted agricultural production. And these severe weather events are exactly the kind of thing we’d expect to see as rising concentrations of greenhouse gases change our climate — which means that the current food price surge may be just the beginning.

The question then becomes, what’s behind all this extreme weather?

To some extent we’re seeing the results of a natural phenomenon, La Niña — a periodic event in which water in the equatorial Pacific becomes cooler than normal. And La Niña events have historically been associated with global food crises, including the crisis of 2007-8.

But that’s not the whole story. Don’t let the snow fool you: globally, 2010 was tied with 2005 for warmest year on record, even though we were at a solar minimum and La Niña was a cooling factor in the second half of the year. Temperature records were set not just in Russia but in no fewer than 19 countries, covering a fifth of the world’s land area. And both droughts and floods are natural consequences of a warming world: droughts because it’s hotter, floods because warm oceans release more water vapor.

Read all

Nawal El Saadawi: Still in the Mix in Cairo at 80

Nick Kristof in one of his posts from Tahrir Square in Cairo, talks about a hero of his, Dr. Nawal El Saadawi.

In the center of Tahrir Square, also known as Liberation Square, I bumped into one of my heroes, Dr. Nawal El Saadawi, a leading Arab feminist who for decades has fought female genital mutilation. Dr. Saadawi, who turns 80 this year, is white-haired and frail and full of fiery passion.

“I feel I am born again,” she said, adding that she intended to sleep with the protesters on Tahrir Square. She also suggested that instead of being sent into comfortable exile, Mr. Mubarak should be put on trial as a criminal; that’s a theme I’ve heard increasingly often among pro-democracy activists.

By chance, I’ve been reading one of Saadawi’s novels, Two Women in One.  Written  in the middle of her writing life, Two Women in One, captures a young woman, Bahia Shaheen who is much like a younger Saadawi, at an earlier time, much like the present in Egypt.

She goes to see a demonstration with her girlfriends

Suddenly the world seemed to rumble and shake as if an earthquake were rocking sky and earth…. it was the sound of thousands of voices raised in unison; like the roar of thunder, like millions of voices melting into one enormous sound, filling the world, not merely reaching the ears but penetrating the pores of the skin and investing all the orifices of the body, spreading like gas and flowing like blood through the cells.

And later, after her life has changed enormously:

In the small square Raouf turned right and was swallowed up by the dark street.  Fawzi headed for the main square.  Bahiah strode toward the waiting bus, her chest heaving, her breath coming in gasps.  She clutched the  leather bag bulging with leaflets to her chest.  She knew where to go.  She knew where to take the blazing words.

People of Egypt!  Awake!  Throw open your windows, open your eyes and see the chains coiled around your necks!  Open your minds and see that the sweat of your brows is being plundered.  Your crops are stolen, your flesh is devoured until you are left only skin and bones, skeletons lining up, leaning on each other.  Your breath is torn by fits of coughing and blood pours from a deep wound in your chest.

Two Women in One was written in 1983, after she had been released from prison for objecting to the Jerusalem Peace Treaty. She was released a week after Sadat’s assassination. Despite the above quote, and Bahia’s love of an imprisoned anti-government protester, the novel is not, for the most part, directly political.  It is enormously political in the feminist sense — that the personal is political.   Bahia holds center stage throughout the novel; it could almost be written as a monolog, though Saadawi has chosen the third person to reveal her to us.

We start as Shaheen is in Anatomy class at the university, one of a very few young women, as the professor guides them in dissection. We see her immediately as she sees herself — someone outside the prescribed roles of Egyptian life at the time.

She stood with her right foot on the edge of a marble table and her left foot on the floor, a posture unbecoming for a woman… In those days girls’s skirts made it impossible for them to stand like that. Their skirts wound tightly round the thighs and narrowed at the knees, so that their legs remained bound together whether they are sitting, standing, or walking…the legs and knees remained clamped, as if they were pressing their thighs together to protect something they were afraid might fall.

She had always been curious to know just what it was that might fall the minute a girls’s legs were parted.

