Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
5 - 11 August 1999
Issue No. 441
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Yousri Nasrallah

Yousri Nasrallah:

Here, or elsewhere

Profile by Pascale Ghazaleh

When everything changes, what remains?

Front Page

You said: "I will go to another land, I will go to another sea
Another city will be found, a better one than this..."
You will find no new lands, you will find no other seas.
The city will follow you. You will roam the same

We are in the city, a ruthless place. What do we do to survive, when the city no longer wants us, when we are excluded -- by a cartographer's hiccup, an administrative caprice, by the fact that our fathers were tanners or potters or butchers, sidewalk peddlers or wholesale dealers? There is no place in the city for these, for the odours and blood and mess of their trades, for the chaos they bring -- their place is beyond the confines, behind the boundaries, in the netherworld between one city and the next. There are streets populated by migrant workers, chased from one illegal job to the next. There are unemployed actors, and boxers in rigged matches. There are cities within cities, and the cities outside.

* * *

The large, airy apartment that overlooks the Nile is a peaceful place, but not for long, because it's very unlike Youssri Nasrallah himself, and he'll blow in like a tornado any minute now. One wall of the study is occupied by a large wooden structure -- a grand divan of deep turquoise wood picked out in gold, surrounded by shelves packed with books, tapes and CDs -- one could spend a pleasantly entertaining year or two browsing from Herodotus to Gorky, Lacan to Anne Rice, Bach to Nina Simone. The fan whirs breathlessly in anticipation. Under the glass on the desk by the window is a photo of Dalida, inscribed "To Youssri with love". I am being a bit of a voyeur, but no drawers have been opened yet. There is a framed poster from Fassbinder's Querelle, and another of Bresson's L'Argent. The stage is set, and here he is, wearing a checked shirt, jeans, and rimless glasses that he pushes back up the bridge of his nose every now and then to peer through my forehead, just to make sure I'm listening. You can't help listening, and I am a little intimidated by this, I think: He chops the words into delicate slivers with his sharp teeth, he insists that one understand, not by gesturing wildly or whispering or whining -- heaven forfend -- but by the intensity of his gaze, almost glassy beneath the deep sculpted lids, a gaze that sucks you in and extracts the act of listening from somewhere behind your ears.

Nasrallah emerged from beneath Chahine's wing in 1990, when he collaborated with the giant on Alexandrie Encore et Toujours (although they had worked together on Haddouta Masriya and Adieu Bonaparte). Then there was Al-Qahira Munawwara bi-Ahliha, in 1991, which enjoyed a brief run before it was unceremoniously removed from Cairo's cinemas. He had worked on that "as assistant director and assistant scriptwriter and everything". Before, however, there had been glimmerings, whirrings, an intimation that this was no ordinary wünderkind: Sariqat Sayfiya (Summer Thefts), which enraged many ("people see the film and ask me 'So, are you for or against Abdel-Nasser?' What? What does that mean? I mean, he's dead! Who cares if I'm for or against him? It's like asking, 'Are you for or against the earthquake?'" he howls in exasperation); then the puzzling, quite mad, apocalyptic Mercedes; then Subian wa Banat (On Boys, Girls and the Veil), which was never shown in commercial cinemas ("the most perverse film I've done -- I enjoyed it thoroughly. It was so wicked, and I was so saintly"); and now, there is Al-Madina (The City). There is no leitmotif, little thematic unity for the critics to get their teeth into: there are only stories.

Or are there? "The idea that your existence is only a symbol horrifies me. It implies the impossibility of telling a story. People cannot tell stories because they are afraid of the responsibility of being individuals. These are simply excuses for not confronting who you are."

Here is the story Nasrallah tells in Al-Madina, his most recent film, showing this week in Locarno: the story of the wholesale fruit and vegetable market, on the eve of its removal to Al-Obour, beyond the confines, into a brave new world of bricks and mortar and down payments. Ali, a young man from Rod Al-Farag, wants to be an actor. Surrounded by family pressures, threatened by the imminent demise of the world he is familiar with, he refuses to go along with his father's demands or his friends' acceptance of mediocrity, and breaks away, escaping to France, where he works as a boxer in rigged matches. There, he discovers that "acting and lying are not the same thing", but also that Paris and Cairo are not really different places after all. Stripped of his identity, robbed of his false papers, he finds himself on the street, wearing borrowed clothes. He has forgotten even his name.

From Paris to Sao Paolo, cities are everywhere the same. They sift out and reject the poor, the marginal, the strange -- pushing them to the periphery, beyond the well-bred eyes of more desirable denizens. And in every city, we are the same: we take our baggage with us, carry our stock in trade of memories and loves and sadnesses. Everywhere the same streets, the same eyes. This discovery allows Ali to make choices when he returns to Cairo: choices that have to do with who he is and what he wants. Al-Madina, like Nasrallah's other films, is an ode to difference, and disobedience -- "the most beautiful feeling of which the human soul is capable".

