3 - 9 June 1999
Issue No. 432
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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An architecture of the soulProfile byYoussef Rakha
He has avoided the trappings of commercialism while radically transforming set design as Egyptian cinema knew it. His secret? An equivocal smile, and an ambiguous design
If you happen to move in artistic or intellectual circles, the name Salah Mar'i is bound to crop up sooner or later, if not as the well-respected set designer/art director -- a major figure in the history of Egyptian cinema -- then as a museum and exhibition designer, a poster designer, documentary film-maker or occasional choreographer of cultural ceremonies. Most frequently, however, Mar'i crops up as the life-long collaborator and protégé of film-maker Shadi Abdel-Salam. And his reaction to the death of this formidably sophisticated director in 1986 has since then solicited many a rueful comment. "He is too depressed to work," people will tell you, or, "he all but withdrew from the scene after Shadi's death".
This is significant -- for Mar'i, it was the loss of Abdel-Salam that raised the existential question, "why are we working in the first place?" And it is evident from his tone that working, in this context, is practically synonymous with living. Abdel-Salam was a model of artistic integrity; he was also an intimate friend. His presence generated a human and intellectual space in which working and living were equally meaningful; "I refused to believe that anything would happen to him, and when the doctor had given up hope and the family gave him permission to induce the terminal coma which would spare Shadi the unbearable pain he was in, he still waited a little longer out of respect for my feelings." But his absence is something with which Mar'i has nonetheless learned to cope. His depression did not last as long as commentators suggest. A two-year interlude spent working in Oman brought Mar'i back, not only to Cairo but to himself, and in the last decade his creative vitality has steadily gathered momentum.
Still, he meets me in his late mentor's office, a beautifully furnished flat on 26th of July Street, where the drawing table he uses has now replaced Abdel-Salam's desk, near the interminable rows of books that line the walls. At first sight, he appears perfectly neutral. Self-assured despite his humility, he eludes easy classification in the social spectrum. He also has that ageless openness which characterises only the most sensitive and unpretentious artists: though in his 60s, he takes nothing for granted. Instead, he draws on personal experience, tentatively but articulately. With wit and understanding, he sidesteps the pitfalls involved in passing unsolicited judgment. A major figure with a minor field of interest, Mar'i confronts the world with a courteous, ambiguous smile. But the ambiguity goes far beyond the surface, as his life amply demonstrates.
He was born in Mahalla Al-Kobra. His father had moved there from a nearby village to work in the civil service. Of his early childhood, he remembers little beyond the beauty of Mahalla in the 1940s, the clear water of an unpolluted canal, stone walkways and trees. There was also a precocious moral awareness, however: "I was very obedient, and always felt guilty about something, even when I hadn't done anything wrong." His mother assumed responsibility for the children, two daughters and four sons; actor Ahmed Mar'i, who played the lead in Abdel-Salam's renowned landmark, Al-Mumia' (The Night of Counting the Years, 1968), also became a celebrity. His father went to work and, being the educated elder, supervised his brothers' agricultural work in the village. "He did not even have time for friends."
A MAGICIAN WORKING HIS SPELLS (Mar'i on location in Youssri Nasrallah's Al-Madina): "For a long time now film-makers have not been having sets built, and the job of the set designer has turned into something much more limited. That's why we are now called art directors instead. It's not that building sets is the set designer's only job, of course there is no reason one shouldn't be fulfilled without it. But the way things are at the moment, the art director doesn't get to do what he enjoys most -- contributing to the initial stages of the film's conception, joining in the dream. In most cases we don't get to do that anymore"
One might expect memories of the textile factories for which Mahalla is famous. But since the family lived close to a railroad, what one gets is a string of railway images: "We would sneak to a disused freight train and spend as much time as we could just running around, getting inside the coaches and pushing them along the rails..." The sights and sounds surrounding the steam engine whose passage punctuated those days ("the train was so weak a water buffalo was enough to overturn it, and whenever it came to a junction the engine would go one way, the coaches another") must be counted among the earliest stocks of Mar'i's extraordinary perceptual inventory. Another image: "Primary and prep school were in the same building, and when the primary class collapsed they moved us to a spare class in the local orphanage, and we spent a whole year side by side with the orphans, watching them practice their music. It was a bit like police music -- that's the closest thing I can think of -- but the band was surprisingly accomplished. They wore white in summer, khaki in winter. And we would watch them stand in line, getting ready to march and play their instruments..."
In secondary school, Mar'i decided that he wanted to become an architect. The school had been founded under the British mandate with the first textile factory in Mahalla, on the initiative of economist Talaat Harb (the nationalist icon who established Misr Bank, the first financial establishment to invest purely Egyptian funds in such national projects as Misr Printing Press and the Acting and Cinema Company), and consequently provided for extracurricular activities like painting, sculpture and theatre. "We had a huge atelier, just like the one in the Faculty of Fine Arts now, and there would be maybe 40 of us working on still-lifes."
