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Book Review: The many revolutions of 1919

Dina Heshmat, Egypt 1919: The Revolution in Literature and Cinema, Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univeristy Press, 2020. pp248

Muhammed Salem, Friday 5 Feb 2021
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Who writes history? From which perspective should it be written? Does education, gender, and social class pre-condition, if not inflict upon, certain individuals to be occulted from the national narrative? And even if their lack of education prevents them from documenting or reporting on major historical moments, would writers and film directors not do them justice by including them as part of the national epic?

Dina Heshmat tries in her book, Egypt 1919: The Revolution in Literature and Cinema (Edinburgh University Press, 2020), to respond to all these questions, focusing on how the 1919 revolution has been represented in literary and cinematic works. Heshmat brilliantly delves into the legacy of the first revolt in Egyptian modern history, through its treatment in cinema and literature.

For her, all literary and cinematic reflections on the 1919 revolution were a reconstruction, rather than an authentic depiction, which established a reductionist representation of the key players of the revolution exemplified in the image of the Cairene effendis, or “the middle-class” men.

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The book embarks the reader on an intriguing quest, extending over seven chapters. Heshmat overviews the bulk of literary works starting with those which were written during the frenzy of the revolution (1920s-1940s) till post-2010s.

The book has twofold aims: re-establishing less canonical works as more complementary to the mainstream, well-acclaimed literary productions—thus overcoming the “erasure” attempt which had omitted certain actors of the event (poor, uneducated men and women)—and highlighting the pivotal role of literary and cinematic works deemed far more influential sources, than books of history, from which people cultivate their awareness of political events.   

One of the works analysed by Heshmat is a semi-autobiographical novel, Al-Dahik Al-Baki, written by the prolific journalist Fikry Abaza. In this novel, Heshmat notes that landlords and effendis are portrayed as the heroes amid the confrontation with the British. Showing the effendis as the actual players, the rabbles are being referred to--Heshmat contends as per Abaza’s narrative--as the paupers who were disrupting the national struggle for the sake of their own social justice struggle.

It is as if the marginalised social justice in this narrative context are not valid claims amid the national struggle. Moreover, Abaza’s Al-Dahik Al-Baki is nothing but an articulation for the author’s empathy for the National Party, led by Egyptian nationalist Mustapha Kamel, while blaming Saad Zaghloul’s led-party, the Wafd, for largely compromising with the British up to the point of losing the aims for which the 1919 revolution had started.

Muddikarat Hakimat Hanim by ‘Isa ‘Ubayed is another example of the marginalised narratives which Heshmat refers to as authentically depicting 1919 as a historical moment of national unity, transcending social, gender, and class distinctions. Not only does the narrative highlight an avant-garde empowered presence of a female protagonist but also a woman from a lower class--the unjustly-occulted players in this revolution.

Upon discussing the cinematic adaptation of Bayn Al Qasrayn by Egyptian director Hassan al-Imam, Heshmat contends that Al-Imam’s mise-en-scène was exaggerated and ‘melodramatic’. The March 1919 demonstration scene, with an orchestrated unity between Muslims and Copts, according to her, is further ‘radicalised’ by the sound effects and the footage of the churches’ bells and the prayers coming out of the minarets.

What Heshmat might have underestimated is that most mise-en-scène of Egyptian black and white films, particularly those of Al-Imam, was largely known for the overrated construction of the scenes, with a boisterously far-fetched performance of actors. Most Egyptian filmmakers thought that overstressing was a key tool in conveying certain feelings to the audience.

Al-Imam himself was known for bargaining with censorship upon filming explicit erotic scenes, by dividing the scene into snippets, each in a fraction of a second, waving over the actors while mixing them with shots for elements such as bubbling coffee left over the stove, thunder noise, as well as flowing curtains and open windows.

It is noteworthy why Heshmat included the anecdote about the Zaghloul couple’s characterisation in Mustafa Amin’s memoirs, Min Wahid li’ Ashara. For her, Saad and Safiya Zaghloul in Amin’s narrative are more progressive than their presentation in historical works. As she herself starts the chapter with memoirs, distinguished from autobiographies, she tends to focus on some phases in a person’s life; what she should have also mentioned is that autobiographies as well can present phases in the life of a protagonist while ignoring others.

Most literary scholars do agree that there is hardly an autobiography which is an authentic account of a life journey. Wael Hassan, a literary scholar, argues that “there is no life as lived” in autobiographies. Amin himself starts his book by saying that his memoir can be an historical account of Egypt at the time of his childhood. His ‘romanticised’ portrayal of Saad and Safeya Zaagloul, as Heshmat argues, stems out of his admiration as a child for their personas.  

Reading Heshmat’s book reinforces the premise that the older the historical event, the clearer, fresher, and the more authentic the insights would be. 1919 could have not been explained during the euphoria, which many writers must have felt, even as participants in the revolution. Even writers who wrote in later decades perceived the event in the light of the political ideology which defined their time.

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This book is designed for readers who are neither necessarily historians nor interested in historiography. Some readers might find the theoretical frameworks, on which Heshmat built her arguments, challenging; however, the straightforward and chronological development of the book, with the chapters’ division, makes the book readable.

Readers who are familiar with the repertoire of Egyptian cinema, series, and plays will enjoy Chapters 4, 5, and 6; particularly when it comes to comparing and contrasting the cinematic adaptations of a chef d’oeuvre of Naguib Mahfouz: Bayn Al Qasrayn.

With its rich anecdotes and background information, Heshmat’s work invites the reader to wander across the streets of Cairo during the April demonstrations of 1919 and to visualise the carnival of Egyptians, from all walks of life, women as numerous as men, expressing their love for their country.


*Reviewed by Muhammed Salem

*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 February , 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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