Cinema in the Life and Work of Naguib Mahfouz
How can the image comprehend the public and the private at the same time?
ADFF Magazine is proud to present over the following few weeks a collection of articles on the Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz and his unique relationship with cinema. The articles are from the book, Naguib Mahfouz: Man of Cinema, published in English and Arabic by the Abu Dhabi Film Festival to accompany its celebration of the author’s 100th anniversary. During the festival’s fifth edition (October 13-22, 2011) it presented screenings of eight films drawn from his work or based on his screenplays, a roundtable and an exhibition of posters of films adapted from his novels.
Here’s the first article by Lebanese critic Ibrahim Al-Ariss.
05.03.2012 - If we were to borrow the title “Philosopher of the writers and writer of the philosophers” attributed to Abi Hayan Tawalhidi and apply it to a creative genius in the Arab world, that person would without any doubt be Naguib Mahfouz, who could –without any embellishment or exaggeration—be considered the philosopher of cinematography and the cineaste of philosophy.
In fact we seldom find in the history of literature, be it Arab or international literature, a writer who entered the world of cinematography, not only professionally but also with a visionary sense of creativity. Mahfouz, the author of The Cairo Trilogy - before being able to provide for himself and his family a decent living from his writings, before especially the translation of his novels to foreign languages, before being granted author’s rights, and long before being granted the Nobel Prize - made a living by writing scripts and by being an influential writer in the film world as well as by working as for the Department of Censorship in Egypt. He also sold his novels and short stories to be adapted into movies. Mahfouz never failed to mention these facts every time he spoke about his life or his relationship to cinema.
As we all know, Mahfouz was not the first creative genius to be captivated by the world of cinematography. Like him, and since the beginning of the history of movies, writers, architects, musicians, playwrights and even poets, were driven to be part of this art form that was created at the dawn of the twentieth century and continues to extend beyond being simply an industry aimed at entertainment, and is instead a site for a variety of inspirational endeavors.
But if we look closely enough we discover that there were in fact few intellectuals, who like Mahfouz, took on cinema as a true profession. The most renowned of them is Jean Cocteau in France and in Colombia, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the giant of Latin American literature, who made an influential contribution to Mexican cinema, and then later had a longstanding influence on Cuban cinema. This influence went beyond the interest of the so-called 7th art form in his novels, which was, as we know, the least of his accomplishments in the world of film.
As for Jean Cocteau, we would have to put his name aside, as this French author, poet, painter and playwright used Cinema as yet another tool of expression for his interdisciplinary interests. But Mahfouz and Marquez are alike in many ways in their professional approach towards the world of film: Mahfouz with his scripts and his management role within the Foundation for the Support of Cinema, then later as a member of surveillance and censorship over all art forms in Egypt; and Marquez, mainly with his contribution in creating and managing the official bodies and platforms for cinema in Cuba.
In this regard, we have to mention that the production of cinema as a creative and economic art form, be it in Egypt, India, and especially in the USA, was reaching new horizons and this encouraged many great writers to contribute to films.
Nevertheless we know that while this form of contribution was a positive experience in many ways for Mahfouz and Marquez, it failed in the most important place: Hollywood, where particularly in the forties, big studios used writers of the caliber of William Faulkner, Raymond Chandler, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dashiell Hammett and even Lillian Hellman and Bertolt Brecht; to work on story lines and scripts. From the biographies or memoirs of all of those writers and all of the stories written about their struggles with and within Hollywood we understand that the marriage between literature and cinema was not a happy one (the film Barton Fink by the brothers Joel and Ethan Coen describes this marriage accurately). We are mentioning all of this in passing only to move on to our main topic of interest and that is Naguib Mahfouz and his relationship to cinema. We truly believe that this relationship started earlier than we or anyone else can ever imagine.
As he told Raja’a Al-Naqqash, the late author of the book Naguib Mahfouz: Pages from his Memoirs and New Light Thrown upon his Literature and Life, the relationship of Naguib Mahfouz to cinema: “started at the early age of five when for the first time I entered the “Egyptian club” movie theatre in Khan Jaafar opposite “Sayidna Al Hosain” mosque. It was one of the oldest cinemas in Egypt, close to a hotel and a cafeteria by the same name. From that first moment I fell in love with the movies and I kept on going to them with our housekeeper. The words THE END were the saddest moment to my soul. I wished to spend the day there and wanted to live in the movie theatre and to never leave it. Even though the movies were silent the pleasure I had in watching the picture was beyond compare.”
