Al-Ahram Weekly Online   16 - 22 August 2012
Issue No. 1111
Culture
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Bonaparte calling

Hani Mustafa takes detailed stock of one of this Ramadan's most remarkable television dramas

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No doubt the French Campaign (1779-1801) is a period of extreme importance for the emergence of modern Egyptian society. It not only marks the beginning of modern Western colonialism in the region but also the first major clash between an as yet closed, wholly traditional Egyptian society and the modern European infiltration of that society.

The serial drama Napoleon wal Mahroussah ("Napoleon and [Cairo] the Protected"), by the Tunisian director Shawqi Al-Majiri ê" currently showing on many satellite channels ê" is among the very few audiovisual works that have dealt with this critical period. In Egyptian film and television, it is preceded only by the late Youssef Chahine's 1985 film Adieu, Bonaparte, screened at the Cannes film festival that year, which starred the French actor Michel Piccoli and the Egyptian actor Mohsen Mohieddin who has since retired from the acting profession as a result of the rise of a form of religiosity that prohibits the arts ê" which became evident in the Egyptian film industry as of the end of the 1980s.

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In Napoleon wal Mahroussah, the screenwriter Azza Shalaby did not rest content with documenting historical fact but sought to create a comprehensive and precise mosaic of the social and political fabric of Egypt during the three years in question. Shalaby says she spent over six months studying everything that has been written about the French Campaign in Arabic and French with the help of historian Helmi Shalaby, after which she spent nine months writing the serial.

The historical moment at which the French Campaign occurred was an extremely critical point in Egyptian history: the Protected, as Cairo was called, was at a peak of instability and political flailing. Shalaby had planned on giving each episode a title of its own ê" an idea she later abandoned for practical reasons and in order to avoid underplaying the interconnectedness of the series as a whole ê" but the first episode was to be called "Who rules Egypt?" It is a question that seems particularly urgent in the attempt to make sense of the French Campaign; and it is not easily answered. The first few episodes demonstrates the multiplicity of political decision-making forces, evidencing not so much plurality in the modern democratic sense as chaos. At the time it is clear there are very many influential figures in politics:

Murad Bey (1750-1801), played by Seif Abdel-Rahman, represents the summit of hidden or secret power; he is not the actual ruler. Murad Bey shares power with Ibrahim Bey (1735-1817). Egypt, which has been an Ottoman province since the Ottomans defeated the Mameluks in 1517 was still in effect ruled by the Mameluk beys while nominally under the Sultan-Caliph and the Sublime Porte. Shalaby hints at the power struggle between the two beys of the time, giving plenty of space of Murad's influential wife, Nafissa Al-Bayda (known as the Mother of the Mameluks), played by Laila Elwi, who enjoyed special spiritual status among everyday Egyptians at large.

However it is the Battle of Imbaba, depicted in the first few episodes, that sets out the sort of political details that form the structure of the serial. Through it we find out that Murad Bey has been in conflict with the Sultan since he stopped contributing some of the tax he collects to the Ottoman treasury. At the same time it is his disagreement with Murad Bey that drives Ibrahim Bey to withdraw from battle at the start, leaving Murad with some fellahin and other civilians to face the canon of the French army alone ê" whereupon Murad Bey flees to Al-Fishn, Beni Souief in Upper Egypt, pursued by a force led by General Desaix. Ibrahim, who has fled to Al-Salihiya, is pursued by another force led by Bonaparte himself.

It is also evident that Al-Azhar was the most influential institution in Egyptian history throughout the decades preceding the French Campaign; it was the weakness of political power that gave the sheikhs of Al-Azhar, headed by Grand Sheikh Al-Sharqawi (Ahmad Maher), enormous kudos. Political conditions had not permitted the emergence of a strong, institutionally sound independent state; Egyptians had no one to defend their rights apart from the sheikhs of Al-Azhar, who sometimes interceded on their behalf with the Mameluks to reduce taxes. This role was also performed by a variety of figures with special status in society: one scene reveals how Nafissa once interceded with Murad Bay and other Mameluks to reduce taxes.

