Cinema and Media Studies Youssef Chahine
by
Barrie Wharton
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0373

Introduction

Youssef Chahine is widely considered as one of the foremost cinema directors in the Arab world whose work transcended the region’s borders to reach a global audience. Although most commonly celebrated internationally for his post-Nasserist semi-autobiographical Alexandria Quartet—Alexandria....Why?) (1978), An Egyptian Tale (1982), Alexandria Again and Again (1990), and Alexandria-New York (2004)—which delve into such themes as homosexuality and liberalism in Arab society, Chahine was also the cinematic poet and chronicler of marginalization and social inequity in Egypt. In fact, Chahine, through films with an overt sociocultural and political message such as Bab al-Hadid (Cairo Main Station) (1958), Al Nasser Salah ad-Din (Saladin) (1963), and Al-Ard (The Land) (1969), was the pioneer of social realism in Arab cinema and his work played a fundamental part in what was the most important project of national identity creation in modern Egyptian history during the tumultuous years of the Nasserist era. Youssef Chahine’s death in July 2008 left Egyptian cinema without its colossus but Egypt also lost its eyes, its ears, and most importantly, its conscience. Chahine will be remembered for taking on fundamentalism in the contemporary era, but he had taken on the yoke of imperialism almost fifty years before with his vision for a new Egypt which he would tragically never see. This eventual failure of Nasserism to realize the project of a new just Egyptian society, based on principles of secularism, tolerance, and equality, is a historical reality with myriad cause factors but this doesn’t denigrate or diminish in any way the fundamental role of Youssef Chahine in this social, cultural, and political project for almost twenty years. Chahine, like Nasser, knew that Egypt had to face her memory and by extension, her fears before she could embrace her hopes and her future. Yet, as Nasserist ideology fades into history in a contemporary climate of increasing religious radicalism, the “Nasserist” films of Youssef Chahine such as the aforementioned Cairo Main Station and The Land remain as powerful celluloid advertisements for and testaments to one of the potentially most powerful sociocultural ideologies of the last century. Successive Egyptian heads of state have gone to great lengths to cast off and exorcize the legacy of Nasserism as a sociocultural beacon from contemporary Egyptian society but their efforts will have been in vain as long as the cinematic legacy of Youssef Chahine survives.

Chahine and Egyptian Cinema in a Historical Context

Egypt has long been considered by most commentators as the birthplace of Arab cinema and many of the seminal milestones in Arab cinematic history such as the shooting of the first full-length feature film, Layla (1928), took place along the banks of the Nile. In more recent times, Starr 2020 is a great piece on this era, illuminating it for a 21st-century audience while the original text remains that of Khan 1969 which documents this golden era of Egyptian cinema that began in the late 1940s and continued through the 1950s and early 1960s, an era which coincided with the coming to power of Col. Nasser after the Free Officers Revolution of 1952 and the subsequent establishment of Egypt as the cultural fulcrum of the new emerging pan‐Arab doctrine. Although much more famous internationally for his post‐Nasserist work, one of the foremost directors of this period was the Egyptian director Youssef Chahine and this neglected period of his career may in fact prove to be his most important legacy. As Darwish 1998 discusses, this neglect is perhaps understandable as Nasser’s sudden and premature death in 1970 led to a rapid demise in what had become perceived as Nasserist cultural policy and in a rapidly changing Egypt, both cultural commentators and Chahine himself shied away from the discussion of his role in what had been perhaps the most important project of national identity creation in modern Egyptian history. There are various reasons for the academic obfuscation of the relationship between Chahine and Nasser as Beattie 1994 indicates but foremost among them is undoubtedly the contemporary academic obsession with Chahine as an anti‐establishment maverick director whose themes of cosmopolitanism, liberalism, and homosexuality mark him out as an anti‐regime figure in Arab society. Gönül Dönmez 2007 discusses how this obsession was exacerbated by his attack on Islamic fundamentalism in Heya Fawda/(Chaos) (2007) with Chahine increasingly lauded posthumously as a “Western” director. Jankowski 2000 concentrates on these aforementioned themes which do dominate his most famous work in the West, the Alexandrian quartet, but Abou Shadi 1998 expresses clearly how these themes do not predominate in these films and play no part in much of his work. In fact, Abou Shadi 1998 suggests that closer examination of Chahine’s complete oeuvre reveals a cinematic master who was far more a poet of marginalization and social inequity than a chronicler of dilettante life in modern Egypt and it is noteworthy that by the time Chahine released the first of this mainly autobiographical quartet of films which is often cited as spanning his career, he had already directed twenty‐eight films with much of his most significant cinematic work, albeit not his most celebrated, already behind him.

