I first properly saw Youssef Chahine’s 1997 historical epic Al-Massir (Destiny) in 2012. The Muslim Brotherhood had won the presidency and it seemed they would be the protagonists of Egyptian politics for the coming four years. It was a difficult time for any secularist in Egypt, knowing that the legislative and executive branches of the state were controlled by Islamists. For decades, as they were alternately engaged and repressed by the government, they had a role in transforming the society into a more conservative and fragmented one.
It was beginning to seem hopeless that the Egyptian 2011 revolution — which called for freedom, equality, democracy and social justice — would ever reach its goals. While many celebrated Mohamed Morsi’s victory as the first civilian president following 60 years of military rule, others wondered how this would impact an already conservative society plagued with restricted expression, sectarian strife and gender inequality.
Destiny tells a story that is relevant not only to the Arab world battling extremist ideology, but to all humanity, now that the gaps between fundamentalism and modern thinking are at all-time highs. Chahine dramatizes the story of 12th-century Andalusian philosopher Ibn Rushd (aka Averreos) and the artists and intellectuals who support him as they are persecuted by the Caliph al-Mansour (Mahmoud Hemeida). While Ibn Rushd (Nour al-Sherif) was the caliph’s advisor and chief judge, the caliph’s own vanity, along with the pressures of war, allowed extremists using religion to reach power to turn on the Muslim philosopher.
As I watched the film in 2012, it struck me how depressing it is to be living in a similar situation nine centuries later. It really brought a whole new meaning to the phrase “history repeats itself,” and made me even more afraid of the fate of our beloved revolution and the dark times ahead. Not to mention that in the late 1990s, when the film was made, Egypt was seeing an Islamist terrorism streak and conservatism was spreading through society.
Ibn Rushd was arguably one of Sherif’s best performances ever. He dances giddily when he has a new idea and brings life to the familiar sketched images of the philosopher. He surrounds himself with his family, students and a bohemian musician couple (singer Mohamed Mounir and actress Laila Elwy) who are attacked for their music and dancing by youth brainwashed by the Islamist extremists. The caliph’s two sons, Nasser (Khaled al-Nabawy) and Abdallah (Hany Salama in his first role), also roam around with Ibn Rushd. Abdallah, who is infatuated with dance, is eventually recruited by the extremists.
Themes of love, art and life are entrenched in the film, with its signature song by Mounir, Aly Sotak (Raise Your Voice), giving a clear political message and commenting on using small spaces of freedom for expression. The storyline, written by Chahine with Khaled Youssef, emphasizes the struggle for modernity and critical thinking at a time when fundamentalism is taking over a society. It highlights the cultural and scientific empire in Andalusia, and shows step-by-step how it was destroyed.
As the film closes, we see Ibn Rushd’s books burning, but we know that they have successfully managed to take copies to Egypt, where they will be preserved and spread. A Chahine voiceover says: “Ideas have wings. No one can stop them from reaching people.” This further solidifies Chahine’s position on freedom of expression, especially in light of his history with censorship: His production Al-Muhagir (The Immigrant, 1994) had initially been banned for personifying a prophet.
Music and dance are recurring elements in many of Chahine’s films, and Destiny is no exception. Composed by long-time Chahine collaborator Kamal al-Tawil (who also wrote the iconic Ya Wad Ya Teqil song for Watch Out for Zuzu), the film’s songs are catchy and became instant sensations. The choreographed dance performances created by Walid Aouni mix oriental and Spanish dance in keeping with the film’s thematics.
The set design and costumes are filled with convincing details in true Chahine style, and the camera’s compelling compositions create visual narratives and tracking shots, allowing the viewer to follow the scene with minimal intervention from the editor. The director, then in his 70s, shot the film in Syria and Lebanon.
While Egypt’s Islamist rule only lasted a year, Chahine’s Destiny still remains relevant at a time when writers are being prosecuted for novels, films are being banned and intellectuals are prosecuted for calling for moderate religious interpretation, all under a so-called secular government.