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….

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.

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.