  • Abou Shadi, Aly. A Chronology of the Egyptian Cinema, 1896‐1994. Cairo: al‐Majlis al‐A′la lil‐Thaqafah, 1998.

    The seminal reference text on Egyptian cinema published in an Arab academic context. Its English translation provides the reader with a detailed survey of events in Egyptian cinema over nearly one hundred years. Although the text loses some of its essence in translation and provides little commentary or analysis, it remains a core text for academic reference.

  • Beattie, Kirk J. Egypt during the Nasser Years: Ideology, Politics and Civil Society. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1994.

    Provides the reader with an excellent analysis of the huge societal change which Nasserism unleashed on Egyptian society. From an academic perspective, it seeks to distill for the reader the essence of the vast intellectual changes and cultural bouleversement which Nasserism entailed. Although written nearly thirty years ago, it still remains one of the best texts to place and position the unique role of Chahine and Egyptian cinema in a comparative societal context.

  • Darwish, Mustafa. Dream Makers on the Nile: A Portrait of Egyptian Cinema. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1998.

    Quite unique, as it is published in English but by an author who has worked exclusively in Egyptian academia. Provides the reader with a sweeping overview of Egyptian cinema, albeit at times a little too descriptive rather than critical. However, its strength lies in its authenticity and local insight which give the reader a sense of the societal embrace and cultural power of Egyptian cinema, particularly during the Nasserist period.

  • Gönül Dönmez, Colin. The Cinema of North Africa and the Middle East. New York: Wallflower Press, 2007.

    Of particular interest to the reader as it provides a thorough critical analysis of the work of Chahine in a comparative context and cements his standing among his Arab and North African peers. Captures the transnational nature of Chahine’s oeuvre and discusses its reach and influence beyond Egypt’s borders. Undoubtedly one of the best texts in the contemporary literature to reflect the real relationship between cinema and pan-Arabism.

  • Jankowski, James. Egypt: A Short History. Oxford: Oneworld, 2000.

    Far from a short history of Egypt. On the contrary, this is a sweeping book which manages to successfully link the different periods in Egyptian history and track their trajectory. Particularly strong in its concentration on Nasserism and presents the reader with a comprehensive but easily accessible guide to the sociocultural milieu of this period which was obviously of fundamental importance in the development of the work of Youssef Chahine.

  • Khan, Mohamed. An Introduction to the Egyptian Cinema. London: Informatics, 1969.

    Remains a powerful text with an avowed concentration on cinema during the Nasserist period. Of unique interest as it was researched and published at the height of Nasserism which imbues the book with a sense of immediacy and authenticity which is lacking in more contemporary works. This immediacy does lead to the book being a little dated in some areas and having a lack of critical hindsight but it still endures as a compelling text for the specialist reader.

  • Starr, Deborah. Togo Mizrahi and the Making of Egyptian Cinema. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2020.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctv2rb76bm

    A fine study which concentrates on the role of the media shy Togo Mizrahi in the birth of Egyptian cinema, but moreover, this work spans the emergence of Chahine and his contemporaries and documents while bringing to life this exciting epoch as a new Egypt appeared on the political landscape and on the screen almost simultaneously. Despite the understandable concentration on Mizrahi, the work remains an excellent scholarly overview on the entire era.

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