|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
11 - 17 April 2002
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On being an AlexandrianWas Alexandria really cosmopolitan? And if it was, is it possible to speak of such a thing as an Alexandrian cosmopolitanism? Hala Halim asks these questions through Youssef Chahine's autobiographical trilogy
If today it seems obvious, when introducing a discussion of Youssef Chahine, to tag onto his name the label of "Alexandrian filmmaker," this was not always so. Although the fact that Chahine had spent the first 20 years of his life in Alexandria has always been well known, for the larger part of his career the city was virtually absent from his work. Chahine was born in 1926, but it was only after his Iskindiriyya Lih (Alexandria Why?, 1978) was released that he became "Youssef Chahine l'Alexandrin" whose film was lauded as a celebration of Alexandria's "bouillon de culture." Alexandria Why? was the first part of what was to become Chahine's trilogy of autobiographical films, comprising An Egyptian Story, or Hadduta Misriyya (1982), then Alexandria Again and Forever, or Iskindiriyya Kaman wa Kaman (1990). By the third part of the trilogy, Chahine gave the surname "Al- Iskandarani," meaning, "The Alexandrian," to Yehia, his autobiographical alias in the film, whereas in the second film, the Chahine character had been identified as Yehia Shukri Murad.
Cannes Festival poster by Salah Enani for Youssef Chahine's Alexandrie Encore et Toujours
What emerges from this is a process of identification of Chahine with Alexandria undertaken by both the critics and the filmmaker, a process that begs a number of questions. When does one become an Alexandrian? What does it mean to be Alexandrian, according to Youssef Chahine? Was Alexandria ever really cosmopolitan? And if it was, is it possible to speak of such a thing as an Alexandrian cosmopolitanism? In other words, is there something sui generis about Alexandria's cosmopolitanism? And why speak of it? These questions are also prompted by a new-found privileging, in Egypt and abroad, of Alexandrianism. There is the Bibliotheca Alexandrina project to recreate the ancient library, there is the underwater archaeological rediscovery of the ancient city in vestiges of the Pharos lighthouse and the Royal Harbour, and there is the plethora of memoirs by émigré Alexandrians seeking to recapture the time and space past of the city.
In revisiting the autobiographical trilogy, my sense is that the critics' interpretations of this identification -- this emergence of Alexandria on the Chahine screen -- may have been too ready to celebrate the fact of the city. Hence a hasty allocating of the auteur's representation of Alexandria in the first film within received ideas about the city. Hence, too, the eschewing of resistant elements in Alexandria Why? and the tendency to overlook a number of Hellenistic sequences in Alexandria Again and Forever that go against the grain of codified perceptions of the city and its "cosmopolitanism."
In his portrayal of World War II Alexandria in the first film Chahine is nostalgically salvaging an inter- communal tolerance from the Alexandrian experience. But he avoids the facile enshrining of cosmopolitanism by training a keen eye on the relationship between the city's diversity and issues of social class, nationalism and colonialism in Alexandria Why?. The Hellenistic sequences of Alexandria Again and Forever, as I read them, are a commentary on that nostalgia by way of a critical and self-reflexive meditation on the myths and icons through which the city has sought to constitute its cosmopolitanism.
Alexandria Why's ambition can be described as panoramic. The film dovetails Yehia's story with several narrative strands, alternating with contemporary wartime newsreels, docu-drama of the war, dramatic performances put on by Yehia and his friends, and clips from an amateur film shot by the younger Chahine. Linguistic hybridity is attested through Greek-accented Arabic, British English, French-accented English, French, Syro-Lebanese Franco-Arabe, and loan- words, in addition, of course, to various registers of Arabic. Settings that work as apt urban contact-zones include the cinemas, a cabaret, parties, several harbour scenes, and Victoria College, the British-style public school Chahine went to and which drew students from all over the Middle East.
