Detox: Room at Region “X” and music from the world of Samir Seif
 
 

WHAT’S UP?

It has been a sad and heavy week. Nada Hasan, the visual artist and beloved member of the cultural community, has left us after a rough battle with cancer. She leaves behind a collection of inventive video works and graphic designs and a lot of pain in the hearts of those who knew and loved her. You will find her short film, Room at Region (X), among our recommendations. 

Only one day before Nada’s passing, we said goodbye to filmmaker Samir Seif, who was behind several Egyptian classics such as Al-Motawahesha (The Savage, 1979), Al-Mashbouh (The Suspect, 1981), Ghareeb fi Bayti (A Stranger in My House, 1982) and Al-Moulid (1989). In our Listen section, you will find songs from The Savage, Seif’s only musical (starring Soad Hosni), as well as other music from his unique cinematic world. 

In addition to his work behind the camera, Seif taught directing at the High Cinema Institute. He was a master of the action genre, which he had always been passionate about (it was the subject of both his Master’s and Ph.D. theses). His action films had a unique local quality to them, not to mention large doses of humor. His career as a filmmaker started as an assistant to several iconic Egyptian filmmakers, such as Hassan al-Imam (from whom, he says, he acquired his comedic sensibility), Shady Abdel Salam (The Eloquent Peasant, 1970) and Youssef Chahine (The People and the Nile, 1972).

Before you head on to our usual sections, here are Dina al-Wedidi and Maryam Saleh in a haunting duet; an attempt to fend off the darkness of death: 

READ

-Read Hessen Hossam’s review of Samir Seif’s 1991 epic Shams al-Zanati, part of our Egypt’s Cinematic Gems series. The film, starring Adel Imam, is an adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954), which had also been remade as an American Western titled The Magnificent Seven by John Sturges in 1960: “As we follow Shams in Cairo’s slums to find his warriors, we are introduced to the characters. Each is apparently knee-deep in mud and desperately seeking resurrection. They all quickly prove to be of no less weight or importance then Shams himself. This is how the film exceeds its American inspiration, in which the characters were much less weighty. In the Japanese and Egyptian versions, each character has a unique trait and story, creating seven character arcs of equal appeal.”

-The Controversy is growing at the American University of Cairo over President Francis Ricciardone, who is being accused by faculty, staff and students of engineering a “neoliberal coup” at the university. In “Remaking AUC in the Corporate Image of US Foreign Policy” an unnamed special correspondent at the Middle East Research and Information Project outlines the issues at hand. “Along with the increasing corporatization of the university—evidenced in top-down management and erosion of shared governance—under Ricciardone the university’s political independence is also under threat,” the author writes. “The university has undertaken several recent actions that align AUC more closely with the US State Department and its foreign policy aims. A new political context in Egypt and the US, in addition to a global neoliberal assault on higher education, account for this instrumentalization of academia at AUC.”

-For the anniversary of the literary icon and Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz’s birth, here is novelist Mohamed Rabie on the wide-spread misinterpretations of the late author’s work, and his mistreatment by state and society alike: “I heard the news on the car radio. Unusually, my father was driving me to school and he was listening very carefully: Naguib Mahfouz had been stabbed while walking down the street, but he hadn’t died and was in a stable condition in hospital. Dozens of images came to my mind of his turtleneck sweater, his neutral grey jacket, his slow walk and his back bent under the brunt of something I didn’t comprehend… It didn’t take much intelligence to realize that the teacher who had called Mahfouz an infidel had something to do with what had happened that day.”

-An Arabic translation of Audre Lorde’s “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” by Rehab Shaaban, is now available on Boring Books. The text was originally delivered as a short paper at Chicago’s Modern Language Association in 1977, and was later anthologized in Lorde’s collection of essays and speeches, Sister Outsider, published in 1984: “And where the words of women are crying to be heard, we must each of us recognize our responsibility to seek those words out, to read them and share them and examine them in their pertinence to our lives. That we not hide behind the mockeries of separations that have been imposed upon us and which so often accept as our own… We can learn to work and speak when we are afraid the same way we have learned to work and speak when we are tired. For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.”

