If you grew up in Cairo, July 23 is likely associated with a long weekend in the north with your family, a televised military parade celebrating the 1952 revolution, and watching a swarm of films depicting the Free Officers Movement that launched the revolution (or coup, rather) that felled King Farouk and established the Egyptian Republic.
Under the newly appointed President Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s luminous cinema industry was used as a tool to educate the masses, show them how to be good citizens in a new, modern society, and to reinvent the nation’s identity. During this period, a wave of films emerged that were still infused with the melodrama characterizing the big hits of the 1920s-1950s, but that focused on social issues, such as class divides, social justice and feminism — similar to the social realist film movement that swept across the USSR, which was forming close cultural ties with Egypt at that time. Scholar Viola Shafik coined the term “melodramatic realism” for the films of the Nasserist era.
The events that led up to and surrounded the July 23 coup were particularly popular as subject matter during this period, and these films get replayed incessantly on television on its anniversary. Through this repetitive act of watching them year after year, some of those films became as engraved in my mind as the lines of those Amr Diab songs that stay with you forever. But this year I asked myself, do these films have much to offer besides their political message and obvious propaganda?
A film that has become synonymous with the July 23 holiday is the 1957 production Rod Kalby (Return My Heart), directed by Ezz Eldin Zulfikar and written by Youssef El Sebai — it’s probably the most iconic “coup film,” and always plays on television at this time of year.
In Return My Heart, Mariam Fakhr Eddine stars as Princess Ingy, who is in love with the gardener’s son, Ali (Shoukry Sarhan). Their class differences divide them, and her brother (Ahmed Mazhar) and father threaten Ali’s career in the army through their connections with the king.
The two-and-a-half-hour-long love story between Ingy and Ali tries to humanize the stereotypes, but ends up flattening its characters. There is the pure, innocent, selfless princess; the tough but good army officer; the father who sacrifices everything for his sons; the elites who whip and shoot their house staff; the playboy turned calm husband, and even a hedonistic belly dancer who is redeemed by love.
The plot unravels over the several years leading up to the coup, and delves into several other socio-political factors besides the class issue. A key plot point comes during Ali’s time as a soldier in Palestine in 1948, when his fellow soldiers are wounded or killed while fighting in the Nakba due to their defective weapons.
The issue of the defective arms that were allegedly dispatched to the Egyptian soldiers is recurrent in several July 23 films, and even in the “Haret el-Yahood” (The Jewish Alley) series that aired this Ramadan. It’s widely believed in Egypt that the faulty weapons were the reason the Egyptian army lost the war (though many historians have stated that the arms were not necessarily defective, as depicted in the films, but simply outdated compared to those used by the Israeli army). But in Return My Heart, this becomes one of the main triggers for the army to launch its coup and topple the king.
Such is also the case in Allah Maana (God is On Our Side, 1955), directed by Ahmed Badrakhan and written by Ihsan Abdel Quddous (who was also the main journalist in the state-owned Rose al-Youssef magazine, which was investigating the corrupt weapons deal).
God is On Our Side can only be described as a pure Nasser-loyalist movie. A soldier (Emad Hamdy) goes off to fight in the Nakba, but ends up losing his arm due to a defective gun. He and his mates then plot to take their revenge from the elite, and save Egypt from their tyrannical rule. The aristocrats are only shown as immoral gamblers and crooks, making money off of the people’s suffering — the film shows the king and a committee of the Egyptian elite making a crooked deal off the bad weapons the British delivered to the army — while the army men are heroes who save the country from their treachery. The political parties are corrupt and follow the king’s orders, no matter the cost (this is highlighted in several films to justify their dissolution following the coup). The film also points to the fact that the Free Officers Movement was widely supported by students and workers.
The soldier’s uncle, played by Mahmoud El-Meleigy, is one of the noblemen profiteering from the arms deal. His daughter (Faten Hamama) is thus mired in the moral dilemma of choosing to side with her cousin and cause her father’s doom, or save him. Everything about this film is over-dramatized and cliché, from the officers meeting secretly under a single, theatrical light, to the noblemen’s heartless comments, and even the depiction of the activist journalist as the people’s saviour. And in addition to the obvious clichés in its storyline, God is On Our Side is afflicted with awkward cinematography and rough editing, as well.
Two films that don’t deal directly with the coup, but rather the events that led up to it, are Fi Baytona Ragol (A Man in our House, 1961), directed by Henri Barakat and also written by Ihsan Abdel Quddous, and Ghroub w Shorouk (Sunset and Sunrise, 1970) directed by Kamal al-Sheikh and written by Raafat al-Mihi.