However, if the film collates diverse visual and generic material this is no mere pastiche, as the transitions are often effected in parodic fashion. Likewise, on the level of the many narrative strands Chahine complicates the notion of Alexandria as a melting pot by bringing to the fore a multitude of positions and voices that qualify each other's perspectives. There is Yehia, who dreams incessantly of Hollywood and of becoming an actor and finally, against the odds of his family's poverty, leaves to in the US after the war. Then there is the left-wing couple Sarah and Ibrahim forced to part when she, as a Jewess, has to leave Alexandria and settles in Palestine, before returning to Alexandria and Ibrahim. A group from the army, Egyptian nationalist with German sympathies, also concoct a plot to assassinate Churchill. Adel Bey, a self-styled nationalist in the habit of "buying" British soldiers kidnapped for his purposes whom he murders as a contribution to the cause, ends up falling in love with one of them, an Englishman who then dies in Alamein.
That Yehia's most intimate school friends, Muhsin and David, are, respectively, a Muslim and a Jew we gather by inference in other moments in the film; religion in no way comes into play in their friendship. Yet, despite their common resentment of their British teachers, and despite the undeniable conviviality among the friends, the film repeatedly emphasises Yehia's malaise due to his family's relative poverty. That the cosmopolitanism of Victoria College, a British- style public school catering for the wealthy of the Middle East and foreign residents, was an elite context is attested here.
Yehia's father is a scrupulous but unsuccessful lawyer who has closed his office and settled for a government job so that he would have a regular income to pay his son's fees at the prestigious Victoria College. As the mother explains, "The important thing is that we managed to get you into the best school in the country, and you'll get a British education, which is the best education.... when you grow up, you'll have friends in the most important posts in the country, and of course they will help you." However, Yehia's social background sets him apart in the context of the school as seen in a series of sequences about or referring to a party at a classmate's that he refuses to go to because, outside the school uniform, he would not be able to dress as well as his classmates.
But the elite, anglophone cosmopolitanism of Victoria College is contrasted with another milieu where lack of privilege does not constitute a barrier -- the communist movement. This we witness in the biblically named couple, Ibrahim, the poor communist student who has moved to Alexandria from the countryside, and Sarah, the wealthy Alexandrian Jewish leftist. As among Yehia's friends, religious difference is not an issue in the relationship. The position of Sarah and her family emphasizes the ease and security in which Middle Eastern Jews lived, in sharp contrast to European Jews, highlighting an inter-confessional tolerance indigenous to the region, at least prior to 1948 and 1956.
When Sarah announces to her father that she is pregnant by Ibrahim, the news leaves him unfazed, his only concern being to convince her to leave Egypt now that the Nazis are en route to Alexandria. As if to render all this less implausible, Chahine appears to have chosen Sarah's family name, Sorel, to evoke Henri Curiel, one of the prominent Jewish figures of the Egyptian communist movement. But we need not equate Sorel père with Curiel specifically -- and indeed there is little correspondence between the two figures. Rather, the similarity in names is probably there to summon in shorthand that specific phase of the communist movement and the left-wing milieu more generally.
The film, released after Sadat's visit to Jerusalem, was banned in a number of Arab countries on account of the Jewish-Egyptian couple. Before dismissing such reactions, it is important to underscore one pitfall inherent in the vague, celebratory invocations of Alexandria's "cosmopolitanism" whereby it can be taken as a springboard for pro-normalisation discourse. But the tirades of Sorel père against the very premise of Zionism do not seem to tally with the pro-normalisation stance that has been read into Alexandria Why?. The tirades underscore the difference between Jew and Zionist (which Yehia spells out in An Egyptian Story), possibly again by eliciting the anti-Zionist stance of large segments of the Jewish communists of Egypt. (A special anti-Zionist Jewish communist association was formed in 1946, but Curiel himself remains a controversial figure in this respect; see Ibrahim Fathi's Henri Curiel Didd Al-Haraka Al-Shuyou'iyya Al-'Arabiyya: Al-Qadiyya Al-Filistiniyya [Henri Curiel Against the Arab Communist Movement: the Palestinian Question].) The fortunes of the Sorels after their departure from Egypt are telling in other ways. After a spell in South Africa, they eventually settle in Palestine. Although both father and daughter disavow the violence with which the new nation is forged, it is only Sarah who returns to Alexandria, bringing Ibrahim, then behind bars, their illegitimate child. Her brother David, Yehia's friend, subscribes to Zionism and receives military training in the US. The division within Sarah's family is also an index of the wider dissolution of Alexandria's diversity in the 1940s and 1950s (not to mention the 1960s) along national, ethnic and religious faultlines.
