[Faten Hamama at Studio Misr, 1949]
Over the past several weeks there have been at least three situations that further illustrate the continuous attempts to jeopardize the integrity of Egypt’s cultural landscape. State institutions are the culprits. The result is the erasure of old as well as recent cultural memory.
1. Rotana Zaman was a television channel part of the Rotana Network, owned in part by Rupert Murdoch and Prince Alwaleed, which showed classics of Egyptian cinema 24/hrs a day. Several weeks ago the channel morphed into Rotana Classic showing a combination of classic Egyptian films and television programs in addition to classic American films and television programs. Now you can watch a 1950s Egyptian film followed by an episode of the American series Dynasty, a 1980s American drama about suburban life and the newly rich.
There is a problem here: Rotana owns the originals and airing rights to over 4000 Egyptian films. After the company acquired those films Rotana Zaman became the exclusive television network where these films can be viewed by the general public in Egypt and across the Arab world. Classic Egyptian cinema, films created from the 1930s to the 1960s, is evidence of Egypt’s cultural development during those decades and many of these films document Egyptian attitudes, customs, representations of the self and of segments within society in addition to testifying to an era of serious engagement with the art of filmmaking. Classic cinema to this day continues to be consumed by the general population and it has not retreated to the niche of “classic film lovers” or “film connoisseurs” because of their mere age, to the contrary many Egyptians continue to watch 60 year old films. By keeping this memory alive Egyptians had a window into the past as it was portrayed by Egyptian actors and directors. Egyptian cinema from that era also exported Egyptian cultural norms and colloquial language to Arabic speaking audiences from Morocco to Kuwait. This is part of national heritage and it should have never been sold without any conditions.
[Faten Hamama classic film, do3a2 el karawan (The Nightingale’s Prayer) 1959]
By slowly reducing the dosage of accessibility to Egyptian classic cinema, Rotana is depriving younger generations of Egyptians access to the remaining tangible evidence of a different Egypt, with its social and cultural norms, its politics, its fashion, architecture and its technique. Today, after watching Faten Hamama in the classic “The Nightingale’s Prayer” one might be confronted with an episode of Dynasty, a drama that may appeal to suburban residents of Cairo who have been lured to reproduce suburban failures from 1980s Texas, or Denver Colorado. If Egypt can not reclaim ownership of its filmic heritage, in five to ten years the children of the residents of New Cairo will not know who Fatan Hamama was and the cast of Dynasty might become more familiar. In April members of the Freedom and Justice Party proposed legislation that allows the state censor to edit out scenes from classic films deemed “inappropriate.”
Rather than protect one of the world’s earliest film industries, invest in cinema infrastructure such as theaters, renovating old cinemas, capitalizing on the touristic value of Egypt’s classic film studios, establishing a cinemateque with a museum, library and exhibition space to celebrate the memory of Egypt’s cinematic tradition, instead of all this the state sells and debates cutting and editing whatever is left.
2. Order for demolition (Alexandria): Last month, Mohamed Adel Dessouki reported on his blog “walls of an exhausted city" yet another unexplained direct order from the prime minister for the demolition of a listed building. Does the prime minister have nothing better to do than order the removal of buildings from the heritage list? There are many implications here about governance and why a prime minister, especially in Egypt during a "transitional period," has any say in a matter that should be the concern of local municipality, Culture Ministry or the SCA. But what is significant here is that the PM is facilitating the process of erasure of Egypt’s cultural memory or editing of history. The state has continuously refused to protect Egypt’s modern heritage and by targeting villas and residences of Egypt’s upper classes from the early and middle of the twentieth century, a heritage that has not been thoroughly documented, the state is directly participating in denying nearly 80 years of Egyptian modern history, as if it never happened.
These are the houses where many of the scenes of Egypt’s classic cinema were shot. These were the houses where the society that produced and consumed Egypt’s classic cinema from the 1920s to the 1960s lived. The cinema was sold and the houses demolished. Documents of a recent history no longer with us, how will this history be remembered by future generations when the documents have been intentionally destroyed, the evidence deleted?
Conservatives in Egypt can care less about Egypt’s cultural production including film, architecture, music and literature from the “liberal period” (1920s-1950s) just as Western conservatives never recognized this heritage to be an accurate representation of Egypt and Egyptians.
3. The whitewashing of murals in the vicinity of Tahrir Square at the end of May was yet another example of a deletion, denial, and the state’s emphasis on controlling not only history but also commemoration.
Everyday there are many more incidents that amount to a systematic assault on Egypt’s historical memory both modern and contemporary. Egypt is suffering from state induced amnesia. Here we are in a country “of 7000 years” yet the state seems hell bent on erasing traces of the last century and where collective national memory is constantly deleted or heavily edited.