The book is a constant, desperate struggle for Bahia to understand her self; her two selves. She is pinched and twisted by the demands of the world she doesn’t understand, or if she understands doesn’t want to accept. When as a child she undresses to show her mother that she is a girl, not a boy, her mother slaps her. When she won’t promise not to do it again, she is slapped again.

…her mind grasped a strange fact: pursing her lips and bowing her head, she realized that people suppress only real desires, because they are strong, while unreal desires are weak and need no laws to keep them in check.

Men can not be trusted

When their fingers moved as they go on or off the triam, they might be exchanging greetings or threats. Everything about them became confused. Their every aspect was identical to its opposite. A smile was a threat, truth a lie, virtue vice, and love hate.

In fact, at times,  it seems we may be reading about a descent into madness, a young woman so out of time, and with so little friendship, that her acute sensation of the absurd will destroy her. At times she can’t distinguish boundaries — did the bright flame come from the candle or from her finger? Someone calls her name. It sounds like it belongs to someone else.

She got a shock every time she heard her name and a hidden feeling would tell her that someone was calling her own name, selecting her from among millions of other bodies…

Faces all seem the same. She asks her mother, “Am I Bahia?” and the mother doesn’t understand her; she never understands her mother.  Their eyes do not meet.

It is only when she meets Saleem that the curve of madness begins to cease falling.

When his eyes moved in front of hers, she felt as if he were seeing her. It was the first time she had ever been seen by any eyes other than her own.

He puts out his hand… it was the first hand ever to envelop hers. He appreciates her paintings.    He says her name.

The name Bahia had become very special. It was not like the name Bahia — any Bahia — but referred to her in particular, her and nobody else, her to the exclusion of all others, that particular being of hers now standing beside him, the borders of her body sharp separate from the space outside…

And so she finds her way into her true self. When her father pulls her out of school and marries her, she refuses the marriage bed, kicking the groom so hard he cannot perform. No proof of virginity stains the sheets. She escapes and tries to hide. Her anatomy professor offers her a ride, and his love. She kicks him as well

“It seems I’ve made a mistake,” he said, “I thought you were in love with me.”
“Where on earth did you get that idea?” she answered in amazement.
“I understand women,” he said in his lecturer’s tone.
“With what brain?”
He pointed to his head and smiled. “Man has only one brain, in his head. Didn’t I teach you that in the dissecting room?
“The dissecting room is one thing, the truth is another,” she said scornfully.
“What is the truth?”
“That a man’s brain is not in his head.”
“Where then?”
“Between his legs,” she answered boldly.
“He put on his jacket, saying “You’re not normal, girl.”
“You’re a perfectly normal man,” she said smiling.

At novel’s end, followed by her father and husband, by government agents as well, for her leafleting she realizes that she can be true to herself only by walking into capture.

She was sure she would not plunge into the abyss. She would not surrender. She would not be Bahia Shaheen, would not return to the ordinary faces, would not sink into the sea of similar bodies or tumble into the grave of ordinary life.

She walks towards the police, holding out her wrists “Let’s go!”

Two Women in One is some times repetitious, in the way of obsessive thoughts.  Sometimes it doesn’t move ahead with the urgency of what is happening to Bahia.  As a very early forecast however, by a very impressive woman, of what is happening today in Egypt — and in which she is able to participate, it is quite remarkable.   As a remarkable “journal” of self-discovery by a determined woman, it is worth reading.  As other reviewers commented at the time of publication, it is not about only  about ‘two Egyptian women in one,’  but to some extent about every thinking woman.

El Saadawi has spent all of her life as a physician and writer.  She was  Director of Public Health in Cairo for a time,  and has worked for the UN.  Threatened by Islamist fundamentalists for her advocacy for women — and her lifelong battle against genital mutilation, which she herself suffered, she fled Egypt in 1988.  She has taught at Duke, and the University of Washington and other universities.  She returned to Egypt in 1996.

And as Kristof tells us, is happy happy happy to be out in Tahrir square.

Amy Goodman has a very recent interview with her on Democracy Now.

Brief comments about her on Kutub, a reading group, where I first ran into her, and this book.

Enotes has biographical and bibliographic information as well as citing some of her critics — as having a pro-west bias by exposing too much of problematic Egyptian culture.