With one exception, all figures in the film are unanimous in their anti-British stance. As for the nationalists, these are presented in caricature. Witness the antics of the group of army officers with their Mickey Mouse plot to assassinate Churchill, or their hilariously naïve rapprochement with Nazi forces. It seems fair to suggest that the satire is directed against not just the Free Officers but specifically Sadat and his collaborators. Yet, the film, however fleetingly, concedes how the group, here standing in for non-Westernised lower middle-class Egyptians, were viewed by foreign or semi-foreign residents. In a beach setting, the camera moves from the cabin where the group of nationalists are laughing, to two foreign-looking women knitting. One of the women says: "Les Arabes à coté rient comme s'ils étaient chez eux" ("The Arabs next door are laughing as if they were in their own home"). "Les Arabes," of course, was the generic, undifferentiating and derogatory term used by the khawagas to describe the vast majority of Egyptians.
The possibility of a gay cosmopolitanism is explored at the intersection with colonialism in the relationship between Adel and Tommy. Chahine approaches the specter of complicity that might be read in this sub-plot with much caution. He makes the Egyptian, Adel Bey, an aristocrat, and has him contrast himself against his nouveau riche brother-in-law who does the bidding of the British. Tommy Friskin, on the other hand, is the son of a shopkeeper from Dover (who was killed by a stray bomb), absurdly young, confused and something of a victim of the war he has been conscripted into.
In the first scenes where we meet him, Tommy unselfconsciously refers to Egyptians he meets, including Adel's entourage, as "wogs." But in their parting scene, he echoes words that Ibrahim has said to Sarah about how she has dispelled his loneliness. Critics have rightly suggested that the two couples are linked through the montage, but, again, the link may be one of contrast, given the political malaise in this relationship. Tommy speaks of how his own loneliness, as well as Adel's, was alleviated by the relationship, and of the absurdity of Adel's having murdered British soldiers before him. Tommy's last words to Adel begin with "I may be a nothing from the quay-side of Dover, but I am still British, or maybe..." Then, he goes on to say, "Oh, shit! I don't care what I'm called. I only care to care," before concluding, "I care to tell you you're a son of a bitch." One critic pronounced the homosexual adventure of this film "honteuse" (shameful), though whether on political or sexual grounds is not clear. Rather, Chahine is to be given credit for creating here a nuanced relationship which derives some of its complexity from a political ambivalence he does not paper over.
Then there is Yehia's cri de coeur against Alexandria, towards the end of the film, when he feels stranded, unable to travel to study abroad like his friends. It is this cri de coeur which furnishes one interpretation of the title of the film, Alexandria Why?. And it is to this that the title of the third part, Alexandria Again and Forever, responds.
In life, as in the trilogy, Chahine never settled in Alexandria again: after his spell studying in the US, he returned to live in Cairo, although the city came to preoccupy him much later in life, as the obsessive title Alexandria Again and Forever indicates. Chahine's Syro-Lebanese background, the generation he belongs to, as well as his trajectory (the fact that he did not emigrate but that his work belongs to the international arena of filmmaking), situate him in an in-between position towards Alexandrians of foreign origin and Egyptian Alexandrians, towards two historical moments and among a whole gamut of responses to perceived loss in the Alexandrian context.
As I have argued elsewhere, the dominant paradigm of cosmopolitanism in a great deal of the literature and scholarship about Alexandria is one where the polyglot, multi-ethnic (pre-Suez) modern city is identified with Europe and cast as recapitulating Hellenistic Alexandria. This is reinforced by eliciting the Greek component of the population, in both modern and Hellenistic periods. Simultaneously, modern Alexandria's national belonging and the Egyptians who made up the majority of the population, and were the labor force, are jettisoned.
