Cinematic Cairo: The city from reel to real

Dina Ezzat , Wednesday 9 Feb 2022

Nezzar El-Sayyad, author and professor of architecture and history of urbanism, speaks about the Arabic edition of ‘Cinematic Cairo: Egyptian Urban Modernity between Reel and Real’ (Al-Qahera Al-Sinemaeiyah).

Cinematic Cairo
Cinematic Cairo: Egyptian Urban Modernity between Reel and Real (Al-Qahera Al-Sinemaeiyah),

The book was just published by Dar El-Maraya for this year’s Cairo International Book Fair.

The perception that the residents of Cairo hold of their city is often quite influenced by the images they see of the city on silver screen. And for the past 100 years, the relationship between the silver screen and Cairo has been as formidable as it was convergent. These are the main ideas of an over 300-page book that came out for this year’s Cairo International Book Fair by Dar El-Maraya and will be published in its original English by the American University in Cairo Press in spring.

The 13-chapter book was written by architects and art historians to carefully dissect the complex relationship between Cairo, the cinematic version of the city, and the Cairo that falls between the real and the reel.

Cinematic Cairo: Egyptian Urban Modernity from Reel to Real

The book is edited by El-Sayyad, who is an author of several titles on Cairo, and Heba Safy El-Deen, professor of architecture and urban planning.

Examining a set of close to 25 films – starting with the 1929 Al-Warda Al-Beada (The White Rose) to the 2016 Nawwara – the authors examine many elements of how the silver screen captures and reflects on the city influences the image that the residents of Cairo have of their own city.

“In fact, what the book does is go against the assumption that film documents reality, because it is actually the exact opposite: it is the city that jumps into the silver screen,” El-Sayyad argued. Effectively, he added, it is “the image of the city as perceived by [filmmakers] that impacts the perception of the city by its own inhabitants.” In this sense, El-Sayyed said, “real and reel” become two sides of the same coin.

The Arabic version of 'Cinematic Cairo: Egyptian Urban Modernity from Reel to Real'

It was over 20 years ago that El-Sayyad came face to face with this reality when the child of a visiting friend asked about the Statue of Liberty as they walked on Brooklyn Bridge in New York. For El-Sayyad, who knows New York well, these were two different elements of the city that fall in different parts. However, for this visiting child, who saw the Statue of Liberty for the first time behind the Brooklyn Bridge in a favourite local movie, they were connected. 

This, El-Sayyad said, is what cinema does – not just to those who come to a city, but even to those who live in a city, “they see it through what they had acquired about it from the silver screen.”

The 13 chapters of ‘Cinematic Cairo’ picks up films that reflect on Cairo of the bourgeoisie, Cairo of the poor, Cairo of the aspiring and then defeated middle class, Cairo of the heydays of socialism, Cairo of a nation living with the shock of a humiliating military defeat and Cairo where men and women peacefully share and later battle over public and private space.

Unlike in a previous book by El-Sayyad, which was published in 2007, titled Cinematic Urbanism, El-Sayyad goes into the social layers of the history of the city. It examines the socio-economic status of residents, the change of the status of men and women, especially in the public sphere, and the space of religion in the minds and hearts of individuals – all through examining what the Egyptian silver screen has been putting out about the city, its suburbs and its residents in around a century.

In addition to following the evolution of architectural styles and urban norms, El-Sayyad said, the book “more precisely it follows what the city has really been going through”.

In Al-Qalb loh ahkam (Rules of the heart), a late 1950s Egyptian film, there is the poorer but composed neighbourhood of Boulak and the posh but reactionary neighbourhood of Zamalek – with only a bridge (Abou El-Ela) connecting the two neighbourhoods.

In this film, the viewer gets to see the details of two different lifestyles and the signs of the eventual defeat of socialism, because it is through marrying into a higher socio-economic class rather than achieving academic and professional merit that the lead female character finds happiness and comes to part with her discomfort over her social class. A significant message, El-Sayyed noted, for a film that was produced during the times of socialism as promoted by president Gamal Abdel-Nasser.

“However, if we compare the setting of poverty as portrayed in this late 1950s film with that of Nawwara, which came out in 2016, where poverty is no longer about a humble residential zone but about shanty towns, we do get to see what the city has been through the past 60 years,” El-Sayyad said. Similarly, he added, comparing the venue of wealth, as represented in the Zamalek neighbourhood in the 1950s film to those of the high-end residential compounds of the past decade as they appear in the newer film, reveals a lot about what wealth has been about. “It is no longer a neighbourhood across a bridge, it is rather a segregated residential area,” he explained.

Similarly, the book shows the changing social norms, especially in the three films that adapted Naguib Mahfouz’s famous trilogy.

“In the first film (A Palace Walk) we see an uncompromisingly dominating Sayyed Ahmed Abdel-Gawwad, whose image of male chauvinism mellows in the subsequent two parts to a less aggressive version,” he said.

Moreover, the films also reflect on the changing residential settings where the family of Abdel-Gawwad moves from a house to an apartment. Consequently, as the book notes, it is no longer the roof of the house, but rather the entrance of the apartment building where neighbours get to exchange private conversations.

This is not the only ‘evolution’ that the viewer gets to see in the span of three films, following the three-part literary work that depicts the life of a middle-class Cairene family. There are also changing images of architecture, urbanism and of life in the city, because the scenery is no longer about the Old Cairo quarters and the traditional windows through which women look upon the street below. In the third film, there are images of girls’ schools, Cairo university and modern houses.

Cairo, as seen in the sequel of the chapters of this over 300-page Cinematic Cairo, in its Arabic edition, is a city that is turning from a widening urban space into a pressing place of noisy traffic jams, condensed housing lots and growing signs of unplanned development. It changes from being the city where public transport is the norm, even if the service is dilapidating, to a city that is falling under the harsh sway of neoliberalism, where the service of government-run buses recedes to give space to private-run mini-buses that speed through the streets of the capital with no regard to traffic regulations.

The book reflects on the angry and desperate cry, “bastards”, of the bus driver at the heart of Tahrir Square, the last scene of a film carrying exactly that name, Swak El-Autobus, that came out in the mid-1980s, as a sign of what was to come: the domination of neo-liberalism and its aggressive socio-economic consequences that eventually turn Cairo into the dystopia that expels residents escaping the uncompromising hardship of its reality.

Moreover, the book shows an evolution in the type of agony that 1940s Hamida, in the adaptation of Zokak El-Madak (El-Madak Alley), is not forced into the Kafkaseque destiny that Nawwara had to go through in the second decade of the new millennium.

The suburbs of the city are also suffering, as the book shows, and, according to El-Sayyad, “as reality has been showing”. Heliopolis is not the dream suburb that appeared in the silver screen adaptation of Al-Wessada Al-Khaliyah (The Empty Pillow) in the 1950s, or the aging but still graceful neighbourhood of Ard El-Ahlam (The Land of Dreams) in the 1990s. It is more the off-putting and dilapidating place of the early 2000s “Heliopolis” and “In the Heliopolis Apartment”.

Almost every aspect of the city, the book notes, is subject to change – the residential and commercial zones equally. And this is mostly happening in an oppressive manner.

Could these films tell us about our future Cairo? El-Sayyad answers, “The future is emerging from the present… and the present is telling us that Cairo might be the left-out city.”

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