-In “Irreversible Shift” writer Omar Robert Hamilton weaves through history, race, capital, cities, and climate in a beautifully written piece that brings to the fore the stakes at play in what has been called the most important election in the UK in a generation. “Is it any wonder that in a century dominated by surveillance, paranoia, terrorism, rendition, financial collapse, and hard borders our language has retreated?” Hamilton writes. “Our reality, for years now, has been of individual survival under austerity; the erasure of the public in a city of stagnating wages that in eight years lost half its youth centers and half its nightclubs and saw them replaced with sterile glass towers. One by one London’s houses, monuments, newspapers, and artworks are being eaten up by the searching, liquid capital of Indian steel tycoons and Arab petrolords and Russian disaster capitalists. Of course the language has stopped growing: where are we even supposed to talk to each other now?”

-In this piece, published on Literary Hub, British journalist Viv Groskop recommends an unlikely source for solace and laughs in these rough times: Russian literature, and particularly Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, written sometime between 1928 and 1944 but not published in complete and uncensored form until 1967, after the author’s death (in Paris, nonetheless, not the Soviet Union). “It is extraordinary that Bulgakov managed to write a novel that is so full of humor and wit and lightness of tone when he was living through this period,” Groskop writes, referring to the KGB’s incessant hunt for writers and artists who would not conform to the system back then. Bulgakov was targeted by Stalin himself, and therefore lived in constant threat, so much so that he wrote those words on the novel’s manuscript: “Finish it before you die.” In another part of her essay, the author elaborates on the novel’s value: “The Master and Margarita is, ultimately, a huge study in cognitive dissonance. It’s about a state of mind where nothing adds up and yet you must act as if it does. Often, the only way to survive in that state is to tune out. And, ideally, make a lot of jokes about how terrible everything is.”

-While it’s not reading material per se, check out the Palestinian Oral History Archive, which includes over one thousand hours of interviews with Palestinians who lived through the Nakba and other periods settler colonial dispossession. Hosted by the American University of Beirut, the archive includes a platform that allows users to navigate geographically through landmarks to access the interviews.

WATCH 

Room at Region X  (2017) is a 12-minute short film by Nada Hasan. It is a fictional rendition of a selection of verbatim poetry by Juliana Mensah: 

Adam and his apple | Leila Arman reflects on Samir Seif’s The Dancer and the Politician (1990):

The Dancer and the Politician builds on more than the irony at the center of the film, the intersection of the worlds of a politician and a belly-dancer, with what each profession entails in the collective consciousness of a conservative culture. It actually aims to present a portrait of the male/female dichotomy, distilled to its essence. In that sense, the protagonists of the film become more than representations of their respective professions; they become representations of their respective genders: Adam and Eve, in one particular moment; and that is the moment Eve persuades Adam to eat the apple. Here, however, Eve is not Eve: she is the apple itself, the reason for Adam’s downfall. 

The film does not rely on one big, central event; rather, the encounter of the two characters happens by chance, and the weight of the screenplay simply lies in heightening the intensity of that encounter. The drama rests in the film’s silent possibilities, the static electricity buzzing within it. It is as if, in that convergence, the entire order of things could crack and begin to collapse. 

When they first meet, he goes to great lengths to make sure it will remain a one-time encounter. He gives her a fake name and a business card with the number of the Sewerage Authority in place of his. They spend the night together, and in the morning she wakes up to find that he has disappeared, leaving no trace behind. Years later, she sees him on TV; an important politician whose opinions are revered, one with the power to make decisions. They meet again, but this time it ends with her saying: “I know that such affairs can’t be handled by overthinkers like you.” Her presence in his life makes him nervous, and so he tries to avoid her, in an attempt to preserve his reputation. The film’s narrative plays on the tension in that space between them, which continues to stretch and contract throughout the film. 

The dancer, Sonia (Nabila Ebeid), decides to build an orphanage, but the Ministry of Social Solidarity won’t allow it, because of what she does for a living. She resorts to Abdel Hamid, the politician (Salah Qabeel), but he evades her, so she plots her revenge: She will write a memoir, announcing everything to the public. He hides, she makes herself visible; she reveals, he conceals. The dialogue emphasizes these differences. In their second meeting in her apartment, he tells her: “Don’t bare everything this way.” And when he decides to help her with the orphanage, hoping to placate her, his assistant advises him: “If you get involved with her, you won’t see the end of it. An official supporting a dancer … we can’t afford that; elections are approaching.” 