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In one of his rare interviews following Adieu Bonaparte, Chahine said something to the effect that, when an artist attempts to present history, the artist is in fact trying to say something about contemporary reality through history. His own film, for example, was a statement on how it was the failure of Egyptian society to open up to outside inspiration and develop that rendered it unable to repel the French Campaign. This tendency towards isolation, when Egypt closed in on itself, was an aspect of life in the 1960s-80s, and it drove Chahine to produce a remarkable art work to comment on it.

This too was an aspect of similarity between past and present that Shalabi drew on, but it wasn't the only one she registered. She was rather more drawn to the resemblance between the political, social and human details of that period to the present. This indeed is what becomes all too obvious in many episodes. Shalaby borrows accounts of the security breakdown that followed the French Campaign, for example to draw parallels with the security breakdown during the January 2011 revolution. It manifested in the early shutting of shops and workplaces, and people avoiding the streets after dark. In her script Shalaby hints at what the average citizen felt during the recent--and extended--security crisis.

In this context Shalaby uses her characters' dialogue to condemn institutions, groups and individuals: the sheikhs of Al-Azhar when they take issue with the Mameluks for leaving the borders open to invasion and paying attention only to tax collection and the accumulation of wealth which they later transport to the countryside for protection against loss or damage even as the average citizen is suffering debilitating shortages in basic necessities; Ali the ironsmith (Sherif Salama) condemns the sheikhs of Al-Azhar when they try to convince people to pay "the loans" requested by the Campaign, indicating that they--the sheikhs--are exempt. On more than one occasion Shalaby underlines the sheikhs' failure to stand up to the French and their readiness to follow their orders, especially after nine of them form a ruling diwan or council that is in effect a cover for French military rule. At one point they even declare those young men who wage the Cairo revolution against the French outlaws ê" something that shocks many including Ali and his mother Khadiga (Sawsan Badr).

On many occasions such condemnation adopted the perspective of class, since while the upper classes are concerned for their own interests about instability, it is the lower classes who suffer the brunt of both poverty and direct conflict with the French; for the majority of those involved in the resistance were among the fellahin or poor artisans, while merchants and sheikhs are too worried about themselves and their families to take part in any conflict: this was clear in Ali and his friend the stonemason to defend Cairo at the Battle of Imbaba, while Ali's brother Hassan (Bahaa Tharwat), a merchant married to an older merchant's daughter Ward (Arwa Gooda), whose father Mansour (Sabri Abdel-Moneim) represents a different class, decides to flee Cairo with his family as soon as he finds out about Napoleon's victory at Imbaba.

In this episode another tragedy occurs: the caravan in flight from Egypt is attacked by marauding Bedouins who rob them of their possessions, abduct their children, even raping some women. In the course of this Hassan loses his child Selim, who cannot be brought back until Hassan, on Ward's insistence, hazards a visit to the Bedouins accompanied by an emissary of Nafissa who bears a precious dagger as a gift and a message from Sheikh Al-Dawakhli of Al-Azhar to the Bedouin chief.

What goes for security of breakdown goes equally for sectarian tension, with the Christian merchant Saadalla, Ali's friend, complaining of being attacked by people who take issue with him sharing the religion of the invaders. Yet Ali and Said, Saadalla's employee, manage to repel the contemptible attack. In a later episode Ali finds out that his friend has barely survived a knife attack for the same reason.

No doubt Shalaby weaves an effective dramatic web: At the start of the series we have a fellahin family in Al-Fishn, made up of Ruqaya (Farah Youssef), her two children and her mother (Hanan Yosusef) and her father (Sameh El-Seraiti) who has lost the use of his eyes due to the ophthalmia rife throughout Egypt at that time. Ruqaya loses her two children when they are abducted by Murad Bey's soldiers, then her village is shelled by the French and both her mother and father die ê" whereupon she emigrates to Cairo. Here Shalaby presents a detail at once violent and beautiful: Ruqaya's mother, terrified of the French invasion, protects her daughter against rape by sowing her vagina shut in the eighth episode ê" one of the strongest, since it documents an extremely important detail of how the victims of the French Campaign are the fellahin and the poor, who are forced to hand over what little they have including their own children to Murad Bey's army who outdoes the French by looting the villages before they do.

