Etching the war on canvas

Wednesday 6 Oct 2021

Painter Khaled Al-Samahi talks about the impact his childhood memories of the October War have had on his art


When the October War started in 1973, Khaled Al-Samahi, now an accomplished painter, was barely three years old. However, it was impossible for him to miss that something enormously important was happening, even at this very young age.

 There was the endless flow of neighbours continuously popping into his parents’ living room, where there was the only TV set in the entire apartment building, to follow the news of the war, for example. 

Al-Samahi also got caught up in the songs especially composed for the war that were being broadcast on the radio. His parents used to turn the radio on as soon as the TV broadcasts came to an end before midnight or between the news bulletins.

Later in primary school Al-Samahi got to understand what had really been unfolding during those early years of his childhood. Through a few visits with his parents to Suez and Port Said, he got to see what the war had been about and what it had meant for all Egyptians.

“I will always remember my visit to Suez in 1977, when I saw houses that had been demolished by Israeli raids. Entire streets and neighbourhoods carried the imprint of the war,” Al-Samahi remembers. 

“In one building after another, I could see bare floors with beds and tables but no walls as these had been demolished during the Israeli raids,” he said. He found empty cartridges from bullets in the streets. “As a child I used to play with them,” he recalled.

These images provided a wealth of ideas for drawing classes at school for Al-Samahi and other children at the time. The October War was something that all art teachers asked their students to contemplate.

But for Al-Samahi, it was not only in art class that the war inspired ideas. There were reminders of the war everywhere, he said. “In class, we would draw tanks and cannons and the flag of Egypt, and at home, we would use scattered pieces of wood or metal to make guns and planes. When we played in the street, we would sometimes see someone crying as he could not get over the grief of losing his son in the war,” he recalled.

During his military service after graduating from the Faculty of Fine Arts in 1993, Al-Samahi got to meet some of the officers who had been at the front during the October War. “I heard lots of stories about what it had really meant to be at the front in the midst of the hostilities and how the soldiers would just have to keep on moving after seeing one of them being killed because there was no time to cry over the dead,” he said.

For Al-Samahi, such stories and images ultimately meant one thing — the resilience of the Egyptian people in the face of war. For him, it is this resilience that helped the nation and the army to move on beyond the 1967 defeat and to secure the crossing of the Suez Canal.

“It must have taken a lot of resolve and a lot of bravery to do it,” he said. “My generation is very lucky to have come into a world where the resolve and dedication of former generations have effaced the scar of the military defeat in 1967,” he said.

It was this resolve that came into Al-Samahi’s mind when he was looking for a graduation project and he saw some Egyptian peasants waiting to catch a train at a train station.

“For me, this resolve is inherent to our nature as Egyptians. Those who fought and won in 1973 were also peasants who prior to joining up had spent long days in the fields,” Al-Samahi said. “I think one of the songs that best reflects the war is the one in which Souad Hosni sings Salah Jahin’s beautiful words: those are the soldiers, the children of peasants, those are the ones that secured the victory of my country.”

However, it took Al-Samahi a few years before he decided to put this wealth of memories on canvas. In 2010, he produced his first major painting on the October War called “The Crossing Boat”.

In this painting, he shows his profound fascination for the resolve shown by Egyptian soldiers in making the victorious crossing of the Suez Canal a dream came true. Today, it is on display at the Misr Public Library not very far from the house of late president Anwar Al-Sadat who led the war.

Almost a decade later, Al-Samahi put a second groups of memories on canvas. And earlier this year, he exhibited 30 paintings that depict images of Israeli prisoners of war sent back to their country dressed in the typical Egyptian clothes of the time.

“In the early 1970s, there was particular pattern of striped Egyptian pajamas that almost everyone wore. They were very particularly Egyptian, and in a way, I thought they were the imprint that Egypt had put on the Israeli military after the crossing,” Al-Samahi said. It was also, he added, a result of seeing disturbing videos of Egyptian prisoners in their undergarments after they had been captured by the Israeli army.

Al-Samahi feels that the memory of the October War has since been receding, something he has difficulty with because he knows the sacrifices that were made to make the crossing a reality and the privations that Egyptians, both civilians and soldiers, had to put up with for many years.

It is not just about the images he saw for himself, but also about the facts that he gathered from years of reading about the October War.

Two particular Israeli attacks haunt Al-Samahi, and he is set to put them in his paintings. The first, the base of his next exhibition later this year or early next year, is the Israeli aggression against the primary school of Bahr Al-Baqar.


On 8 April 1970, Israeli jet fighters hit a primary school in the village of Bahr Al-Baqar in Sharqiya governorate, killing 30 pupils and leaving 50 others wounded. 

“Israel hit the building knowing it was a primary school. We have every reason to remember this as part of pain we had to endure,” Al-Samahi said.

 “For me, it is very significant that the school uniform of the children in this primary school was made of a similar khaki material to that the armed forces used to wear as uniforms at the front.”

Al-Samahi is also haunted by the story of the Israeli aggression on the Abu Zaable Steel and Metal Factory in 1970, a couple of months earlier. The attack on 12 February 1970 against the factory in the governorate of Qalioubiya killed 88 people and left 150 wounded. 

Al-Samahi’s biggest dream is to have a large oil painting find its place on the walls of the October Panorama in Cairo, the only big museum dedicated to the October War.

Al-Samahi, it merits more attention from Egyptian painters, especially in relation to the October War.

“I think that in general we don’t have enough artwork to commemorate this war — not enough documentaries, not enough films, not enough paintings, and not enough artwork in general,” Al-Samahi said. For him, this is a task that his generation has to undertake. 


*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 October, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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