It’s obvious that Mahfouz’s attachment to the movies was not exceptional, for the movie theater was in one way or another a big part of the life of most children in Arab cities, at least at the beginning of the twentieth century, and in the case of Mahfouz it would become the driving force that would lead to his exceptional body of work.
All this becomes clearer if we read Mustapha Bayoumi’s “Cinema in the Life of Naguib Mahfouz”, where he tries to uncover and expose the effects of cinema in Mahfouz literary creation, novel after novel and character after character. His memoirs will help us understand the depth of his early attachment to cinema and know why the director Salah Abu Seif speaking as the person to “discover” Mahfouz, would sing his praises and argue for the necessity for Mahfouz to be part of the film world even if simply as a script writer. Long before he met him in the mid 40s, perhaps at the prompting of Fouad Nuwayra, Salah Abu Seif knew that Mahfouz’s style was visual in nature and would therefore be suitable for script writing. When Nuwayra introduced Mahfouz to Abu Seif who asked for his help in adapting “Antar and Abla” for cinema, Naguib Mahfouz responded that he was not a writer of scripts and that he was therefore unable to take on the job.
In an interview with Raja’a Al-Naqqash, Mahfouz says: “When my friend Fouad Nuwayra told me that Salah Abu Seif needed me to collaborate with him on script writing, I refused and said that that would be a difficult task for me. But Fouad Nuwayra told me that Salah Abu Seif would teach me everything I needed to know, and then, whispering in my ear, he told me that I would be well paid.” And thus the meeting occurred and “Abu Seif started teaching me the secrets of the profession, he gave me books to read and the outcome was amazing from his point of view. I studied diligently and bought many books until I mastered the art. “
The truth of the matter is that if it wasn’t for the mainly technical matter of script writing, we could read into this story, which we have heard repeatedly from the novelist, and which Abu Seif corroborates, a Socratic dimension: The story as told by Plato, of a slave boy who is himself unaware of the knowledge present within him until extracted by his master. We ask ourselves, based on his own memoirs and Abu Seif’s identical stories, if he wrote his first script before Abu Seif advised him to read the books on the matter. We quote Abu Seif: “long before I met and taught him the art of script writing I discovered what a deep grasp of cinema and what a keen visual sense the author of “The Beginning and the End” had.
If we continue to look further into Mahfouz literature, following his long collaboration with Abu Seif in writing that first script… a basic question comes to mind: why, with his rich and impressive background and relation with the 7th Art, didn’t he himself bring to the big screen any of the novels, short stories or plays he had written about Egypt?
At first this matter seems like a mystery but we know that the majority of his writings will be brought to the big screen and later on to the small screen by the Egyptian and international motion picture industry, and the same goes for the scripts of a whole set of writers.
We know for a fact that an essential part of Egyptian cinematography since shortly after World War II is connected to the contribution of Naguib Mahfouz and his collected works: novels, short stories, scripts, were all an added value to the literary scene. He uncovered many social values that tied people together more than Abdel Koudous’s work ever did. The latter, who wrote The Empty Pillow and I am Free, ended up being hostage to his huge public success. It is clear that this success forced him to focus on the psychological side of the characters in his novels and to add a mix of melodrama and a flair for liberal behavior - particularly in the matter of sex and women- influenced by Alberto Moravia, and even more so by Françoise Sagan, sometimes to the extent of plagiarism like in works such as Sleepless.
As for Mahfouz, when he worked on the script of Koudousiat, he brought back the balance between the existential, the liberating and the social, while remaining faithful to the essential traits of Abdel Koudous’s work, where the film got closer to social commitment, as if Mahfouz collaborated with Koudous’s characters, as though they were the natural extension of his own novel’s characters in their climbing of the social ladder, which turned an external social struggle into internal conflict (as if we were living in the world of The Cairo Trilogy where the character of Kamal feels like a “Koudousian” character par excellence, we could say that by collaborating on the script of “Woman’s Youth” Mahfouz made the hero’s personality look like a Koudous hero downgraded to an inferior social level, from middle to lower class.
To go back to our initial concern, why didn’t Mahfouz write scripts for his own novels when he had made a living turning other writers’ texts into scripts?