"I can't be defined by what I consume or don't consume," insists Nasrallah, "by how much money I bring in, by what group of people I belong to. Otherwise I'm completely expendable. Ali's story is about someone who refuses to be expendable. Everything is taken away from him, but there is still something in him that makes him different from other people, that makes him alive, and it is on this that he will construct his individuality."

It is a story he has been pondering for almost 20 years. In 1978, Nasrallah went to Lebanon, and stayed for four years. His escape, if it had less dramatic consequences than Ali's, resulted from the same sense of entrapment. "It wasn't possible to be so different and so tame, so... subdued. I had to run. Then I discovered that elsewhere was the same. Except that -- I discovered being alone. So when I came back to Cairo, I started choosing among my friends, making my real family, the people who really counted."

In Beirut, too, he read Cavafy for the first time. "There's this poem, on which Al-Madina is based. Someone is moaning that they've had it with the city, they want to go somewhere else, and the idea is: there is no 'somewhere else'. Wherever you go, you find the same thing. It's a nice poem, very pessimistic, and for me it always made sense -- although maybe this is not at all what Cavafy meant."

There is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you have destroyed your life here
In this little corner, you have ruined it in the entire world.

Yousri Nasrallah
This haunting is not exactly what Nasrallah is interested in. We live in an awful world, he says. How do you survive it? And another thing, a personal experience: wherever he went, he always found himself somewhere else. A smell, an alleyway, the angle of a house would transport him, back to another city, left behind, long ago, just last week. This has little to do with Cavafy, but since then, he's wanted to make something of the feeling, of what we take in our suitcases and our minds: how do you define your relationship to a city, a community? "I think it's by defining your desires, by defining what you want."

Survival, and definition: these could be the keywords. They will tell you, at least, a little about Nasrallah himself. He has spent his life despising both the fact of being boxed in as different -- "Youssri Nasrallah, the Copt, from such and such a family, educated at this or that school, affiliated with the student movement" -- and the group mechanisms, as he calls them, that persist in making us all alike.

He and his sister, Nahed, were educated at the German School, "because the kindergarden was right underneath the house, and my parents could sleep in". They learned to speak a language that no one else in the family understood. This secret dialogue, and a very independent education (since no one could supervise their studies), created a world apart for the siblings.

Remembering these years, he is also reminded of his first experience of cinema. The film was Journey to the Centre of the Earth and the six-year-old boy, sitting with his father in the darkened movie theatre, had just experienced a cataclysmic revelation: the overwhelming desire to be a director. Not that he knew just what that was: the first question he asked his father was, who does these things? Thereafter, he was often slapped at school because he would draw in his textbooks and notebooks: he would draw the Cinemascope sign and write 'Directed by Youssri Nasrallah'.

He savours the memory with relish; but Nasrallah did not succumb until much later. In the interval, he studied, never liking academia much. To go to Cairo University, as he did when he finished school, was a conscious decision, a breaking away from his "very elitist" early education. He immediately became involved in the student movement. "It seems tacky to say it now, but it was a very youthful, idealistic endeavour. Anyway, this kind of concern with issues involving the nation, the country, humanity was very essential, I think."

So the political experience at university was far more important than academia for him. Then, in the early '80s, "something happened that -- well, I don't want to describe it that way, and I'm not going to, because I know it's banal -- but there was the question of what exactly was this fascination with the mass movement... But I don't renounce any of the positions I took, or any of the premises: the importance of democracy, issues like 'the land belongs to those who till it', exploitation, racism, Vietnam, Palestine... This was a question of what was right, and this still applies. My mother once said 'Well, it's fine for you, because you belong to a good family,' and I put that in Mercedes, I put the sentence in -- it was as if I was doing it out of altruism, and 'these people' were doing it out of self-interest!" He chuckles, still a little outraged.

Eventually, then, he rebelled against the rebellion. To explain his sudden sense of alienation, he refers, characteristically, not to annoying specifics, but to a film: Al-Bab Al-Maftouh (The Open Door), Henri Barakat's adaptation of the novel by Latifa El-Zayyat. "The issue was a woman's liberation from traditions and family and forced marriage and false values. Liberation is a very good issue. But the idea was that you have to have an alibi, and your alibi is not your liberation. A woman is not good enough to be liberated: there has to be a bigger issue, the nation, whatever. So the individual has to be crushed to be liberated. And people say 'oh, there's no nationalist concern in your film, no bigger issues.' For me, this is the biggest issue. Individuals are constantly crushed, constantly asked what they represent. If you dare say that you represent yourself, you don't exist. Liberation can never be posed as a basic exigency." He's not blaming anyone, he repeats, but even in the thick of the student movement, it was much more important to be a militant than to study cinema, because if he studied cinema he could no longer give so much of himself . "Maybe if there had been a revolutionary context I could have worked it out better, but... No, you can't resolve a conflict like that unless you pose your conditions."