The audience, of course, loves the voyeuristic pleasure found in the act of watching something we’re not supposed to see. We only know the politician through the statements he makes about public affairs in the papers and on TV, yet we know everything about the dancer; her personal life is the headline. What the film does is it brings the politician to bed, and the dancer to the news. 

Everyone in the film stresses the word “belly dancer” when they say it — be it Sonia Selim when she defends herself, or the government official who rejects her permit for the orphanage — and they always pause for a second or two afterward, as though underlining the word for emphasis. This is meant to conjure decades of primitive perceptions regarding the image of the “gypsy,” in all its wanton wildness, only to set the film’s premise. Because other than that evoked stigma, the film’s depiction of the dancer is much closer to a businesswoman than a “gypsy.” Sonia, then, is not Eve, Adam’s partner: apart from being the apple, she is also Adam’s alter-ego, claiming what is meant to be her degraded place on earth with no shame. She is a practical, realistic and worldly person. When asked to put on a show for an important political guest, she asks for a specific amount of money as her fee. This is the dialogue that ensues: 

“But it’s not him who’ll be paying, it’s the government.”

“So what? If the party were for a national occasion I’d dance for free, if it were for the Socialist Union I’d give them a discount, but when it’s for a governmental agency then I should get paid, and in full.”

“So the Egyptian government doesn’t mean much to you?”

“No one means much to the government, I pay taxes for every swing of my hips. Every other day I receive a yellow envelope that ruins my mood.”

In the film’s logic, Sonia is the alter-ego of a hypocritical society that doesn’t want to face itself, and so she introduces herself as its punishment: she will uncover its pretenses. On one hand, Sonia is subjected to the kind of punishment reserved by society for women who choose not to make a family; she is lonely and has no one with her when she goes to the hospital, for instance. But she is also the film’s sole heroine; we empathize with her defiance of the government, and her desire to punish society. But to accomplish that, the filmmakers manifest her conflict in her desire to build an orphanage: she is, after all, a noble woman, with motherly instincts.

Sonia Selim may be the center of the film’s universe, but as the other face of society; the one it shuns but needs all the same — a negative, but nonetheless a necessary factor in the equation. This isn’t a story of Adam and Eve, but the story of Adam and the apple. 

*This review was originally published in Arabic on November 4, 2019. 

LISTEN

Throughout his career, director Samir Seif produced a filmography of 51 works, most of which were films, but also some TV series and plays. Here, we select the most memorable music from that rich catalog. 

We begin with The Savage, the only musical Seif made. It was written by Salah Jaheen, starred Soad Hosni and Mahmoud Abdel Aziz and was produced by Raafat al-Mihi. 

One of the film’s most iconic numbers is “Sheeka Beeka,” with lyrics by Jaheen and music by Kamal al-Taweel:


Also “My love, the Philosopher,” with lyrics also by Jaheen:

The Suspect is one of Seif’s most popular films, and its music is a large part of that. The score was composed by Hani Shenouda, who discusses the process (his second experience writing music for a film) in this interview.

Shenouda also wrote the score for Al-Mouled:

And here’s the soundtrack to 1987’s The Tiger and the Female, composed by Mohamed Sultan:

To conclude, listen to this theme from Seif’s acclaimed TV series, Al-Bashayer (The Tidings), also by Sultan: 


CHIT-CHAT

Mona Kareem is a poet and translator based in the United States, where she teaches Arabic at the University of Maryland. The author of three poetry collections, her latest work, Femme Ghosts, was released earlier this year. 

What do you write? And for whom? 

I write poetry, literary critique, cultural pieces and right now a project for a novel. I also translate. Choosing the form depends on the questions that occupy me and what would better serve my journey of searching and reflection. I write for myself first, and for the ghosts that we can’t hear but who nonetheless can hear us all the time. 

How do you define writing? And how do you approach it?