Ruqaya lives with her sister in law Zeinab, who is married to Ruqaya's brother Mahmoud (Ashraf Moseilhi), sharing the house with Zeinab's father the ironsmith (Hadi El-Gayyar) and her mother Khadiga and brother Ali. The move pushes the drama forward as Cairo is where the political and social conflict reaches its peak. Here is a lower middle class family, in contrast to Hassan's upper middle class family. Thus the extremely intricate social mosaic presented in the serial.

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Shalaby says she enlarged several maps of the Cairo of the time in order to work out where and how these families lived ê" something that benefited her greatly ê" since she managed to place the ironsmith's family in Ruwai'i not far from the house of Nafissa Al-Bayda. Maps also allowed Shalaby to discover that the French merchant --Magllon--and his wife (Nafissa's friend and French teacher) lived nearby, something that benefits the drama too, explaining how Nafissa came to speak such fluent French long before the Campaign arrived in Cairo. Thus Nafissa manages to play the role of intermediary between leaders of the Campaign and ordinary Egyptians even as her husband wages a war of attrition against the French. From the first episode it is clear that the historical material, skillfully married to the drama, is extremely precise and structurally sound. Indeed this serial may differ from other Ramadan TV dramas in that it will be impossible for a viewer who has not seen the first episodes to follow.

***

No doubt such complexity and precisions requires a similar level of directorial competence ê" something that does not always happen with many practical problems coming through clearly in the series: Here is a solid drama with countless errors of orchestration. One such error is the lack of extras and groups and the failure of the director to manipulate his filming style to hide that. Shalaby for example discovered that the first French forces did not arrive on the Egyptian coast through Abu Qir in the east; a large number of battalions in fact arrived at Agami in the west and walked a distance of several kilometers in the sand. The relevant scene showed too few French soldiers who did not in the least look French although Al-Majiri could have used European extras at least for the first few lines of soldiers. Many such scenes are not convincing.

And the beginning is a precursor to the many major events that will happen in the course of the next three years which the serial depicts. In the Battle of Imbaba it is said that Murad Bey will face the French with 20 thousand soldiers not counting the fellahin and others; and the way to present that would have required some 200 extras visually manipulated to yield a grand battle. Yet Al-Majiri fails to deploy those directorial tricks, with the result that the battle comes across as a very pale shadow of what it could've been. And the same goes for the first and second Cairo revolutions. Such weakness in battle scenes is unjustifiable in the light of the competence with which the director presents the famous naval battle between the French and the British led by Nelson ê" in which the majority of the French ships were drowned.

Another directorial problem is the choice of some actors for certain scenes: Neslson and other leaders of the British navy speak English with a strong Egyptian accent. This too is unjustifiable in comparison to the director's casting of the French army roles with the well-known French actor Gregorire Colin (star of the 1996 Locarno Golden Lion-winning Nenette and Boni, directed by Claire Denis) in the role of Bonaparte.

It is also noticeable how Al-Majiri seems to avoid scenes of violence that we find out about in the course of the drama. One important scene that reveals the violence and blood thirst of the French-allied chief of police, Farterromman (Sherif Sobhi), in which he cuts off the tongue of a merchant who announces the drowning of the French fleet before the public, is very badly executed; and one wonders if it is a weak point of the director's, which forces him to stay away from such scenes even though violence under the French Campaign was far more common than in other historical period. Either the director could not imagine some of what Shalaby wrote, or was unable to execute them. Yet on the whole this remains a powerful work with much effort in the way of writing, costume design (by Soha Khalid) and some stunning performances by young actors: Sherif Salama, Farah Youssef, Arwa Gouda; they were matched by such seasoned actors as Elwi, Badr and El-Gayyar, while Maher fails to go beyond his affected theatrical style and Seif Abdel-Rahman fails to act at all.

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