So he posed his own, going to Beirut, making the big escape. No longer able to bear even himself, he went, staying for four years, writing for Al-Safir and living, completely independent. There were bombs all over the place, and he was deliriously happy. It was the fact that he was alone. "In Beirut, I did not belong to anything." He would return to Egypt once a year, just to make a point, so that no one could say 'you were kicked out of your country'. After four years, Youssef Chahine asked him to come back, offered him a job revising scripts. He came back. It was time. "It was what I wanted."

Refusing to conform to expectations, then, is something of an obsession. In Mercedes, the main character is "an albino, an illegitimate child, a communist -- he's so different he's monstrous, but society says that everyone is the same, that 99.99 per cent of people love Sadat and Egypt and hamburgers." Nasrallah is laughing, but his anger is not polite. It will not simmer elegantly beneath the surface. "This a story about the people I love, people so different no one can control them. They can be killed, but not broken. This is nice."

From Sariqat Sayfiya to Al-Madina: these films tell the story of something immutable that is falling apart: the collapse of the Soviet Union in Mercedes, the ancien régime in Summer Thefts. All pose a fundamental question: in turbulent circumstances, how do people formulate a morality that allows them to preserve their humanity?

And Nasrallah himself, although like other directors of his generation in that he does insist on making films about 'these people', refuses to patronise, or to set himself up as the interpreter, conveying the ideas of the masses to the intelligentsia. He will make no allowances. "Don't infantilise characters, so that you can then say 'I'm for, I'm against'! I'm not interested in that. It's no fun at all. At no point in my films will you see my opinions. I find this extremely boring and rude -- obnoxious! You cannot ask, are you for or against something? What you can ask is, was it more interesting? What is much more important is, what did you do to survive? If it does not come through the story I'm telling, I don't see any courage in saying I'm for, I'm against."

So the provocative question that ripples through the semi-documentary Subian wa Banat is: "These veiled girls, what do they do to be beautiful? How do they define their relations with boys? Some people call this hypocrisy, some of my left-wing friends: 'Look, they're veiled, but they're holding a boy's hand in the street.' I don't think this is hypocrisy. I think they're doing what they can to subvert authority, to survive in very difficult conditions. Why does everyone only talk about hypocrisy and submissiveness? People will do anything they can to prevent bloodshed. But anything they can do to subvert, to undermine, to twist authority, they will do it joyously, with no scruples."

If Nasrallah returns to this point consistently, it is because he takes it very personally. "I had to do this all my life," he says, raising his eyebrows and glaring at me. But he will not dwell on personal details. He far prefers questions. "We live in a society built on the idea of an authority that is constantly trying to humiliate you. That's why there are no laws -- because our daily life is an infringement of these laws. So everyone lives in constant fear. How do people negotiate being forced into the wrong and having to explain their actions to their children, having to live with themselves? Confession is not expiation: what happens next? How do you re-become a human being?"

When shooting Subian wa Banat, Nasrallah sought, in a sense, to reproduce the pressures society imposes. Some of the characters in the film were playing parts; others were simply being interviewed. But the actors were present throughout the shooting, even when they are not visible on screen. "The only decision I made before shooting was that I was not going to take the family aside, in private. What is interesting is to see how people find a way of expressing themselves despite this presence. How do you negotiate your individuality?"

Nor is the issue complacent self-justification -- or, as he puts it, blaming "society, globalisation, nyah nyah nyah..." These issues are so huge that they erase the individual. Television encourages this, he says, by overwhelming spectators with the crushing horror, of war, death, disaster. "And that's exactly what the spectator does: looks at these pictures of cadavers, sheds a tear and forgets about it. But show me images of courage, of people going on, wanting to survive: this involves you. For me, the history of art, culture, mathematics, philosophy, is how to escape death, how to survive it."

From the search for survival Nasrallah wrests characters that do not conform, not even to non-conformity. He seeks real moral conflicts, rejects the ease of the one-dimensional. There are real people, real feelings, real stories to be told. And they must be told.

He keeps searching for a way to break out of the fundamental loneliness to which human beings are condemned, nibbling at the glass of the aquarium, even if that means coming to terms with feelings he would rather not have acknowledged. His parents' bitter divorce left Nasrallah unable to comprehend his father -- why he showed the children no tenderness, why he so resented their mother. It was only years later -- even after his father's death -- that Nasrallah himself, flying into a jealous rage one day, suddenly stopped. "I wasn't thinking of him at all, but I immediately understood: these extreme emotions, the wish to destroy because I was unhappy, the wish to possess someone, to say 'you're mine'... Once I had felt this, my father couldn't be a demon any more. And having felt it, what was I going to do about it? How was I going to go on falling in love, being in love -- which is something very important?"

Love is one way to break out of the solitude we share. Making movies is another. Loneliness, he says, is like cancer. But by capturing the moments where we are not simply defined by being alone, it is possible to give happiness. "You open the windows, you let the air in. What's art, anyway? Isn't it a way to share your suffering, your joy, with other people?"

(photos:Randa Shaath )

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