One potent symbol here is the figure of Alexander as a key link in the chain of formulations of cosmopolitanism in antiquity. As Stephen Toulmin reminds us, in a context unrelated to Alexandria, it was when "Alexander the Great broadened the Greek horizon beyond its former preoccupation with single cities," that Stoic philosophers started formulating the notion of the cosmopolis. An example of this pattern in the context of Alexandria is an article by John P Anton, "Alexandria: The History and Legend of a Cosmopolis." Anton posits the multi-ethnic, multi- confessional "open city" aspect of Hellenistic cities, specifically Alexandria, against the older loyalties towards the "polis," based on cultural homogeneity. In linking up ancient Alexandria as allegedly a cosmopolis with the modern city allegedly also a cosmopolis, Anton charts a back-drop of the multi-ethnic composition of the city and focuses on the Greek community, specifically Cavafy. But, aside from overlooking the Egyptian population of the city, he overlooks other communities, such as the Syro-Lebanese. More recently, however, Alexander's colonial agenda and ruthlessness have come under scrutiny in A B Bosworth's unblinking studies Conquest and Empire: The Reign of Alexander the Great and Alexander and the East: The Tragedy of Triumph.
The moment of "cosmopolitanism" in the modern period was both short-lived and, with the exception of writers like Cavafy, largely written by Alexandrians after the fact, the fact of Suez, decolonisation, and the final waves of emigration. The invocations of a lost origin and a lost youth by émigré Alexandrians of foreign descent are distinctly elegiac in tone. Although this cannot be generalised, many of these texts attempt a closure to the work of mourning by revisiting the landmarks of former home, school, and cemetery and sometimes through a denigrating take on post-Suez Egyptian Alexandria. As for Egyptian Alexandrians, let us leave behind for the moment Chahine's generation which witnessed both the colonial and postcolonial city, and focus on a younger generation of Alexandrians. Although there is a risk of over- generalisation here too, we find occasionally among this generation a sense of self-divided grieving that can neither relinquish an earlier, unknown Alexandria, nor fully articulate what has been lost.
Examples include the narrator of "Amm Ahmed, Father and Son", a short-story from Harry Tzalas' collection Farewell to Alexandria. The Greek narrator who has left in 1956, returns years later to find the city in a sorry state, revisits the building he had lived in and discovers that the son of his old concierge, for whom the revolution had embodied great hopes of advancement, has merely replaced his father and has three wives. Contrast this against the image of the "House of Jasmine" which furnishes Alexandrian writer Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid with the title of his novel Bayt Al-Yasmin. Shagara, the narrator who works in a factory in Alexandria, and experiences deep ambivalence about his small-scale attempts to join in the profiteering of the Sadat years whose even uglier underside he chronicles, is haunted by the House of Jasmine in his district. Surrounded by legend, the house is described as of a certain antiquity and secluded, jealously guarding its beautiful daughters, a glimpse of one of whom sets Shagara dreaming. As the sordidness of the Sadat years wears on, the house becomes dilapidated, until at the end of the novel it is bought out by a shady entrepreneur and demolished. The ethnicity of the owners of the House of Jasmine is not clear; it can be interpreted as a symbol of the nation's promise that Sadat inherited and plundered; or, more specifically, in view of its unknowable, desired and unattainable quality, as a melancholically haunting trace of old Alexandria. It is interesting to note that in one instance, the betrayal is by Nasser, in the other, by Sadat.
Chahine's Alexandria Again and Forever takes on this very landscape of mourning. Yehia, played by Chahine himself, returns, not to modern Alexandria, but to the Hellenistic city in a series of fantasies. These sequences might seem extraneous to the film's frame story of the director's breakup with his male lover and lead actor and the 1987 artists' strike in Cairo against the illegal extension of the tenure of a head of their union (this, obviously, indicative of the question of art's autonomy and issues of civil rights). In my reading, what Chahine dramatises in these sequences is the on-screen director, Yehia's unresolved mourning of that personal loss which coincides with a sense of national defeat, both acted out through icons of the Hellenistic city. This process, in turn, serves as a vehicle for Chahine's reflections on the foundation myths of the city.
For reasons of space, I will focus on the sequences devoted to Alexander. The first Hellenistic sequence is about Alexander in Siwa Oasis where he is pronounced son of God, and the last is a 20th century scene where Alexander's long-lost Soma, or mausoleum, is finally found underground. Antony is Yehia, and more importantly, Alexander in Siwa and Alexander in the Mausoleum are played by the same actor who plays Amr, the estranged lover who had played the role of Yehia in the first part of the trilogy, making for an even closer identification.
