Thursday, July 11, 2013

Egypt: Our Cinematic Heritage

When buying Egyptian gifts for foreigners, I prefer to stay clear of the usual pharaonic souvenirs. It seems unfair to narrow the many facets of Egypt down to one specific era. I have more than often opted for cotton t-shirts and unique wood art or silver accessories. I like the items to be visibly Egyptian, perhaps through design, color, or subject matter, but show casing a different side such as our sense of humor or Arabic roots.

I was fortunate enough to be in Cairo between June 22 and July 5 in 2013, during the ouster of The Brotherhood. My initial instinct was to gift my American friends a small replica of our Egyptian flag, the very same variety millions of Egyptians proudly carried during the marches. Having participated in the presidential palace stand ins, I must confess that my patriotic sense was in over drive. I finally settled on an assortment of items to demonstrate Egypt's diversity. The inevitable t-shirts found their way into an array of almond stuffed dates and hand crafted items, ensuring that I cater to the individual preferences of each recipient. Due to the political events, I only had a few hours on the very last day of the trip to complete my shopping. I made due with City Stars shopping mall in Heliopolis area. On the most part I was successful in my shopping spree  with the exception of one gift.

A US colleague of mine enjoys old black and white movies, with an affinity for musicals. I wanted to get him a DVD of one of the old Egyptian movies we used to watch on TV. I remember that the majority of those films, if not all, had both English and French subtitles. It would have been amazing to gift him the opportunity to experience the marvelous music of Mohamed Abdel Wahab or the powerful voice of Abdel Haleem Hafez, subtlety exhibiting the refined sophisticated beauty of the not-so-ancient Egyptian culture through the muted tones of the black and white footage, and disparaging the notion that we are rural hooligans roaming the desert on camel back in our third world country. I could only think of one place in City Stars to purchase such a DVD, Virgin Mega Store. Upon entering the establishment, I realized that it isn't so "Mega", with my favorite section in the store diminished to a corridor lined on one side with a measly collection of books. Nevertheless, I ventured to the inner most area where the CDs and DVDs are located. I was miserably disappointed with the selection of Egyptian films on display, a humble assortment of modern (i.e. colored) movies from the 70s and 80s, most of which were produced and distributed by Al Sobky, thus including no subtitles, or so I was informed by the shop assistant. I had to make due with a Lute medley of famous songs such as Ben Shateen wa Meyia.

Like the pyramids and other monuments, motions pictures and music have and will continue to shape our culture as a nation. Movies chronicle the history of the country in a much more vivid manner than written media. What are we doing to preserve these national treasures? For many years, there's been talk about a music museum named after Abdel Wahab and individual attempts to restore old movie negatives. I haven't been back to Bibliotheca Alexandrina since my first visit in 2002, yet shouldn't such establishments have cinematic and musical archives. Maybe The Cairo Opera House has already embarked on such efforts. However, I call on all Egyptian intellectuals to embrace this cause. I call on the ministry of culture to establish a cinema curation committee to work on the preservation of our national cinematic archives, a treasure trove of cultural gems such as Naguib Mahfouz's Trilogy, Al Bostagy (The Postman), Al Ard (The Land), and Bab El Hadid, to name a few. When The Cairo Film Festival is revived (I believe it should be, in due time), we should dedicate a section to the Egyptian and Arabic film heritage, juxtaposing the grace and beauty of those films with the coarse realities of current events and current movies. 

I am aware that Egypt, namely the government, has far more pressing issues with the frail economy and more than half the population living in poverty, but neglecting our cinematic artifacts will lead to the erosion of our cultural identity. Egyptian film legends such as Ismail Yassin and Youssef Chahine are as immortal and majestic as the Sphinx and thus deserve a similar place in our cultural repertoire.