Al-Ahram Weekly Online   12 - 18 June 2003
Issue No. 642
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The piecing of lives

By Amina Elbendary

Rose and Louisa Misr International Films have previewed their latest documentaries Femme Courage (Woman is Courage) and La legende de Rose Al- Youssef (The Legend of Rose El- Youssef) -- parts three and four of a 12-part project on pioneering Arab women produced by Marianne Khoury.

Directed by Amine Rachedi, Femme Courage narrates the struggle of Louisa Ighilahriz, a member of the Algerian independence movement. It begins with an elderly Louisa, limping and with a cane, and a friend, looking for and visiting the grave of one Docteur Richaud in the south of France. Her search, we soon learn, had lasted 43 years and when she finally tracked him down he was already dead. The introduction is at once matter of fact and moving. Back in Algeria she tells her interlocutors the story; Docteur Richaud had saved her life and she wanted to thank him in person. And in retelling her story, and that of the Algerian resistance movement, it becomes increasingly clear that a great deal has yet to be resolved.

Louisa's narrative of capture and torture at the hands of French soldiers, the infamous tenth division, is interspersed with scenes from The Battle of Algiers and documentary footage. The Algerian resistance movement was full of women some of whom, like Jamila Bouhraid, became national icons. The filmmakers stroll around town with Louisa and a handful of young people do indeed recognise her as a courageous militant against occupation. They cannot, however, recall what she did.

Louisa trembles as she remembers her days of captivity. After a couple of days, she recalls, her mind started blocking the gruesome reality she was in. She swayed her head from left to right to enter a trance and transcend the pain -- a nervous reflex that remained with her for years. But she remembers the voice of the doctor who magically ended her torture one day and had her treated. She still limps after all the operations she had, but he saved her life. And all she knew was that she heard others call him Docteur Richaud. He asked her what a little girl (she was in her 20s) was doing fighting. He asked her what she wanted and she asked -- only -- to be moved to a regular prison. From prison to prison she ended up in France and escaped back to Algeria.

After independence she continued her studies. At first she wanted to become a doctor -- to honour Richaud -- but couldn't because of her fear of blood. She studied psychology instead. She married and had a family. And all the while she tried to contact with her elusive saviour. He died three years before she finally traced him.

The film refers to the series of confessions -- some remorseful, others obstinate -- by French generals involved in the war in Algeria. Louisa herself testified in the case against the notorious General Aussaress.

Femme Courage ends with scenes of more demonstrations in Algeria, this time in the 1990s. In many of these women are prominent, vowing to protect their homeland and sacrifice themselves for its welfare. Louisa remarks that in the 1960s the Algerian resistance knew what they were fighting for. That is no longer the case, she implies.

Femme Courage offers a nuanced reading of the Algerian independence movement that reveals the complexities of the relationship between postcolonial Algeria and its former occupiers and the demons that persist in both French and Algerian national psyches. It comes at a very poignant time in the history of the Arab world's relations with the West.

Mohamed Kamel El-Kalioubi's La legende de Rose Al-Youssef (The Legend of Rose Al- Youssef) is by contrast a light film. It narrates the life of the celebrated actress and journalist through interviews with such figures as her assistant Madiha Ezzat, her daughter Amal Tulaymat, her grandson Mohamed Abdel- Quddous, artist Bahgat Osman and others.

Fatma Al-Youssef's mother died while giving birth to her in Tripoli in the late 19th century. Her Turkish travelling merchant father left her with Christian Maronite neighbours who brought her up and nicknamed her Rose. A decade later he stopped sending money. What happened to little Rose next, the core of her legend, differs from one narration to another; the girl found herself abandoned in Alexandria and then Cairo around the age of 12. She was soon "adopted" by Iskander Farah and then Aziz Eid, both of whom made a stage actress out of her. Although she never received any formal education, her stage education made her one of the most sought-after actresses of the early 20th century. El-Kalioubi interviews theatre historians to talk about Rose's years in the theatre. Veteran actress Amina Rizk recalls Rose as a strong but kind and sensitive woman; she picked fights with Youssef Wahbi and quit his troupe but would still pass on dresses to the young Amina who worked with him.

In the 1920s, at the height of her career, she decided to quit the theatre and publish a magazine instead. Daringly called Rose Al-Youssef, after its owner and publisher, the magazine started out as a cultural weekly defending the arts against conservative backlash but was soon lured into politics as well. A remarkable career for a woman who literally sprang out of no where. Several of the interviewees comment on her years at the magazine, revealing the influence and contribution of Rose Al-Youssef to the intellectual life of the nation. Obviously a shrewd business manager, Rose attracted to her magazine Mahmoud Abbas El-Aqqad, Mohamed El-Tabie, Ahmed Bahaaeddin, Mahmoud Amin El-Alim and Abdel-Azim Anis. Her son, Ihsan Abdel-Quddous, rose through the ranks of the magazine, becoming editor-in- chief only after a stint in prison. The magazine developed a reputation for daring features, often exposing corruption in high quarters -- a policy that often landed it in trouble both before and after the 1952 Revolution. Rose Al- Youssef was also known for nurturing a generation of political cartoonists who redefined the genre. But the film does not refer much to Rose's own writings, or her political positions beyond the vague suggestion that she was Wafdist in inclination.

Of Sitt Rose employees remember her careful scrutiny of the books. She would return to the office after a night out to make sure all the lights were off, and instruct senior cartoonists to draw on the back of used boards in order to save paper. "But she was not a miser as some people say," insists Nermine El-Quwesni; she was just a good manager.

Although the film refers to Ihsan's contribution to the magazine, and although El-Kalioubi interviews his sister Amal Tulaymat, and son Mohamed, it doesn't begin to scratch the surface of this complex mother-son relationship. Legend tells us more of her first two marriages, to Mohamed Abdel-Quddous and Zaki Tulaymat, than about her third (and longest) to Qassem Amin.

Madiha Ezzat and Mohamed Abdel-Quddous narrate her equally dramatic death. Rose apparently knew it was time to go while watching a film with a friend of hers. She grabbed a cab and hurried home, undressed and got under the covers. She made it to bed in time to die in dignity. It was 10 April 1958.

Despite the facts and anecdotes the film's sedate tone does not do justice to a truly dramatic life and in the end we get neither all the facts nor all the legends. Relying essentially on interviews the director restricted himself to the small group of Rose's surviving contemporaries which inevitably leaves holes in her life and career.

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