The figure of Alexander, in a process comparable to the working of dreams, becomes the point where many layers of significance, some less visible than others, are condensed -- which would account for apparent contradictions in what he stands for. Alexander is, in any case, already an apt icon for homoeroticism. Yehia plays (an aged) Hephaestion opposite Amr-as-Alexander, even if the name of the Macedonian's lover is not used. At a second remove, Alexander becomes an index of the homoeroticism associated with the Greek Anthology, the poetry of the Mouseion and Cavafy -- in one of the early scenes of the film, the camera trains on Forster's Alexandria: A History and a Guide, with its quotations from Cavafy. Hence, in the first Hellenistic sequence, the love-lyric that Yehia sings, endorsing the Macedonian's bid to divinity, can be read as part and parcel of the on-screen director's acting out of unresolved mourning over an Alexander identified with Amr. The last sequence has Yehia brought face to face with Alexander-Amr in a glass- case underground. The return of the repressed is further bodied forth when an obviously phallic screw-drill pierces the glass sarcophagus, releasing Alexander's blood and bringing the realisation that he had been alive all along and has only now died.
But Alexandria is not merely a ready canon of icons for mediating these psychic processes. The possible survival of the city's past in its present, as an alternative for national defeats, is also excavated. The two Alexander sequences feature Stelio Koumoutsos, the "real-life" Alexandrian Greek waiter who in the 1960s and '70s conducted a series of excavations to locate the Soma. Yehia's alliance with Stelio can be interpreted as a search for vestiges of Alexandria's erstwhile Mediterranean diversity. An index of this is Stelio himself, Stelio who says in the film that will not emigrate -- "What have I to do with the Acropolis?" Hellenistic syncretism is translated in the mise-en- scene of the mausoleum which combines Egyptian Hieroglyphs, Greek statuary, and Alexander in the aspect of Pharaoh. Yet, the film does concede that the search for lost cosmopolitan origins is a doomed, if inevitable, endeavor. This admission is effected through the thoroughly Alexandrian symbol of the Soma perpetually searched for but never found, the Soma, more dramatically in the film, no sooner found than lost. Thus Chahine gives ultimate expression to the sense of loss associated with the city, witnessed in the perpetual search for anteriority, bolstered by the absence of the city's legendary monuments and the fact of Alexandria being built on several older Alexandrias destroyed on a daily basis.
But one would be remiss not to point out the film's demystification of the historical Alexander, along another chain of associations underwritten by a more political form of mourning. Amr, the estranged actor, is later portrayed as having turned his hand to directing a film serial commissioned by a man in Arab headgear ('uqal) who objects to certain details. The sequence exemplifies one aspect of petro-dollar influence on the Egyptian film and television industries. Thus, Amr stands in for a generation that has sold out to petro-dollar consumerist-cum- conservative values and aesthetics. This national predicament gives rise to the question what role an alternative Egyptian cinema can play, in absence of the 1950's and '60s grand-narratives of liberation and social justice, to which Chahine and his films had subscribed.
It is this that opens up another interpretation of the Hellenistic sequences -- the traditional stuff of historical epic -- as Chahine's proposed alternative cinematic aesthetic, one that calls attention to its own fictitiousness by placing parodic markers on its complicity in "forging" icons. Analysing this entails stepping back from the point of view of the on-screen director, Yehia, and considering that of Chahine. Yehia's love-lyric is dialogised against group songs mocking Alexander's claims to divinity, disclosing their coercion into backing it and lamenting his injustices (bloodshed and impaled heads). On one level, this refers to the historical Alexander -- not in the Egyptian occupation but elsewhere -- though not the Alexander whom propaganda cast as seeking to harmonise the world, but the ruthless empire-building Alexander of A B Bosworth.
But the figures in the populace and those of their oppressors among Alexander's entourage, also draw on and refer to the union strike, and hence the question of democracy, through certain slogans. Furthermore, the trappings of the Macedonian's deification are remarkably camp as when a vacant- looking Alexander, bearing the two-horned crown, blows a bubble with his chewing gum. Reading beyond the visions of Yehia's personal grief, these elements have a politically iconoclastic quality that draws the viewer's attention to the mystification that both cinema and the melancholia of Alexandrian cosmopolitanism can perpetrate.
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