Cairo International Film Festival Essay
The Black Sunglasses, 1963
The golden age of Egyptian cinema survived the fall of the monarchy, the departure of the British, the nationalization of the Suez Canal, and three wars with Israel — but not Cold War-era capitalism.
“Golden age” in this context is of course an amorphous term, but it does point to a palpable phenomenon which, in the form of roll film, remains testable for efficacy. Over roughly three decades from the beginning of 1940s to the end of the 1960s, a certain balance of quantity and quality was maintained. Art remained a meaningful business proposition even after capital was monopolized by the state and a centralized economy established.
A few days after you proposed that I write you this letter, a man was killed, his execution public enough that despite the five thousand miles between us we both could look on. This man, a journalist, had once been captured in Libya, then released, then was captured anew in Syria in 2012, this captivity ending in death. He was American, from New England as I am, he and I earned the same degree from the same university, enough years between us that I did not know him, though we each or both passed years among the low mountains and rising rents of Western Massachusetts, the grave of Emily Dickinson (called back, May 15, 1886) that even if one never bothers to walk behind the hair salon and the Nigerian restaurant to visit it serves as heart, destination of a pilgrimage one imagines.
The video his killers posted online may or may not in fact include the moment of his beheading, but confirms beyond doubt its occurrence. Here, we call the group who killed James Foley ISIS: the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria; or Iraq and al-Sham; or simply—months pass and the name grows more ambitious—the Islamic State. We’re told that the caliphate they envision stretches from the coast of Syria to Iraq’s eastern border. I had thought that Foley was taken from an internet café, but an article I just glanced at says something about a car being stopped, how men with Kalashnikovs forced him out of the car. If I were to tell the story in a novel, he would be in an internet café, sending as though it were nothing the story of one land and its wars to another, to a land whose replies are silent until the missile drops out of the sky.
I was roaming around Eastside industrial with my notebook, waiting for Lily to get off work, when a sudden squall forced me into a crowded, steamy coffee joint. And who should be sitting at the window drawing in her notebook but my old friend Daisy.
We had been part-timers teaching at the now defunct Failing school and played on the co-ed slow-pitch softball team. Part-time meant we taught summer terms, too, while the full-timers went on vacation. But that was fine because she was an artist and I was a poet. After a few years the scene went to seed and we drifted off and found real jobs.
I got a coffee and sat down with Daisy. She had a book by the Iranian writer Marjane Satrapi (who now lives in Paris). “It’s a comic book,” I said, picking it up and thumbing through it. “Sort of,” Daisy said, smiling.
Or the Beatification of the False Wali: Sufism, Suspense, and the Possibility of Sufi Realism
Even as it ages, a corpse shows no sign of decay. People start having visions of the dead man. He gives them advice in their dreams. When miracles begin to occur through his apparent intercession, he is declared a wali or vassal (of God). A shrine is built over his grave, and those who tend to it command kudos among his devotees…
It would be wrong to reduce the multifarious phenomena of Sufism to such a story. But in the Egyptian popular imagination, at least, that story remains the quintessential narrative of Sufism.
Sufi doctrine is impossible to sum up with any clarity anyway. Claimants range from the ninth-century Malamatiyya of Khorassan to “the Proof of Islam” Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali (1058-1111). The first group actively sought ill repute by flaunting sinfulness and making themselves worthy of malamah (or blame), the better to reject piety, which they saw as a worldly value and a factor in distance from God. The second is arguably the central figure in Sunni orthodoxy.
So the beatification of the wali is as good a way as any to set the dervish apart from the ordinary believer: the gnostic secrets he has access to (sometimes enabling him to perform miracles), the higher states of consciousness he experiences as a result of those secrets, his sheer unmediated joy (making him willing to give up all worldly powers and possessions), and his often strained relations with the Umma’s sober patriarchs.
Nymphomaniac’s Message for the Arab Spring
As an Arab you’re probably expecting me to lay into Nymphomaniac. It’s a film that must seem, if not offensive to my cultural sensibility, then irritatingly irrelevant to the poverty, underdevelopment, and upheaval that surround my life.
In most cases dropping the word “white” in the same paragraph as “Islam’s respect for women” is all it would take to slam Lars von Trier in this context. It would be a politically correct slur, too. I could even draw on Edward Said’s hallowed legacy to point out that the only time non-Europeans appear in over four hours of action, they’re portrayed as dumb sex tools. Not only self-indulgent and obscene but also Orientalist, etc..
But the truth is I actively delighted in Nymphomaniac, and I didn’t have to stop being an Arab for that to happen. To be accurate I should say I would’ve welcomed a von Trier film anyway, but this one showed up when it was needed—and it duly exploded on arrival.
It kind of grows out of traffic. The staccato hiss of an exhaust pipe begins to sound like record scratching. Skidding and braking, the vehicles resume their car horn concerto. Braying, bawling, crashing, farting, fortissimo hustling cut in. Then comes the imperious vroom of a makana – the Arabic corruption of the Italian word for ‘machine’ – as a motorcycle is called on the streets of Cairo…