Egypt’s cinematic gems: ‘The Aquarium’

Identity is the ability to tell one’s story, or, at worst, to remember it. This is the truth on which Yousry Nasrallah based his masterpiece Bab al-Shams (Gate of the Sun, 2004). It was the first cinematic adaptation of Elias Khoury’s novel of the same name.

In Gate of the Sun,  Nasrallah recounts, citing Khoury, the story of Khalil, a child separated from his mother when they were forcibly displaced from their Palestinian village by Israel in 1948. In the refugee camp, Khalil was adopted by Younes, one of the heroes of the resistance. Younes raised Khalil and taught him, but then he was gone, into coma after a resistance operation. Khalil finds himself alone in front of the body of his unconscious adoptive father. He wants not just to wake him, but to wake with him all the stories Younes had told him about his history and origins. Khalil would tell Younes these stories in return about his heroism, Palestine and resistance, mixing them with the confused stories of others. He was desperately looking for an identity in all these details, as a child lost from his mother and lost in the messiness of inherited stories in front of the body of his father.

In his next film, Nasrallah again speaks about identity and its absence.  But this time he doesn’t tell of the misery of a people forced into displacement at gunpoint, lost between war, carnage and refugee camps, losing identity. Instead, he speaks about the people of Cairo. In the past, the name of our city was directly associated with our enemies. Cairo, “Al-Qahira,” was the conqueror and oppressor of the enemy. Today, in the post-peace era, the era in which the enemy has become the friend, Cairo remains the oppressor. But who is the oppressed? I don’t think anyone has answered this question as tactfully and eloquently as Nasrallah in this film, Genenit al-Asmak (The Aquarium, 2008).

Youssef, the protagonist, is not as lost as Khalil in “Gate of the Sun” amid the complexities of multiple confused stories and other details of the collective memory of a displaced people. But he lives in a city that has lost its memory, that no longer has a story to tell. In “Gate of the Sun,” the cave represents the secret key to the memory of a people, a reservoir of their stories and identity. It’s a closed and secretive cave, far from Khalil, on the road of return between the camp and home. But in “The Aquarium,” the cave is in the city’s center; it’s exposed and open. Yet Youssef roams around it for months, afraid to enter it. If Khalil’s estrangement from his identity is associated with his distance from home, Youssef’s unfolds on his own land and at the heart of his city.

In one of the wonderful scenes toward the end of the film, a hand (almost divine) enters an aquarium in the garden, leaves food for the fish and ascends again. Youssef debates with one of the garden’s guards about whether fish have memory. The scene wonderfully condenses the film’s main question on the relation between memory, identity and earning one’s bread.

It takes me back to the opening title sequence: after traveling through the walls and passages of the cave, the camera stops at one of the aquariums in which fish are slowly swimming, in a tranquil shot accompanied by contemplative music, interrupted intermittently by  a fragment of Asmahan’s distressed lyrics from the 1940s, “Oh love, come rescue me, see what’s happened to me.” It is a beautiful transformation of a song’s function, and its romantic heritage for Egyptians. The fragment is cut at “see what’s happened to me” and its continuation, “because of your love,” is cut off, so the song morphs from a love song into a call for rescue and an expression of complete loss and existential anxiety.

The fragment is repeated and takes us to the early shots of the film. We listen to radio waves and see the streets of Cairo from above, from slanted angles. We look at them with their conventional nightly chaos, cars, vendors and passersby. They are high-angle shots so they put the viewer at a distance from what they see, just like the opening shots of the aquarium, as if it’s a visual invitation to compare fish swimming unconsciously in the aquarium and the people of the city roaming in their everyday lives. The repeated rescue call by Asmahan takes another shape in the first scene: With the street shots, we listen to the radio show “Night Secrets,” in which Leyla, the female protagonist, interviews a caller who chooses to identify himself as “a fearful citizen.”

The identity problem appears from the beginning, with the choice of this caller’s self-identification. He chooses to describe himself as “a” citizen, in its non-defined form, exhibiting some deficiencies in his declaration of identity and the association between this problem with his title as a citizen. “Fearful” becomes the inevitable description that completes his misery. It is as though this citizen cannot find a way to describe himself except through his fear. When Leyla asks the reason for this fear, he responds, “Is there something that isn’t scary?” Then he enumerates: “people, birds, the Brotherhood who won the elections, the government, everything.”

People can perhaps identify themselves through defining their roles in the networks of relations that tie them with others. But this citizen shows that the only role he plays with his surroundings is that of recipient, as if he is a handicapped child with no ability to influence or even oppose what gets to him from the outside world. Under this distressed vision of the self and the world, fear dips into his depths, reaching a level where a mere reference to a name or an issue scares him. In this psychological context, and in the screenwriter’s sharp humor, the scared citizen complains about “the government, the Americans, Israel and terrorism” as the reasons behind his “inborn fear.”

Then he talks about his relationship with his neighbor, who kept chickens in her house, and how this causes bird flu. What was once a good relationship between them has turned into fear. This sudden transformation of someone close into a scary beast in the stories of the fearful citizen, this distance that suddenly unfolds between people turning everyone into strangers, points to the relationship between the nightly passersby in Cairo’s streets in the first shots of the film. Clips of street sounds are mixed with that of the fearful citizen as he cites the reasons for his fear on the radio. I imagine the radio waves swimming in Cairo, carrying the fears of the fearful citizen, mixed with the noise of the streets. I return with this image to the opening sequence of the fish. If we make an analogy between the introductory scene and the opening title scene, if we compare the people of Cairo to the fish, the water where they swim would then be fear.

The introduction has not finished its call for imagination and analogies yet. The fearful citizen hasn’t finished expressing his fears. He continues talking about what he heard this morning from a poultry farm owner with bird flu symptoms. When he heard that the government would kill all the farm’s chickens, he let them all loose on the desert road. Here, the film takes us to a wider shot of streets crowded with passersby. The filmmaker calls us, in parallel to the call of his fearful citizen to Leyla, to imagine and perhaps superimpose another scene: “Imagine, 10,000 white chickens running on the desert road!”

These two images coming together, the one we see directly and the one we imagine, creates a certain analogy between the people of Cairo’s streets and the chicken on the road. It is an eloquent metaphor to the frivolousness of everyday life in Cairo. The director’s gem doesn’t stop at the verbal metaphor: the analogy is confirmed step by step, with the gradual infiltration of the sounds of the imagined chicken into the scene. So the sound of the imagined image invades the pictured image. After the stories of bird flu fear, the rising sound of birds covering all other sounds in the scene becomes an embodiment of fear itself. Before the film’s title appears, the sound of fear morphs into a visual, and we see for ourselves 10,000 white chickens, feared to have caught the dangerous disease, wandering on the desert road.


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