Youssef Chahine is dead. The response to the news of his passing on 27 July 2008 at the age of 82 is evidence that the central place of the work of this great film director in the corpus of Arab and world cinema is assured. Yet like all great artists, he was a life-force and not a monument - and his dynamic artistic engagement with his own city (Alexandria) and country (Egypt) had its detractors. To try to define what is distinctive about his life-work, then, is also to enter a wider argument about the past and present of the Alexandria and the Egypt that his films portrayed.
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A routine charge in Egypt against Youssef Chahine was that his work was "westernised" or "ultra-liberal", the thinking and artistic stance it embodied alien to the conservative, traditional values of his native country. Those who made it cannot have seen his 1969 film Al-Ard (The Land), which against the background of the tumultuous era of Gamal Abdel Nasser tells the story of a group of Egyptian peasants struggling to retain their land in face of the landed gentry's attempts to usurp it and maintain its oppressive rule.
In Al-Ard - adapted from a novel by Abdel Rahman al-Sharqawi - the director brought to the screen the daily life of poor Egyptian farmers: their voices and clothes, their grinding work through sweltering days and tranquil nights, the smells of cows and chicken in their homes, their faint smiles, their dignity and poverty, their superstitiousness, and - above all, before all and after all - their almost sacred attachment to their land.
Chahine, the man who hailed from the Alexandria of the 1940s and 1950s - the liberal, Europe-oriented, cosmopolitan alumnus of Victoria College (and, later, graduate of California film schools) - captured in few scenes the essence of Egypt's soul: the land, al-Ard. In the film's last scene, the aging villager who had stood up against overlordship (played by the actor Mahmoud al-Meligui) was brutally punished: his feet bound, his body tied to the legs of a horse ridden by the village sheriff, so that his clothes are torn and his body bleeds. Yet as he is dragged along, his hand clutches at the mud, the soil. He refuses to let go, to abandon his land, his right, his home; to the extent that the audience - millions of whom wept at the scene - almost questioning whether al-Meligui's hands were clutching the earth, or was the earth clutching him?
The deep source
Youssef Chahine cast his artistic net wide over swathes of Egypt's history, traditions and identities. His films depicted glorious moments in Egypt's history such as Salah al-Deen al-Ayiobi (Saladin); explored the tensions between social classes, especially at the end of Egypt's monarchy and the birth of republicanism, such as Seraa fi al-Wadi (A Struggle in the Valley) - Omar Sharif's first foray into cinema; portrayed with subtlety the harsh lives, small dreams and crushed aspirations of Cairo's underdogs, such as Bab al-Hadid; mapped Egypt's anxieties after the defeat of the six-day war in 1967, the collapse of Nasserism, and the loss of direction and purpose, such as Awdat al- ibn al dal (The Return of the Prodigal Son); highlighted liberalism's struggle against the forces of intellectual darkness, oppression and religious extremism, such as Al-Maseer (The Destiny); and examined himself, his own life, in the confessional cinematic autobiography of his trilogy Iskenderiya Lih (Alexandria, Why), Iskenderiya Kaman we Kaman (Alexandria, More and More), and Iskenderiya New York.
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Chahine's autobiography - at times haughty and condescending, but almost always multifaceted and complex, is a story of a man's feelings, desires, yearnings, loves, fears, ambitions. This man's very soul is interlinked with the sites of his Alexandria, the city itself representing in his mind a certain lovely face of Egypt - modern, Mediterranean, cosmopolitan, liberal, vivacious. His films spanned the distance between his city and the impoverished peasants of Al-Ard, and thus too built a bridge between them.
Chahine's cinema was not linear, stable, or repetitive; rather it was quick, nervous, agitated, pulsating, and at times shocking. The director was a representation of the man. After he returned from America, he moved beyond what were then the constraining doctrines of Egyptian cinema in search of a new cinematic language; looked for stories at the peripheries of the society that illuminated its heart; challenged encrusted tradition by divining what is truly felt but rarely uttered.
But the director's real genius emerged when his core, his values, were questioned. Chahine, the true Alexandrian used to inhaling the Mediterranean air of liberalism and cosmopolitanism, the man who believed Egypt is a bridge between the northern shores of the Mediterranean and the valleys and deserts of the middle east, was appalled by the rise of religious dogmatism (Islamic and Christian) and social conservatism. Thus his films' artistic truth increasingly reflected too an element of liberal provocation against what he called the "forces of ignorance" - as well as of nostalgic tribute to an older (and now fading) liberal, tolerant Egypt.
The films - and the ideas they embodied - became the occasion for skirmishes in a larger cultural and political war. Their passion, intensity and force drew enemies, who attacked Chahine's work with a familiar litany of scorn: ultra-liberal, anti-religious, elitist, subversive the country's traditions and values, elitist - and the most ubiquitous and revealing of all, complex.
Chahine's response was characteristic. He responded to the deprecation of critics and journalists as he did to international success and applause: by continuing to make films. The man from Alexandria refused to be distracted either by word-fights or bouquets. He remained faithful to the wellspring of his art, his city's and his country's woes and pains.
His later films showed this consistency of vision, in their depiction of the horrors of corruption, the abuse of power and the degeneration of morals. The title of his last film was Heya fawda (It's Chaos). For more than half a century, Chahine's maintained his connection with the Egyptian street, the deep source of his identity. At the end of a two-minute standing ovation at the Louis Lumière theatre in Cannes when he was awarded a special career-achievement prize at the fiftieth anniversary of the film festival, Chahine thanked the film's prize committee; when the presenter asked him to speak about the man behind the director, he said: Ana iskandarani (I am an Alexandrian).
The clear vision
Youssef Chahine's work had features in common with that of Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, and Bernardo Bertolucci. He had Allen's fascination with the individual person: the everyday Egyptian in the village, the Euro-Egyptian in Alexandria or the old central Cairene districts - and very much with himself, too. He also shared Allen inexhaustible connection with a single place, in his case Alexandria rather than New York ("more and more of Alexandria", as he used to say).
Chahine shared too Scorsese's desire to plunge into the dark, the difficult and the alienated. His characters were difficult, convoluted; usually symbols of his fascination with Egypt's - and of course Alexandria's - multiple currents: Pharaonic, Christian, Islamic, Arabic, and Mediterranean, all mixed together many times in colourful cocktails.
Chahine was as daring as Bertolucci. This is evident above all in his depiction of women. Hind Roustom in Bab al-Hadid, Naglaa Fathi in Iskenderiya leih, Nabila Abeid in Al-Akher, Yousra in Iskenderiya Kaman we Kaman - all these characters were sensual, life-loving, liberated, empowered women. Chahine was bold in showing real human beings living at the heart of history and their society. His Ibn Rushd (the Arabic name for the famed Arabic-Andalucian philosopher Averroes) in Al-Massir (Destiny) was a liberal, vivacious man; his Jameela bu Hereid (the Algerian freedom-fighter) was feminine, humble, earthly. His "ordinary" Egyptian was not some formulaic, made-noble stereotype; he or she was full of life - real and multidimensional, with rotten as well as good qualities.
Youssef Chahine is dead. Another of Egypt's pillars of liberalism, another warden of Egypt's Mediterranean face, disappears. His art will remain in the history of Arabic cinema, and more importantly in the consciousness of Egyptians; his name will be revered by artists and filmmakers for decades to come. Even more inspiringly, the man himself will be remembered as a talented Egyptian who had a clear vision of his country; and who promoted and persevered in that vision, despite the violent currents and swirling waves that surrounded him. Indeed, there is nothing nobler than a person who stands up in dedicated, constant affirmation of the art he or she creates and believes in.