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Wednesday, 28 July 2021

Egypt: A song for the Nile

Culture rather than politics explains the multilayered affection all Egyptians have always had for the River Nile

Dina Ezzat , Friday 10 Jul 2020
The Nile near Luxor

It has been yet another tough week of negotiations between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia over the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) that Ethiopia is building on the Blue Nile near the Sudanese border, threatening the flow of the river through the downstream countries including Egypt.

The talks may seem to be highly technical, focusing on the threat of drought and disputed water. However, as the Egyptian negotiators keep reminding their interlocutors, for Egypt the Nile is about life, not politics.

“When we tell them that for Egypt the Nile is about the lives of 100 million Egyptians, we literally mean that,” one negotiator said. “There is nothing in the life of any Egyptian that does not relate to the Nile, which is why 100 million Egyptians live on only seven per cent of the country’s land along the Nile,” he added.

The association of Egyptians with the Nile goes back to Pharaonic times, when the ancient Egyptians believed that their country was born and renewed by the eternal Nile whose annual flood brought them life. This was also the theme of a documentary entitled The Fountains of the Sun produced in the 1960s to document the flow of the Nile from Ethiopia through Sudan and into Egypt.

“It is an exceptional documentary as it captured the last flooding of the Nile before the construction and operation of the Aswan High Dam, and it shows that the ancient Egyptians cherished the Nile so much that they believed it to have come from the sun, which they also worshipped,” said Mahmoud Abdel-Shakour, a film critic.

According to Abdel-Shakour, this close to 90-minute documentary shows how the Nile has since time immemorial dominated the souls and livelihoods of all Egyptians. “The river has always been so grand, so overwhelming, and so breathtaking,” he said. The magnificence of the Nile for all Egyptians, Abdel-Shakour added, is often greater than life itself.

In his iconic film The Mummy inspired by the story of the finding of the ancient Egyptian mummies in the Al-Deir Al-Bahari Temple in the late 19th century, Egyptian film director Shadi Abdel-Salam showed the Nile in the film’s grand finale as a mystical setting where the mummies are saved from thieves and put on board a boat that carries them along the Nile from Luxor to the north.

“This is perhaps the grandest and most mystical scene in the film. All the characters are really small. The mummies, which stand for history, are somehow bigger, but the Nile is the most dominating element of all, and it takes up three-quarters of the frame,” Abdel-Shakour said.

The message, he added, “is very clear: the Nile saved the mummies, and it spared Wanis, the tormented son of a deceased smuggler, from the sin of violating the past. This is why the last line of the film comes from the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead — ‘you have risen,’ for it was the Nile that gave life,” Abdel-Shakour added.

Beyond these two productions, Abdel-Shakour argued that Egyptian cinema has often showed the Nile as a stream of life, love, and power.

Al-Ard (The Land)

“There is the popular 1963 film Arouss Al-Nil [Bride of the Nile], for example, that shows in a light comedy setting the way the Egyptians revered the Nile even as the country was embarking on industrialisation,” Abdel-Shakour said.

There is a whole list of films in which the Nile is central in one way or another. The 1959 drama Seraa fil-Nil (Struggle on the Nile), a classic story of faith and betrayal, is one example.

In this film, the Nile has a leading role, Abdel-Shakour said. “The Nile is the path that all the actors have to take to reach their destiny, whether good or bad,” he said.

The 1970s film Tharthara Fawk Al-Nil (Chitchat on the Nile), adapted from a Naguib Mahfouz novel of the same name, sees the Nile bear witness to the moment of bewilderment that Egyptians at the time were going through.

There is a wide range of themes around the Nile that has featured in some of the most important productions of Egyptian cinema, Abdel-Shakour said.

In the late Egyptian director Youssef Chahine’s Al-Ard (The Land) and in Hussein Kamal’s Shai min Al-Khouf (Something about Fear), both produced in 1969, “there is the concept of what farmers will pay to make sure that their fields don’t dry out,” Abdel-Shakour said.

“There are many other films where the Nile is not so central but where it is still very present because the Nile is such an integral part of life for all Egyptians,” he said.

The Nile as a scene for love, Abdel-Shakour noted, is an unmistakable theme in many productions. The Egyptian adaption of Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, produced in the 1960s as A River of Love, has an opening scene where the narrator recalls the ancient Egyptian goddess Isis whose tears flooded the land and created the river.

“In one of the most under-rated political satires of the 1980s, Qoudat Deid Maghoul [Perpetrator Unknown], the actors wake up to find that the Pyramids have disappeared and then that the Nile River itself has gone, leading them to consider that the country is lost,” Abdel-Shakour said.

Ibn Al-Nil
Ibn Al-Nil (Son of the Nile)

THE NILE IN SONG: As a source of welfare, a space for spirituality, or a scene for love, the River Nile has also featured in Egyptian songs for centuries.

In a study on the Nile in Egyptian songs from the late 19th century onwards, writer Mohamed Diab found that the Nile had always had a central place. “One of the very early songs recorded as part of a 1945 film has the title Al-Bahr Fad [The flood is here], which comes from an 11th-century tradition where people would celebrate the flood season by singing Al-Bahr fad wezad —oufallah, oufallah, or ‘the flood is here, as God has promised to keep the Nile flood,’” Diab said.

This 11th-century line was performed by singer Mohamed Abdel-Mottaleb and was picked up by many Egyptians for whom the flood was a crucial season.

