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Egypt : The helpless and the powerful in cinema

Success of Egyptian comedies often a result of subtle jabs at ruling class

Except in cake throwing, which I never found funny, it is difficult for me to think of any humor that is apolitical. This might be the result of living in Egypt most of my life.

Much of the imagination of Egyptian school children and teenagers has been formed by the 2pm film on Thursday afternoon. For the last two decades, every week, Channel One of Egyptian national television showed a local black and white comedy from the 1950s or the 1960s.

And since there was no endless supply of those films, they used to be repeated every three or four months, but we would never get bored. Those films became terms of reference in every day language; passages from their script were used among the young just as lines of poetry were used among the old.

In those comedies, the protagonist is always a poor, unlucky, not very brilliant, and completely helpless man. In dealing with Pashas, princes, thieves, policemen, businessmen, belly dancers, mothers-in-law and gorgeous female neighbors, all of whom are overwhelmingly more powerful than him, the very sight of the poor protagonist mocks and ridicules all power relations in mid-20th century Egyptian society.

Egypt's leading comedian, at any point in the history of Egyptian cinema, must have played such a character, more over; he must have played such a character so much as to be associated with it. Najeeb al-Rihani, the leading comedian of the 1930s and 1940s was associated, in cinema, with his parts in films like "The Lady's Game," "The Father of Halmous" and "Salama is Fine."

His most famous scene however is something known popularly as the dog scene: He is a poor elementary school teacher, who had been a teacher for 30 years, and is summoned to one of Cairo's great palaces to give the Pasha's daughter private lessons in Arabic grammar. He had never met a Pasha before, so when he meets the Pasha's butler and dog trainer he starts bowing to him as if he was the Pasha. The butler who looked much more elegant than the teacher, was about to walk the dog. When the teacher, played by Rihani, recognizes that the Pasha is nothing but a servant whose main job is to walk, feed and clean the dog, he asks him how much money he gets for his job and discovers that the "dog's servant" makes 10 times more money than he does. Rihani then says: "Had I been a teacher of dogs, instead of children, for the last 30 years, I would have been an aristocrat."

The word for aristocrat used by Rihani in the film also means senator or ruler. One cannot miss the reference to the Egyptian ruling elite before the 1952 revolution, as servants of the occupation, high-ranking servants of dogs, as opposed to the poor teachers of Arabic grammar; the remark was as sharp and bitter as it was subtle.

During the Nasserite era, the leading comedian was Ismail Yassin. Yassin starred in a series of films about the military - "Ismail Yassin in the Army," "Ismail Yassin in the Air Force," "Ismail Yassin in the Secret Police" and "Ismail Yassin in the Navy." While the Egyptian government, most of whose members where army officers, supported the production of such films because they made the army seem more familiar and friendly to the ordinary Egyptian citizen, the contrast between the complete helplessness, clumsiness, emotionality and kindness of the character played by Yassin and the harsh system of the army were at the bottom of every joke and comic scene in those films.

In a sense, with some simplification the films summarized the complex relationship between the ordinary Egyptian and the government in the Nasserite era; a Tom and Jerry type relationship, elements of fear and domination are balanced and sometimes overcome by friendship, identification and sheer love.

In the 1970s and the 1980s things changed; Adel Imam became the leading comedian in Egypt and the Arab world, again playing the helpless unlucky, unintelligent man who keeps trying and failing and is saved only by a miraculous happy ending. Unlike Yassin, in Imam's most successful films as well as in his plays, the government is a friend no more, it is either absent or corrupt - see "A Witness who Saw Nothing," "Sayyed the Servant" and "Terrorism and Kebab."

The latter, which came out in the early 1990s, was in my opinion, Imam's best film. Again a helpless government employee downtrodden by people at work, in the bus, in the street and even by his ugly ever-screaming wife at home, gets into a fight in a government registrar's office. A policeman tries to interfere, the machine gun is fired by mistake, no one is hurt, but everyone thinks Islamists have taken over the building. Some run away, while the others submit to the authority of Imam, who has lost his eye glasses in the fight and realizes only too late that the machine gun was in his own hands. The rest of the film revolves around the negotiations between the government and the supposed "terrorists," whose first demand is to have kebab for lunch.

Imam's words in this film and in other films are known by heart, almost as well known as ancient proverbs. From the late 1990s on, Imam chose to play less radical roles, and therefore more powerful characters like a minister, a retired general, or a high-ranking security officer. This cost him a lot, as he started to lose ground to other, younger actors who are still faithful to the traditional poor helpless character.

Mohammed Saad, the most recent leading comedian in Egypt, took the country by storm with his hilarious "Allenby." While Imam in "The Prince of Darkness" was playing a role of a retired general who despite his blindness is heroically able to save the president from an unidentified terrorist attack, Saad played the role of a downtrodden, unemployed drunkard, who just cannot get anything right.

"Allenby," paradoxically named after the British military ruler of Egypt during the 1919 revolution, always thinks that he is powerful, clever and strong, and keeps trying, only to realize he is the exact opposite of what he thinks he is. In one of his trials he finds a job as a bodyguard for a belly dancer. After he is beaten up by the bodyguards of the businessman who flirted with the belly dancer, she takes him home and offers him a drink, while he thinks she was appreciating his efforts, he realizes that he was brought home to regulate the entry of a number of businessman, who have prior appointments to flirt with the belly dancer at home. The scene could refer to anything, from real belly dancers, to privatization to facilitating the movement of American forces in the region, especially when Saad, mockingly says that he was appointed to "regulate traffic" of businessmen into the house. Of course, despite its enormous popular success, and maybe because of it, the film was relentlessly attacked or completely ignored in almost all mainstream Egyptian and Arab media.

Tamim al-Barghouti is a Palestinian poet who writes a weekly article for The Daily Star

Beirut,08 16 2004
Tamim Al Barghouti
The Daily Star
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