First, the easy answer would be: every translation from one language to another is considered a treason, as the famous Italian proverb says ”translation is betrayal”, then what can we say about translating one masterpiece into another? Then there is another, easier answer: it’s a very difficult task for an author of his caliber to go back to his previous works. And if ever he does, there will be radical and essential changes that would be time consuming and would not be compensated by any financial means.
On the other hand there is the more complex answer: Mahfouz, who was influenced by cinema and who in turn was himself an influence on Egyptian cinema and perhaps other cinemas as well, thought that the length of any movie isn’t enough to absorb the entirety of the contents and message in any of his works.
In this particular case we can say that Naguib Mahfouz who was always straightforward in his words, used to say that his relationship with his work stopped at the moment of completion, at which point it became the property of the readers, including critics and historians, and especially filmmakers if they wished to adapt his work onto the big screen, theatre or more recently television. Rarely did Mahfouz explain or analyze any of his published work - indeed, he thought that the author should not interfere with the reception of the work, for in his view any interference would be like confiscating the work and channeling it further away from the natural and direct relationship between the author and his readers.
The purpose of this study is to eliminate what the reader might wonder: did the complex structure of Mahfouz‘s writing prevent him from writing scripts, for his novels? And what about his novellas and the less complexly structured novels that he could have turned into written scripts? The answer is in his earlier belief in his relationship to the finished work. Based on his views we can safely add that an author is the least likely person capable of becoming a neutral recipient of his own work and is therefore unable to rewrite his text.
We can clearly start from this premise and continue to further study the relationship of Mahfouz with his writings after completion. We chose in this regard to think again about the fact that the length of the movie is ill-equipped to capture the total essence of his work. To go back to the parallel between Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Naguib Mahfouz’s respective relationships to cinema, it is useful to mention an additional commonality, which is that although many of the works of both giants were adapted to the big screen, their essential writings remained untouched by the 7th Art. To date no one has been able to turn “One Hundred Years of Solitude” and “The Autumn of the Patriarch” into a movie, and cinema is still far from The Cairo Trilogy, The Harafish and Children of the Alley.
We know that Hassan Al Imam, tried his best in 3 movies Palace Walk, Palace of Desire and Sugar Street (the 3 parts of the Cairo Trilogy), and others tried more than half a dozen films taken from Mahfouz’s literary works, among them the cinematic wonder The Hunger by Ali Badr Khan, who also tried his luck with Children of the Alley, which was met with objections and religious censorship.
What then is the meaning of such a contradiction? It is simply that the cinematographers who managed to achieve success in adapting works of a lesser caliber to the big screen are unsuccessful when it comes to being completely faithful to the depth and complexity of the relationship between Mahfouz’s characters?
We notice that till now cinema did not come near James Joyce’s Ulysses, or Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, or Journey to the End of the Night by Céline, or Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil. When he decided to adapt Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin, the late German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder chose the small screen for the freedom it gave him to simplify the ideas through episodes, rather than a featured length film . These are but a few examples of cinema’s failures in the adaptation of great literature to its screen.
We can also note that no great actor has ever fulfilled his expectations in being part of Don Quixote, The Divine Comedy, etc…we have to mention that great movies were taken from Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Kafka (The Trial by Orson Welles, Amerika by Jean Marie Straub) it is true that many great pieces of literature from all over the world have frequently been adapted to cinema. It’s also true that many films were adapted from Mahfouz’s stories, before the arrival of television, which adapted the remainder of them. The question remains: what is left of the great oeuvres after being turned into movies and what can the public at large truly see from Mahfouz on the big screen? Surely, the characters were seen, as were the relationships among them, and the facts of the story… but when you take away that inner soul from all of that, only the language can be faithful to the truth and make the viewer be a part of it. We know that Mahfouz, from an early stage, considered translation a form of treason, and perhaps he applied that thought to the translation of one art from to another. If from time to time he allowed himself to betray the texts of his colleagues by writing the adaptation, he never allowed himself to betray his own literary creations. Despite the financial temptations, which were substantial, he always refused it.
It was an easy task for Mahfouz to write the scripts from Ihsan Abdel Koudous novels: The Empty Pillow, I am Free, The Black Sunglasses, upon the request of his friends Salah Abou Seif or Hossam Eldin Mostafa. He was also aware that movies were reflections of society and could tell stories about actual people. Despite this, he never considered cinema to be on par with great literature, the sort that goes deep into the core of humanity and where analytical and not descriptive language plays a basic role in the relation between the characters’ action and the reader. What matters most in literature are the events and characters, as well as the ability to give a sense of social issues and endings that balance between containing having a moral and that are somewhat happy.
