Egypt in the '40s was apparently one of the world's great commercial film centers, along with Hollywood and Bombay, and the sophisticated fit and finish of these pictures is proof positive. They are industrial entertainment products of a very high order.
It takes time and patience, after all, to grow a performer like Naguib Al-Rahini, the pouchy-faced old pro who stars in The Flirtation of Girls (Ghazal Al-Banat, 1949), a stage-derived farce that recalls a Hollywood studio programmer of the '40s, until an unexpected ache of loneliness and resignation wells up. (At times it plays like The Blue Angel rewritten by P.G. Wodehouse.) Al-Rahini plays a tired teacher of Arabic who pathetically misinterprets the calculated flirting of his latest pupil, the spoiled daughter of a local pasha. Sputtering foolishly one minute and eating his heart out the next, Al-Rahini's Hamam ("Pigeon") is a soft-hearted almost-old man thrown off balance by an upsurge of spring sap; for poor Pigeon, this May-December disappointment is also an intimation of mortality.
A movie like Dahab (1953) feels oddly displaced in time; less than 50 years old, it harks all the way back to Chaplin's The Kid and other silent tearjerkers. Perhaps a form of social-cultural jet lag was setting in, or a wave of postwar nostalgia. The film's director, Anwar Wagdi, plays a homeless street musician who adopts and raises the abandoned infant Dahab, and then has to fight her greedy relatives for custody. Dahab is essentially a melodrama, studded with stand-alone variety-show attractions: a funny-eating scene that is worked to the last flick of the wrist by the veteran comic Ismail Yasin, whose rubbery mug recalls both Fernandel and Joe E. Brown, and a nightclub dance routine in which the title character (an eerily precocious 8-year-old girl played by the child prodigy Fayruz) mimics several top stars of the period, including a couple of slinky belly dancers -- a coy display that few modern Westerners could sit through without squirming.
Samiya Gamal, one of the spangled sirens imitated in Dahab, turns up in the flesh (as it were) in Every Beat of My Heart (Kull Daqqa fi Qalbi, 1959), a backstage screwball romance, with some great sly back-chat, about a crafty music teacher (singer-songwriter Muhammad Fawzi) who schemes to win the heart of an established diva while laid up in his apartment with a broken leg. Although the backward-looking Dahab was only a few years old, the tone of mainstream commercial cinema in Egypt had evidently shifted to fabulous-'50s modern, complete with sports cars, toreador pants and hip-swiveling cha-cha numbers. But this touching eagerness to get with it, to become frivolous and urbane, was sadly short-lived: In 1964, Nasser nationalized the Egyptian film industry, which turned its back on the West and went in for homegrown uplift.
Love in Karnak (Gharam fi al-Karnak, 1967), for instance, is a fact-based morale booster about the Rida Troupe of Folkloric Arts, an outfit that recycled indigenous song and dance forms, a sort of Egyptian Riverdance. Karnak is the first film in the series that gets out much, abandoning studio drawing room and nightclub sets for the great outdoors. The influence of the Gene Kelly
Stanley Donen dance films is evident in the production numbers, in which squads of artistes prance through the ancient ruins. There's a dream sequence here, in which lead dancer Mahmoud Rida fantasizes an encounter with the Pharaohs, that could be a candy-colored Technicolor outtake from Kismet. The generic romance-on-the rocks plot gives us something comfy to cling to amid all the muscular ethnicity. And the leading lady, Farida Fahmy, twirls and jiggles with the best of them.
It's a big leap from the monuments of ancient Karnak to the working-class section of modern Alexandria that nurtures Seif, the aspiring-pop-star hero of Ice Cream in Gleam (Ays Krim fi Glym, 1992). Based loosely on the career of its leading man, current Egyptian chart-topper Amr Diyab, and employing plot devices from Western musical-rebel pictures already decades old, Gleam depicts a pop scene playing catch-up. This observant film is a sharp snapshot of the musical and economic forces that made a figure such as Amr Diyab possible, enabling the youthful innovators to sidestep the social control imposed by the state-owned radio networks and other institutions. The maneuvers include an explosion in the 1980s of cheap, often pirated audio cassettes, like the ones Seif delivers on his motorbike to fly-by-night stalls around the city. Internalizing a grab bag of influences that include Elvis and Bob Marley, Seif briefly tries on rai-inflected protest music, settling instead upon a more digestible form of one-size-fits-all dance pop. We're not all that far from the sports-car hipsterism of Samiya Gamal's Every Beat of My Heart, as if a new wave of performers had finally taken up the banner of modernization set aside in the Nasser era.
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As enjoyable as these pictures are individually, what's really invigorating about the series as a whole is the uncharted terrain it opens up. The excitement of discovering an entire film culture that benighted Westerners barely knew existed -- this is the inveterate moviegoer's equivalent of an upsurge of spring sap, but without the letdown in the final reel.
Thanks to Irene G. Behnan for translations and cultural notes.
MUSIC ON THE NILE: Fifty Years of Egyptian Musical Films | James Bridges Theater, UCLA | April 6, 8 and 10 | For showtimes and ticket information, call (310) 206-FILM. Program notes are available
online at www.arce.org/newyork.html