Egypt: The Boil from Below

Interesting article by Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed, environmental writer for the Guardian (UK), which places the current events in Egypt in the much larger, world changing-fast events

 …the fundamental drivers of Egyptian rage remain overlooked.

Morsi’s key problem was that he had spent most of his energies on consolidating the reach of his party, the Muslim Brotherhood, rather than dealing with Egypt’s entrenched social, economic and political problems. Indeed, Egyptian unrest is the consequence of a fatal cocktail of structural failures rooted in an unsustainable global model of industrial civilisation – addicted to fossil fuels, wedded fanatically to casino capitalism, and convinced, ostrich-like, that somehow technology alone will save us.

Egypt’s oil production peaked in 1996, and since then has declined by around 26%. Having moved from complete food self-sufficiency since the 1960s, to excessive dependence on imports subsidised by oil revenues (now importing 75% of its wheat), declining oil revenues have increasingly impacted food and fuel subsidies. As high food prices are generally underpinned by high oil prices – because energy accounts forover a third of the costs of grain production – this has further contributed to surging global food prices.

Food price hikes have coincided with devastating climate change impacts in the form of extreme weather in key food-basket regions.

When Food Shortages Bring War

When Food Shortages Bring War

It’s not just climate change and oil, though.  It’s the human analysis and response to changing conditions that are driving the horses over the cliff instead of trying to keep them on the crumbling road.

With 40% of Egyptians already below the UN poverty line of less than £2 a day, Morsi’s IMF-inspired policies amounted to a form of economic warfare on the Egyptian people. To make matters worse, as Egypt’s economic crisis made it harder to arrange payments, wheat imports dropped sharply – between 1 January and 20 February, the country bought around 259,043 tonnes, roughly a third of what it purchased in the same period a year ago. Coupled with ongoing unemployment and poverty, Morsi’s Egypt was a time-bomb waiting to explode.

Nor are the problems Egypt’s alone:

 Egypt is in some ways a microcosm of our global challenges. With the age of cheap oil well and truly behind us, an age of climate extremes and population growth ahead, we should expect increasing food prices for the foreseeable future. This in turn will have consequences. For the last few years, the food price index has fluctuated above the critical threshold for probability of civil unrest.

Unless Egypt’s leaders and activists begin taking stock of the convergence of crises unraveling the social fabric, their country faces a permanent future of intensifying turmoil.

And that lesson, in a world facing rising food, water and energy challenges, is one no government can afford to ignore.

The Guardian: Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed

Egypt: Rocked Again

“Resignations rocked the government of President Mohamed Morsi on Thursday as tanks from the special presidential guard took up positions around his palace and the state television headquarters after a night of street fighting between his Islamist supporters and their secular opponents that left at least 6 dead and 450 wounded.

The director of state broadcasting resigned Thursday, as did Rafik Habib, a Christian who was the vice president of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the party’s favorite example of its commitment to tolerance and pluralism. Their departures followed an announcement by Zaghoul el-Balshi, the new general secretary of the commission overseeing a planned constitutional referendum, that he was quitting. “I will not participate in a referendum that spilled Egyptian blood,” he said in a television interview during the clashes late Wednesday night.”

NY Times


Tahrir Square, Redux

Despite the fears of some for an Islamic party taking power in Egypt through elections, the Army retains its role as the most feared.  Tens of thousands showed up in Tahrir square to protest its recent re-write of the constitution and giving itself all final power. (Slide show linked to photo…)

The generals’ moves were denounced across the political spectrum here as a military coup, Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

The Mother of the Bride – Screwball Comedy from Egypt, 1967

Comedies of family life have been a regular feature of movies and television in the US from the 1950s right down to today.  From Jackie Gleason and Audry, Ricky and Lucy with no kids, to Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best with cute, sometimes mischievous kids viewers enjoyed watching beleaguered men try to stay in charge while wives took care of everything that mattered.   Sometimes the kids bossed each other around, sometimes got into trouble.  Dad was besieged with money worries, mom was always to the go-to-gal.  It seems the same was true in Egypt.

Mother of the Bride from 1963 is  cut from the same cloth. Father Hussein, a mid-level government functionary, with enough time on his hands to produce 7 children, from marriageable age to a suckling child, is besieged by the racket in the house, the demands of his wife to pitch in and deal with the kids before she explodes.  The eldest daughter sees, is introduced to, becomes betrothed and married to a young man in less than a month.  The  second daughter, caught up in the wedding planning – and slightly wider dating parameters with an engaged sister–  follows in the same path, and begs permission to be married just as the nuptials of the first are finished.