Whenever Mahfouz sold the rights of one of his novels to be adapted into a movie, he distanced himself from the project believing that the details relating to the adaptation were no longer his concern. He effectively delivered a product, sold it and considered that his work was done. The story was now the property of the buyer who was free to translate it as he saw fit.
We quote Mahfouz telling his close friends: “a director proposed that he buy one of my creations and have me adapt it but, as always, I refused to work on the script. In his version, he made the bad guy marry his sweetheart instead of being incarcerated; he said that that would make for a touching ending… I said to him: “touching ending? That ending doesn’t even touch on my version!” This may sound more like Mahfouz telling us a joke, but all of the clues are there, especially if we think of the freedom that he granted filmmakers to re-write their own endings. This enabled him to distance himself from the reception of the film by saying: “the end of the film is not my concern, my concern remains in between the covers of my book.”
We can therefore deduce that whoever wants to discover the particularities of Mahfouz has to look into his books rather than the movie versions. Nevertheless, many great movies came from his literature without ever being a close replica of the written masterpiece. Notably of course Cairo 30 (adapted from The Scandal of Cairo, the original name of New Cairo) and The Beginning and the End by Salah Abu Seif, and The Choice by Youssef Chahine and The Heart of the Night, and especially Al-Karnak and The People on Top by Ali Badrakhan. In addition, The People on Top, based on the short story by Mahfouz, remains one of the strongest and most beautiful of the films that launched a new realism in Egyptian Cinema from the late 70’s to the early 80’s.
In fact, Mahfouz’s name or signature can be found behind many innovative ideas in Egyptian cinema and even television starting with the Adventures of Antar and Abla to Respected Sir. These works ranged in genre from historical fiction and social realism to crime and action with Your Day Will Come, The Road and The Thief and The Dogs; and from film works which are unabashed in their politicized critiques, such as Miramar and Adrift on the Nile among others; to films that offer an analytical critique of the psychology of sex in Egyptian society such as The Mirage by Anwar Al Chanawi. There were also of course the films that were social historical documents of urban life in Cairo such as The Cairo Trilogy, Midaq Alley and Khan Al-Khalili.
We can even give credit to Mahfouz for Egyptian films becoming self referential, and the production of films about the hidden aspects of the film industry itself, with works such as The Sinners, based on a short story by him, and most notably Love Under The Rain. All of this brings us face to face with the reality that some of the most important cinematic works of Egyptian cinema are not only indebted to Mahfouz’s writings, but also to his conscious overseeing of cinema. Indeed most of the films mentioned, as well as many that we have not mentioned, are credited to the likes of Chahine, Abu Seif, Said Marzouk, Hussein Kamal, Atef Al Taib (especially for the masterpiece adaptation of Love Above the Pyramid Plateau), Ali Badrakhan and many others, whether they collaborated with Mahfouz directly, or were simply subconsciously influenced by him and his works.
One can wonder why Tawfik Saleh, a close friend of Mahfouz’s, never produced one of his creations. When I asked Saleh, in the presence of Mahfouz, about the reasons why he did not adapt the Cairo Trilogy into three films, he laughed and said: “I will do so, when the master himself accepts to write the script.” It was obvious that he, more than anyone else, knew that Mahfouz would never do it. We also know that one of Saleh’s most popular films, which paradoxically is also one of his lesser works, was Fools’ Alley, based on a story and script of Naguib Mahfouz. Why did Mahfouz accept to be associated with a light, easily forgettable comedy, especially given that most of Tawfik’s films were adaptations of literary texts, like Memoirs of a Country Prosecutor written by Tawfik Al Hakim? Tawfik Saleh, who was very close to Naguib Mahfouz, must simply have thought that cinema was unable to convey the complexities of Mahfouz’s work.
To conclude this section we can state that indeed, literature of this caliber remains inaccessible to cinema and perhaps there needs to be a new cinematic language that enables the structure of a script to be truthful to some of the greatest Arabic works of literature of the twentieth century and some of the most respected social realist literature in the world.