It seems there’s no escaping this question. No matter how many years you spend writing, you always go back to the same question, you reshape it and you reanswer it and you think you’ve found the ultimate answer before you deconstruct it again. I think my relationship with this question keeps changing because of how I keep moving from one literary form to another; one format to the other. Poets often defend the process of writing poetry as one that is unruly and that cannot be organized because order is by nature stifling.

This is bullshit, of course. You need to sit at your desk for inspiration to strike. The idea that an image or a line could hit you while you’re on the train or on the toilet doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a potential poem; in fact, most of these urgent inspirations often fail to turn into actual texts, and I find myself cringing when I try to use them. Last fall, I was in Berlin doing a research fellowship and I found myself completely free to write poetry. I would wake up, read some texts, drink two cups of coffee, listen to Charles Mingus, revise yesterday’s poem, then write a new one. You realize that this cycle is one of growth, one that elevates you and opens up your senses and your imagination like you’d never thought possible. Writing is labour, and how lucky are we that what we do as work is also something we love. 

Does language evade you?

My problem with language is a deep one, because I now write in English too, for several reasons that have to do with the cracks left by the experience of being an immigrant. Sometimes English does evade me, because I’m a stranger to it, but these challenges are fun because they drive me to revisit the roots of my language and theirs and find new solutions, and the more I search the more my craft develops. 

What is the thing you love the most? 

Sitting in a movie theater.

What is the thing you fear most? 

I feel like I haven’t really reached that stage where one actually contemplates fear; I’m always fighting fear or attempting to avoid and ignore it. This is how I deal with fear, and also how I deal with death.

How do you see the future?

I am a Sagittarius, and Sagittarians are too optimistic, they love the future and believe it’s filled with gifts and surprises. Thankfully, revolutions are happening right now in several countries around the world, and this time around we understand that the revolutions come in waves — it’s not a heart that breaks once and so decides to forego love altogether. And who knows? Capitalism might end at the hands of those revolutionaries and we might find ourselves living happily in a socialist utopia as they did in old Soviet musicals. 

The past was over when…

In my personal experience, the past is another place. Immigrating has caused cracks in my sense of time, language and memory and I can’t retrieve my past from beneath them.

Is it true that the world doesn’t change but we do?

Or maybe we race against the world so we’d change faster.

What is a “homeland”?

As a person who is bidoun, I can’t stand that word and I’m entirely done with it. But you might find me using it mythologically. 

Let’s conclude our chit-chat by talking about time.

I have discovered that all I need to do in bad times is to just allow time to pass; the passage of time gives me a feeling of reassurance, it’s cathartic in some way, like getting rid of stale air. 

SALAM

There are many events around town that you can attend this weekend and throughout next week. 

First off, if you feel like bird-watching somewhere in or near the capital, according to this post by National Conservation Egypt, Qanater is a great place to find 24 different species of resident and migratory birds living on the banks of the Nile. 

Moreover, on Saturday, head to the launch and signing of Iman Mersal’s latest book, In Pursuit of Inayat al-Zayat at Al-Kotob Khan bookstore in Maadi. There will also be a discussion with the author, moderated by translator and poet Ahmed Shafei.

On Tuesday, hear Noha Fekry and Mohammad Hamama discuss some of their favorite recipes and how theory can turn into action, both in cooking and otherwise. The event, titled “Led Astray by Recipes,” is part of the Contemporary Image Collective’s current program, Botoun (Insides), which engages with the processes of producing, distributing and consuming food. 

“Alternative Lives,” the 12th and latest issue of Amkenah — a non-periodical focused on the “culture of spaces” — will be launched on Wednesday, in a party held at the Jesuit Cultural Center’s Garage Theater in Alexandria. The magazine was founded in 1999 by poet Alaa Khaled and photographer Salwa Rashad, in addition to several other writers. 

Meanwhile, for the animal lovers amongst you, Meow Tours is an initiative that organizes regular visits to animal shelters around Egypt and walks where participants could feed and play with stray animals. We thought a bit of quality time with some furry friends might be a nice way to relieve yourself of the week’s stress. 

And that’s all for now. Until next week!

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