Money, virtue, money, family insults, childhood behavior, money are the main markers of a mildly amusing movie. We are taken by many similarities of US movies we may have seen, and struck by the differences. Three younger kids share a triple bunk bed. The two older girls share a room. The teen-age boy is gunning to be in charge of family morals and the four year old is cute and obnoxious – like one of the Spanky and Our Gang kids – asking for a piaster for anything he does.  Mom and Dad make side comments to the kids about the other. “Your mother is hot-tempered.  She must have some Turkish blood in her!”

I suppose the most striking thing to an American audience will be the high decibel level of family discourse. Everything, it seems, is carried on in shouts – from the mother, to the small-fry. It’s sort of like child-rearing by verbal assault, though perhaps not that far from ideas we might have about Italian, Irish or Jewish immigrants in our movies.  And I was struck, that in a 1963 movie, Egypt or elsewhere, that the mother would be shown pulling her breast out to feed the child.  It was quick, but it was there.

Besides the lightning fast engagement party arranged by the groom’s parents with a formal visit to the bride-to-be’s house – with her OK, as this is a liberal household– the most memorable scene is when the grooms’ family re-visits to complain about the cheapness of the bride’s father in getting the new apartment furnished. We have already seen mother, father and daughter in department stores, he approving of the cheaper goods while mother, once he walks away, orders the more expensive. The groom’s mother, father and aunt show up and abuse the bride’s family, with threats of withdrawing the engagement unless things get better fast. It’s a memorable little bit, even if over-done.

We learn that, at least in those years, the groom’s family paid a dowry, or bride price, in cash, to the bride’s father who  is then responsible for setting the couple up. Papa Hussein is stretched to the limit, and after the abusive visit, figures out that a temporary loan from some government funds in his safe will see him through. Of course the anxiety of getting caught becomes part of the story – right thorough to the wedding night. Every thing ends happily, as such films must and will plenty of ululating by the women, as this is a movie from Egypy

Atef Salem, with32 films to his credit, including the noirish  Struggle on the Nile, reviewed here earlier, put together a good cast and handles the fast moving action inside the house quite well — people coming and going in and out of the frame in a kind of synchronized chaos.  At one point a goat and some chickens join the parade.

Taheya Carrioca who plays Zeinab, the mother, was one of Egypt’s great leading ladies, with 59 some film roles before her death in 1999.  Imad Hamdi, as Hussein the father, was even more employed with 96 titles to his name.

As is true with most of these Arabic language movies I’ve been watching, the main reason in 2011 to watch them is curiosity about how the other half live, as it were.  The world is so much smaller now than 50 years ago.  We can hear and see our neighbors much more clearly but we still have some last century ideas about who they are and what kind of devils they are.  Movies are just one way to begin to dissolve the knots on those ideas and be more ready to acknowledge them as another bunch pretty much like we are, warts and all, weddings and all, distraught fathers and all.




Afrita Hanem: The Genie Lady — Egypt, 1951

Egypt as Egyptian movie goers saw it in 1951 (1949?) in Afrita Hanem: The Genie Lady [also known as Little Miss Devil] sings and dances onto the screen in this musical comedy with a magic lantern and a beautiful genie at the center of it.  There is a cave, of course, with an old man who appears and disappears at will, an old house transformed into a palace at the clap of the hands, fine food brought by finely dressed servants and plenty more.  Being a musical there are love ballads sung to maidens on balconies; being a love story bouquets of flowers brought to the object of affection; being a comedy those flowers dumped in the back alley as the swain makes his pleas.  More than that, there is a 30,000 dinar dowry  that must be matched which, with a genie alongside should not be a problem but since she’s the jealous type, it still is.

It’s about as daring as America’s own 1950s Doris Day or Cary Grant movies — though the genie and some dancing girls have thigh high slits in their flowing trousers.  There is plenty of slapstick and the famous Jerry Lewis leap into Dean Martin’s arms when the singer’s goof-ball partner sees the old man for the first time.  Wild over-acting, false bravado and scampering retreats are all part of the mix.   It’s mildly amusing still but more interesting as a musical and filmic history lesson of a little known land for those interested.

Another Henry Barakat production, this time featuring the widely appreciated Samia Gamal in the role of the fetching genie, Kahramana, and Farid al Atrache as the poor but genial singer, Asfour.  Compared to the much more serious Barakat films The Curlew’s Cry and There’s a Man in Our House,  just ten years later, [both reviewed at the links] Afrit is a fun bit of froth — especially if you want to see belly dancing by the experts, or hear the songs of a soulful Egyptian Bing Crosby….

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.

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.