In A Man in Our House, Omar Sharif stars as a political activist who assassinates the prime minister and escapes from prison to hide with a middle-class family. The film demonizes the secret police, who were notorious for their torture techniques and arrests without warrants, while showing the regular, non-politicised family staying quiet as Sharif remains true to his cause of abolishing British rule and the monarchy.
The film has several moments reminiscent of the 2011 revolution. In the opening scene, students march from their university onto Abbas Bridge, where the police confront them and open fire — the images are staggeringly similar to the events of January 28, 2011, when protesters took to the Qasr al-Nil Bridge. People get killed, others get trampled in the crowds, while some fall into the Nile and the sound of gun shots fills the air.
A Man in Our House is a classic of Egyptian cinema, and tells a compelling story. Barakat brings the characters to life through vivid details, and visually attracts the viewer even in the most mundane scenes.
Tackling similar issues, Sunset and Sunrise stars Soad Hosny as the spoiled daughter of the head of the secret police. After she sleeps with her husband’s friend (Rushdy Abaza) and gets caught, her father kills her husband to protect his daughter’s reputation, then tortures Abaza and forces him to marry her. Abaza is then recruited by a group of activists to be their spy from within his house.
The film has one of Hosny’s most memorable scenes in her acting career, when her husband finds her in his friend’s bed and literally drags her by the hair out of the house. The scene is deeply disturbing, and Hosny completely lets herself go — and her performance for the rest of the film manages to live up to that one scene.
Both of these films end not with the traditional “The End,” but with, “And this was the beginning of the end,” alluding to the impending demise of the tyrannical monarchy.
Delving more into the social, rather than the political, elements that led to the uprising is Al-Qahira 30 (Cairo 30, 1966), based on a novel by Naguib Mahfouz and directed by Salah Abu Seif. A more well-rounded film than those mentioned above, Cairo 30 follows the stories of a group of students throughout the 1930s and 40s who followed different directions in life: Ali (Abdel-Aziz Mekkawy) is a socialist at heart looking to build a new society and abolish class; his liberal journalist friend (Abdel Moneim Ibrahim); and Mahgoub Abdel-Dayem (Hamdy Ahmed), whose answer to everything is “tuz” (fuck it).
Mahgoub is arguably one of the most interesting characters written in Egyptian cinema. He is a poverty-stricken student who can’t find work after graduating, since he has no connections with the elite, so he agrees to a shady deal to marry a high government official’s mistress in return for an apartment and a job. He is an opportunist, representing the silent masses who go against their morals to get ahead in the world.
While the film toys with elements of the revolutionary struggle — such as Ali’s involvement in secret activist groups and his detention by the police, protests that remove the government, and the spread of revolutionary sentiment — it is mainly about society’s obsession with materialism, and its role in creating the class divide that still plagues Egypt today. A memorable scene shows a dreamy conversation between Ali and his lover Ihsan (Soad Hosny) as they walk and discuss socialism while advertisements fill the background.
Finally, a comedy and a classic that looked into Egypt’s future following this drastic social change is Al-Aydi al-Naema (Soft Hands, 1964), directed by Mahmoud Zulfikar and based on a short play by Tawfiq al-Hakim.
Soft Hands does not delve into the politics of the coup at all, but rather its aftermath, and proposes the ideal manner for the fallen elites to lead their new lives. It’s one of my favorite revolution films, because it represents a certain dream for reconciliation and social equality which Egypt is still looking for to this day, but never quite manages to attain — even if the movies tell us we did.
The film stars Ahmed Mazhar as a prince who goes bankrupt after the revolution and refuses to accept the status quo. While his daughters move on with their lives — one marries a mechanic and another sells off her paintings to make a living — he refuses to work to pay his bills, and can hardly read Arabic. The film then follows a love story between Mazhar and a woman played by Sabah, in which the prince learns the values of the new society where class no longer exists, everyone has to work and contribute to the economy and learn to speak Arabic.
If we overlook the propaganda elements in these films, there was a certain optimistic fantasy these directors and writers were sharing with their audiences. At the time, many hoped the revolution would bring about freedom and equality to the society. But that dream eventually shattered, and we found ourselves with a new elite, decades of military rule, the absence of democracy and a stronger-than-ever return of the secret police. As I reflect on the gap between the July 23 films and the historical reality, I can’t help but wonder, what will the films of June 30 look like in 60 years’ time?