Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1342, (27 April - 3 May 2017)
Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Issue 1342, (27 April - 3 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Two books on Egypt

A magisterial study of Egyptian cinema, and an equally enthralling account of 10 Coptic leaders, both recently published, remind us of the true face of Egypt, writes Mohamed Salmawy

Two books caught my attention this week because of how they highlight the bright side of our lives amidst the many crises that surround us from all sides. The first is about cinema, the second about Copts. The title of the first book is, The Most Important 101 Films in Egyptian History. This seminal work was the product of enormous efforts on the part of its author, Sameh Fathi, who delved back into the long history of Egyptian cinema in order to select 101 of what he believes to be the most outstanding films in this legacy. One of the first things I said, when the author presented me with a copy, was, “This is the kind of work that it takes a whole committee to do, not an individual on his own.”

His answer surprised me. He said that initially that was his vision for the book. He contacted some prominent film critics and asked them to choose what they felt were the most important 100 films in Egyptian history. But, as he recounts, one of them told him, “Who do you think you are? You want to get major critics to work for you and choose films for you so that you can put them in a book?”

In fact, that young ardent cinema buff, who has already published a beautiful and colourful book on Egyptian cinema posters, was not asking for a personal service. He simply set himself a task that he wanted to perform in the best and most appropriate way. His first step, therefore, was to turn to the relevant specialised critics. Only after he was unable to find anyone willing to help did he decide to do the book on his own. It seems that the very least our film institutions, organisations and audiences can do is to reward him for his endeavours by purchasing that wonderful book that he published at his own expense.

Before setting out on his task, Fathi established a certain set of criteria for choosing the most important films. Firstly, the film had to be purely Egyptian, meaning that it was not based on or an adaptation of a foreign work. Also, the film had to express Egyptian society at the time it was produced. At the same time, he was determined to ensure that his selections covered the various generations of filmmakers, from producers and directors to screenplay writers and actors.

Fathi, in this elegantly produced work, supplies all the essential information about each film he selected: year of production and debut, the names of the cast and crew, a brief synopsis of the plot, an assessment of its artistic value, as well as a brief summary of a major scene from the film. The book also features stills from the film and a colour reproduction of a publicity poster produced at the time the film was first screened. For the latter, he attempted to find the originals from their owners to whom he dedicated his gratitude in his acknowledgements in the introduction to the book. The poster collection we see is virtually a study, in its own right, on cinema poster art in Egypt.

The book offers more than just the information we usually see in the “titles” at the end of a film. Frequently, it highlights certain distinctive features in a film. For example, on Salama fi Kheir (1937), starring Naguib Al-Rihani, Raqiya Ibrahim and Hussein Riad, we read, “One of the finest aspects of this work is that it is among the first Egyptian films to be free of any foreign elements in terms of editing, photography, recordings, music and direction. The crew was Egyptian. The fabrics used were all manufactured by the Egyptian Spinning and Weaving Company and the Egyptian Silk Company.” Or, on Fatma (1947), starring Um Koltoum and Anwar Wagdi, we read, “Perhaps few are aware that the film editor in this work was Kamal Al-Sheikh whose astounding talents ensured that scenes flowed smoothly with no dragging or undue haste, as though life’s changes were unfolding before us naturally. This was one of the features that made the film stand out and accounted for its success. We notice, in the scene where Fatma is together with Fathi in his apartment, for example, how skilfully Al-Sheikh managed the pace of the dialogue scenes.”

In the introduction, Fathi also offers some significant statistics. For example, Naguib Mahfouz was the most frequently cited author in the 100 films selected for this work. Ali Al-Zarqawi was the most frequently cited scenarist and Abdel-Hamid Nasser the most frequently cited director of photography. In like manner, Farid Shawki had the most male leads and Souad Hosni the most female leads. Fouad Al-Zahri was the most frequently cited soundtrack artist, Maher Abdel-Nour the most frequently cited set design engineer and Al-Sayed Bedeir the most frequently cited dialogue writer. We also learn that the General Cinema Organisation was the foremost producer of the films selected for this work.

The work opens with Salama fi Kheir (1937), which appeared exactly 80 years ago. During this interval, Egyptian cinema made its mark in the annals of international cinema. If this art seems to have declined here over the past few decades, Fathi’s book serves to remind us of the glories of the not too distant past and as an inspiration to revive them.

The second book was written, in English, by Shahira Abdel-Shahid, advisor to the director of the Egyptian stock exchange. Published by Archway publishing house in the US, it bears the title Roadmap to Success: Inspiring Journeys of Ten Iconic Coptic Leaders. The importance of the book resides in the second half of the title, the success stories of 10 contemporary Coptic Egyptians and their contributions, in their particular fields of activity, to Egyptian society and the world at large. This book is quite unique, particularly since we have grown accustomed to the fact that most of what is written abroad about Copts focuses on the persecution they have suffered since the dissemination of bigoted takfiri thought, the common thread that runs through all Islamist groups from the Muslim Brotherhood to the Islamic State. Abdel-Shahid’s book is refreshingly different. Its 300 pages convey the positive and heartening message that in spite of all the difficulties facing Copts in Egypt (as well as Muslims, as a matter of fact), people with will and determination have the power to fulfil their aspirations. It is a message of hope amidst the darkness of backwardness and terrorism. It also proves that the Copts are an integral part of the fabric of Egyptian society and that their achievements were instrumental in shaping the long and multifaceted history of this society.

I should add here that the author of this work on the stories of 10 Copt leaders intentionally overlooked one story that merits our esteem. The protagonist of that story is Abdel-Shahid, herself, whose over 30-year-long career in the fields of economic consultancy, investment banking and feasibility studies have led her to become a senior advisor to the director of the stock exchange in her own country, Egypt. We need more books like hers, especially abroad, in order to rectify the distorted image that some quarters are determined to disseminate about us.

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