While painting absorbed Salah's as yet undefined creative energy, Ahmed was equally busy on stage. Then circumstances brought the Mar'i brothers together. It was at school, too, that Salah faced what could be considered his first professional challenge as a set designer. "One day they said we're going to stage Oedipus and asked me to build the set. They gave me the play, which I read and of course I didn't understand anything -- the names of gods put me off. So the director told me to go to the council library, which was an impressive neo-classical building. Of course, I realised that it was neo-classical only later. But I went in and looked for books on Greek literature and Greek architecture and read until I understood some things, what the props should look like... And I built the set." Mar'i's interest, in fact, had been turning increasingly away from painting and towards design.
Architecture had become his principal priority, but, since "it all started with my interest in drawing, I wanted to go to the Faculty of Fine Arts rather than the Faculty of Engineering -- these were the two places where you could become an architect. But of course because we were in the country, little did I know that you had to sit a separate aptitude exam before you got accepted in Fine Arts..." This was in 1959. Mar'i missed the exam and wanted to avoid waiting for another year; he also was not sure whether he would pass. ("I was an excellent student until I reached prep school, from then on I went downhill and barely passed my exams." The reason? "Reaching puberty in a very closed environment.") And in Cairo he was told that designing film sets, in effect, was just like architecture. "Since they were advertising the inauguration of the Cinema Institute at that time, I thought I would try to go there instead." After another struggle to waive the minimum age requirement, which involved meeting the Minister of Culture and the dean of the Institute, Mar'i finally became a film student -- a member of the Institute's very first class of set designers. "But I couldn't possibly tell you that I loved the cinema from the start. I had absolutely no interest in the cinema then, for one very simple reason: in Mahalla, cinema was by no means a respectable form of entertainment, cinemas were the dirtiest and cheapest places to go, and we happened to come from a reasonably conservative family. I didn't know anything about it, and didn't care. Set designing was just an alternative to architecture. I got interested in the cinema only after I graduated. Come to think of it," he adds, "I'm not even sure I'm interested in the cinema now..."
The Institute offered plenty of free time and intellectual stimulation, but the knowledge Mar'i acquired during his four years as a student was still not directly related to cinema. "At school I had always belonged to a gang, and I still feel it's very healthy for people to get together in groups based on hobbies and interests. The Institute was and remains a very conservative establishment, except when it comes to thinking -- if you have an idea, nobody censors you. So it was the same here too, I found my gang and we were all interested in reading from an intellectual standpoint, nothing political ever came into it. It was a process of discovery. The Institute was the place where I first read Kazantzakis, for example. And we often discussed Taha Hussein and Naguib Mahfouz. Youssef Idris was a sensation for us... I made friends with some of my teachers, too. There was Helmi Halim and Abdel-Fatah El-Biyali. Then, of course, there was Shadi, who started off teaching set design but, realising that his students had little or no grounding in what they needed most, switched to history of architecture..."
From then on, the fates of the two artists were closely intertwined. After graduation, Mar'i worked in the Ministry of Culture's newly established production company. "Shadi hated failure and, if he adopted you artistically, he made sure you were as perfect as he was. So he advised me not to work professionally until I'd had enough training, and for years I would make drawings and show him, and he would suggest improvements. Until he finally decided I was ready and I made my first film with Helmi Halim in 1964. Until the time of his death," Mar'i is eager to point out, "even after his illness, Shadi would come all the way to the set to give me advice on whichever film I was working on. And he would make subtle but amazingly perceptive suggestions."
Mar'i stayed in the production company until Culture Minister Tharwat Okasha, on Abdel-Salam's initiative, founded the Experimental Film Unit, the institution with which Mar'i travelled, notably to Upper Egypt, and did his best work (including the assistance he provided in Al-Mumia'), and to which he still officially belongs. The early part of his career did not go very smoothly, however. "Not until Saadeddin Wahba headed the production company did I do any real work."
Abdel-Salam was the only director to acknowledge set designing as a distinct art form and a credible profession. The system normally employed was wholesale commission. A contractor would charge a specific sum for all the sets needed, often inordinately high -- without production plans or billing. "So I told Wahba it would be cheaper to use natural materials -- real wood and real scrap iron -- and cover the expenses as they arose, producing bills for everything -- not to mention the artistic benefits. This was Tawfiq Saleh's film, Al-Mutamarridun (The Rebels, 1966). I drew up a detailed budget and Wahba was convinced. It actually worked out much cheaper, and this was the only way the administration could have been convinced." Two years later, the contracting system had disappeared, and since then people have not only worked according to budgets, but depended on set designers too. "Now that we've become art directors, though, no sets are being built any more. So the job is radically different..."
Mar'i married in 1974, though he had known his wife, a noted film editor, since the early 1960s. Both his children chose to study architecture, perhaps to realise their father's initial, unfulfilled dream. In the two decades during which he was closely associated with Abdel-Salam (mid-1960s to mid-1980s), however, Mar'i proved to be an eminent architect of the soul. The breathtaking landscapes he built are arguably more endearing than any concrete edifices. Though not always properly evaluated ("often evaluation depends on what people think of the film as a whole, so that the work you're most proud of gets ignored, while you get prizes for films on which you did little or no work"), Mar'i's work has nonetheless solicited at least some of the respect it deserves. And there is ample evidence of work to come. But looking at this exceptional designer now, trying to make out the contours of his life's design, there is no telling whether he is ultimately satisfied. The equivocal smile on his face seems to say, "Well, what if I hadn't missed the aptitude exam after all?"
photos: Randa Shaath