Egypt’s cinematic gems: Viva Zalata

Viva Zalata (1976) is what I call a koshary Western, and like koshary, it mixes things that one would think shouldn’t be together. Obviously it takes its name from Elia Kazan’s Viva Zapata! (1952), starring Marlon Brando, but the main title says it’s based on Billy The Kid.

Viva Zalata contains every single archetype present in traditional Westerns, from the tired old gang leader, through the mute Native American woman and her silent and intimidating brother, to the drunk ex-general. The main difference here is that our hero is Egyptian.

Produced by and starring Fouad al-Mohandis, directed by Hassan Hafez and written by Anwar Abdallah, the movie made a loss at the box office and almost made Mohandis bankrupt quite surprising considering how popular Westerns were at that time and how truly funny the film is.

Zalata is from Cairo’s Hesseineya neighborhood and works as a singer in a cabaret. After his uncle is shot, he is thrust into the wild West to save the town of “Texico” (see what they did there?), where a conflict between America and Mexico over sovereignty is taking place. It’s a sort of reversal of the trope of westerner helping save orientals from evil gangs and political conflict over land — think Lawrence of Arabia or Dances with Wolves.

Viva Zalata is a fascinating window into how American movies and Americana in general were viewed by Egyptians at the time, with any nuance in American Westerns completely overlooked or reduced to caricature. In fact, because of how ridiculous it is, I’m almost sure Bugs Bunny was one of the references.

It was shot at Misr Studios, in the Maryouteya area, and just thinking that Mohandis and his potbelly were riding horses pretending to be cowboys out there close to the pyramids feels like some perverted American imperialist’s dream (ideally, replace Mohandis with Ronald Reagan).

The set is realistic in the sense that it looks like what a set for a Western should look like, but due to some bold colors here and there and certain make-up choices (gigantic false eyelashes), it’s unmistakably the 1970s.

Were they aware of all of these elements while making this movie? Was it a conscious decision to have the costumes look like they were made for Halloween? Was it supposed to be a Western or a parody of one? If a parody, why exactly? And why the hell is the scary bartender called Hany?

There is a story that circulates a lot about this movie. Mahmoud Morsy known for his strong roles in dramatic movies was on a set nearby for a different production and passed by to say hello to Fouad al-Mohandis, who suddenly asked him to appear in the film. Within moments, he was in a cowboy costume performing his cameo. I don’t know if this story is true but I feel like it is, and it might be an indication of the filmmakers’ attitude toward the work they were doing: These people took joking around very seriously.

Morsy says one line: “Howdy Zalata!” It’s the only occasion in which someone said “Howdy” in an Egyptian film. Another great choice of casting is Hussein Fahmy as a Clint Eastwood-type character though the most they have in common is the possession of non-brown eyes.


Viva Zalata GIF

Another famous story, though not about this film, is about the genius of the Egyptian intelligence agency during the conflict with Israel, when a film in production was used as cover to conduct an operation somewhere on Africa’s western coast, resulting in the blowing up of a ship carrying an oil rig bought by Israel to dig in the Gulf of Suez (see the 1990s TV series Haffar, which tells the story of this operation). Another Mohandis production, Amasha in the Jungle (1972), is rumored to have been the film that was used. Unlike when the Americans used the same trick in Tehran in 1979, Mohandis actually shot the film and released it in cinemas. It’s worth spelling out that the Egyptians thought of it first.

So why would Mohandis make a film about cowboys four years later? Not to mention being generally influenced by the particular brand of slapstick created by Jerry Lewis, whose films weren’t shown in Nasser’s Egypt because he was a Jewish American. Mohandis even adapted Lewis’s Boeing Boeing (1965) into Motarda Gharameya (A Love Chase, 1968).

My favorite scene in Viva Zalata adds to all this confusion. Zalata walks into a bar and starts reminiscing about his real home, Egypt, whereupon someone asks, “What is this ‘Egypt’?” At which point he breaks into song and sings the famous Masr Heya Ommy (Egypt is my Mother), while everyone remains baffled and keeps asking in the chorus “Egypt? Egypt? Egypt?” with perplexed expressions. Is this film telling us that the idea of the do-it-all Egyptian hero is as ridiculous as the film itself? Or that there are people in the world who really don’t know or care about Egypt, that it is not the mother of the world, Egypt is only your mother, keep it to yourself?

Of course the ending answers this question. Zalata wins the day.

Hanaa Safwat 

You have a right to access accurate information, be stimulated by innovative and nuanced reporting, and be moved by compelling storytelling.

Subscribe now to become part of the growing community of members who help us maintain our editorial independence.
Know more

Join us

Your support is the only way to ensure independent,
progressive journalism