It is interesting, Diab noted, that up until the mid-20th century most Egyptians would refer to the Nile as Al-Bahr, or “the sea,” not because they were confusing the river with the sea but because the river was so wide that it seemed big enough to be a sea.

This reference to the river as the sea appears in the songs of famous singer Umm Kolthoum, for example in her song Ala Balad Al-Mahboub (The Country of the Beloved).

The course of the Nile, Diab added, inspired the lyrics of songs such as singer Mohamed Abdel-Wahab’s famous Al-Nil Nagashi (The Nile Comes from Ethiopia) and Shadia’s Ya Gaiy min Al-Sudan (You Come from Sudan).

But most of all, Diab said, the Nile featured in songs by Mohamed Abdel-Wahab and Umm Kolthoum, for example in Al-Nahr Al-Khaled (The Eternal River), Cleopatra, and Al-Nil (The Nile).

These were also among leading singers to refer to the Nile as a joyful river in songs like Ya Lilat Al-Eid (Eve of the Feast), a song by Umm Kolthoum, and Unshoudat Al-Taguine (A Song of Two Crowns) that Abdel-Wahab sang in the early 1950s in honour of a visit by the then Saudi monarch to king Farouk of Egypt.

Abdel-Wahab and Umm Kolthoum also recalled the Nile in songs they performed in honour of members of the former royal family, he added. “To mark the crowning of Farouk, the wedding of princess Fawziya to the crown-prince of Iran, and the birth of princess Fayza, Abdel-Wahab and Umm Kolthoum performed songs whose lyrics were sure to carry metaphors related to the Nile.”

 Love was also a perfect theme to be associated with the Nile, “and unlike the songs that tended to recede in the second half of the 20th century, love songs where the Nile features as a scene for lovers or a venue where broken-hearted lovers go to find solace have never ended,” Diab said. “We find Abdel-Wahab in the 1930s and Shadia in the 1960s referring to the Nile as the venue where they meet their beloved,” he added.

The Nile has also often featured in patriotic songs. In 1956, when the Tripartite Aggression was launched against Egypt, Nagah Sallam, a Cairo-based Lebanese singer, performed her “I am the Nile, a Grave for Invaders”. At the end of the war, Fayda Kamel performed “The Nile’s Peace is Back”.

“It is interesting because the war was over the Suez Canal, but still the significance of it relates to Egypt, and it is the Nile that is identified with Egypt,” Diab said.

Most singers who have lived and worked in Egypt have referred to the Nile in their songs. They include names such as Farid Al-Atrash, Asmahan, Fayza Ahmed, all of Syrian origin, and Warda, from Algeria.

As Egypt identified itself less with agriculture, references to the Nile outside the context of love receded. “Apart from the songs of Mohamed Mounir, whose art celebrates his Nubian affiliations, there have been few recent songs that refer to the Nile, and they have mostly been performed to fit a particular national event,” he said.

According to music critic Mohamed Attiya, it would be hard to compare the quality of the songs that referred to the Nile in the early decades of the 20th century to those of the last few decades.

Attiya would not compare composer Sayed Darwish’s songs to those performed by singers in the 1990s like Mohamed Tharwat, for example. But patriotic songs always have room for the Nile, because, as Egyptians sang in the 1919 Revolution when the songs of Sayed Darwish filled the air, “had we not believed in God, we would have worshipped the Nile.”

Seraa fil-Nil
Seraa fil-Nil (Struggle on the Nile)

LITERATURE: According to literary critic Sayed Mahmoud, over the past few decades literary productions have given less space to the Nile, unlike those of the first half of the 20th century.

“The first acknowledged Egyptian novel is Zeinab, published in the early 20th century, which takes place in a rural setting close to the Nile. It offers a romantic reflection of the Nile,” Mahmoud said, adding that this was a pattern seen in the work of several other novelists writing at the same time.

In the novels of Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, the city took over as the central scene of literary production, and the Nile changed its role from being the central setting to being a parallel one.

According to Mahmoud, the Nile of the novelists who produced their work in the 1940s to 1960s is a place to go to shut off city noise and meditate or even experience mystical thoughts.

“In Chitchat on the Nile, Mahfouz has the protagonists assemble in a houseboat on the Nile to express their fears and sometimes absurd thoughts,” he said.

Al-Zouga Al-Tania
Al-Zouga Al-Tania (The Second Wife)

This still held in the works of novelists writing in the 1960s to 1980s.

Novelist Ibrahim Aslan, Mahmoud suggested, was a writer whose characters would always find a way to go to the Nile to break away from the presence of others in the Giza neighbourhood of Kit-Kat.

Other novelists who gave the Nile a mystical feel include Yehia Taher Abdallah in Al-Toq wal-Eswera (The Collar and the Bracelet). But it was also in the 1960s that a “distorted image of the Nile” started to be seen in literary works.

In Al-Naddaha (The Invisible Caller) by short-story writer Youssef Idris, the leading character comes from the countryside to the city and finds a River Nile that cannot be easily accessed. It is nothing like the wide river that flows through the village she comes from.

This distorted appearance of the Nile, Mahmoud argued, continued in the work of subsequent generations of novelists, a function not of the declining significance of the Nile, but rather of a decline in access to it.

“The city was expanding, and people were preoccupied by new dilemmas not necessarily related to the Nile,” he said. “The Nile might not be so visible in many recent literary works, but it is still there. It continues: it does not go away,” he concluded.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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