Of bombs and allies

Soha Hesham , Monday 20 May 2024

Soha Hesham rediscovered the way filmmaker Asmaa Al-Bakri deployed the late Salah Al-Saadani’s talent.

Salah Al-Saadani


The Netherlands-Flemish Institute in Cairo held a special screening of Asmaa Al-Bakri’s Shahateen wa Nobalaa (Beggars and Noblemen, 1991), as a tribute to the renowned actor Salah Al-Saadani who passed away on 19 April.

The film is an adaptation of Egyptian born French writer Albert Cossery’s Mendiants et Orgueilleux (Beggars and Noblemen, 1955). Cossery’s novels are all set in his birthplace, Cairo, even though he spent most of his life in Paris.

The film opens with a newspaper on the ground: the headline, referring to Allies and Axis, indicates this is the time of World War II. The drama revolves around the lives of three bohemian men, Gohar (Salah Al-Saadani), Kordi (Mahmoud Al-Guindi) and Yakan (Ahmed Adam), who are trying to live outside legal, official or social restrictions, prioritising joy.

Gohar (Saadani) is the first to be introduced. Sleeping on the ground with only a pile of newspapers under him, he wakes up to a wet floor. That makes him wonder what could’ve happened, and whether it is a flood. And all of a sudden, he is terrified of the idea that his neighbours might be washing a corpse. Through flashbacks, the viewer realises that Gohar was once a university professor teaching history. He left his job life due to feeling alienated, deciding to live in a small room on the roof of a building.

Gohar’s relationship with Yakan and Kordi is based on drugs. They meet at different places in their poor neighbourhood, including the brothel where the former history professor now works as an accountant. Yakan is a homeless, dreamy character who lives in a world of fantasy and romance. He is in love with an aristocratic woman he never speaks to, hearing the music she plays outside her villa. A poet, Yakan sees Gohar as his mentor. He needs to beg to live.

As for Kordi, he is an armchair revolutionary, obsessed with the prospect of social justice. Influenced by Western literature, as Gohar points out, he calls for the rights of women and the poor, and never stops talking about the atomic bomb.

Capitalising on Al-Saadani’s talent, the screenplay offers a compelling portrait of Gohar, who is remarkably calm with a subtle, philosophical smile, regarding vagrancy as his life philosophy. But perhaps this demeanour hides a constant tension, for Gohar returns to the brother at an unusual time when his boss and colleagues are away, killing Arnaba (Lobna Wanas), one of the resident prostitutes, for absolutely no reason after they have sex. She has invited him into her room to write a letter to her uncle saying how happy she is, and then seduced him. But he hasn’t had any cannabis that evening…

Feeling as indifferent about this as anything he does. Gohar subconsciously wants to flout authority, but even so he feels nothing. As the social structure of the neighbourhood begins to unravel, the sense of existential detachment that makes them respond with the same lack of emotion to everything — a death or a wedding — despite their endless tolerance. This is beautifully dramatised by Al-Bakri.

Yakan is initially interrogated by the police officer Noureddine (Abdel-Aziz Makhyoun), the character who represents everything the three protagonists are not: the law, authority, social order. Yakan at first denies any knowledge of the crime. But later on both he and Kordi confess to the crime they did not commit, leaving Noureddine perplexed. He does not arrest them. Towards the end Gohar manages to convince Noureddine to take off his uniform and embrace vagrancy.

The film dramatises a philosophical vision that calls for revolution, prioritising pleasure and idleness as values in themselves. In the closing scene, it is announced on the radio that the two atomic bombs have been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, just as Kordi kept describing to the officer.

Filmmaker, screenwriter and producer Asmaa Al-Bakri (1947-2015) was born in Cairo, and started her filmmaking career in 1973 assisting Youssef Chahine on Awdet Al-Ibn Al-Dal (The Return of the Prodigal Son, 1976) and Khairy Bishara on Al-Aqdar Al-Dameya (The Bloody Destiny, 1982). She directed three feature films: Shahateen wa Nobalaa (Beggars and Nobles, 1991), Concerto in Darb Saada (2000), and Al-Onf wal Sokhreya (Violence and Irony, 2003).


* A version of this article appears in print in the 16 May, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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