This brings us to our main point, which we have touched upon throughout the text, but which we must expand upon on for a moment, that is the non-cinematic aspect of Mahfouz’s work and his purely literary legacy. On the occasion of the post mortem reissue of “The Complete Bibliography of Naguib Mahfouz by Dar Al Shorooq” in Cairo, we invited intellectuals interested in this great writer to re-read his final body of work, final, for it was certain that nothing more would be added to this body. Reading the entire oeuvre once more, it became clear that his literature is an entity in itself, and it displays his knowledge of Egyptian history from the period of his childhood (around the 1919 revolution) and the beginning of the liberalization (or the Sadat years). Mahfouz integrated the major events in that period in his writings and talked about class mobility within social hierarchies in Egyptian society, all through a cast of characters mostly inspired by real people in his life. Indeed Mahfouz detailed the essence of these characters in novels such as The Mirror, Tales of Our Neighbourhood, Morning and Evening Talk. However, history is not a series of written facts, geographical migrations and historical maneuvers for Mahfouz; rather, it is a series of indicators that tie the private to the public, or the history of the country to that of individuals. More than that, it is the history of these individuals awareness of their environment. It is true that each of these Mahfouzian stories come with their own life and their own set of characters.
Such a reading is inevitable, and though it is not chronological, it may indicate the beginnings of a formulation of the Mahfouzian project. Indeed despite the uniqueness of each individual character in each of his novels, they are interpreted through the lens of the corresponding historical occurrences which may have resulted in these characters’ existence. The characters are always affected by external factors such as their environment as well as the passage of time. They are actors in this history and they influence, even if in the tiniest of ways, its fabric. This agency is in line with the philosophical rejection of more monolithic views of history, a philosophical approach clearly shared by Mahfouz.
In fact this is precisely what makes up a large part of the value of Mahfouz’s literary contributions: the dynamic link between the public and the private, as well as the non-finality of life and the complexities of society –despite a more or less clear belief and certain historical inevitability. This is what gives Mahfouz’s writings their uniqueness and complexity, comparable only to the likes of Honoré de Balzac’s Human Comedy and Emile Zola’s series of novels in Les Rougon-Macquart. In this regard, it could be said that Mahfouz’s short stories for the most part, seem to be another take on his longer novels, or marginal annotations of sorts building towards these more substantial works, or the setting up of characters, to then be further honed in on in the novels.
Based on this analysis, we now know not only the reasons why Egyptian cinema couldn’t adapt such literature into movies while maintaining its high standards, but also why Mahfouz always refused to write scripts for his own creations.
The other important factor is that in each of Naguib Mahfouz’s novels, there is a duality between the historical and the dramatic, and on the other hand, a duality between the internal and the external (in other words, what the person is living and what they are thinking, or the manner in which the lived experience affects the psychological make up of an individual). This synergy, along with the spatio-temporal engineering which links all of the novels in the oeuvre, will lead us to the puzzle we have set out to solve in this text.We have to mention that Mahfouz rarely expressed his opinions with regard to the films made from his writings. In fact he would say that they were adapted as is the case for the most part, except in rare instances, such as when he reacted to the changes made in the character of Rajei the student Radwan, played by the renowned actor Yusef Wehbe, in Kamal El Sheikh’s Miramar, where the main character was approached with sympathy instead of remaining purely antagonistic.
Mahfouz always said “ the directors “ were true to the spirit of my original work“ and that this was due to the fact that his novels were in the hands of masters of the trade such as Salah Abu Seif, Kamal El Sheikh, Hassan Kamal and others. This did not prevent the novelist from making statements such as acknowledging the fact that “Hassan Al Imam was faithful to a certain extent to the core of the texts in the Cairo Trilogy and Midaq Alley, but that he subjected them to his own school, which tends towards sensuality and melodrama to the extend of making Hassan Abdel Jawad, the hero of the trilogy, look like a man obsessed with prostitutes and sex. Perhaps that is because of Hassan Kamal’s own upbringing, surrounded by prostitutes in Mansoura, and the fact that his later jobs working in the casinos of Imad El Din upon first moving to Cairo had a big influence on his film-making style. Hassan Al Imam entered the world of cinema with a rural sensibility, which is to be distinguished from a popular sensibility. Indeed the latter is a sensibility that is a hybrid mixed with an influence of culture and heritage, while the first is a purely Egyptian sensibility.” With these simple words Mahfouz communicated important ideas, similar to when he spoke about the two Mexican productions that were adaptations of his novels, and we shall discuss these films here.
The cinema in most of the countries of the Arab world always seemed to experience a shortage of literary texts of an appropriate caliber on which to base a script. Only Egyptian filmmakers dared to adapt Naguib Mahfouz’s work, perhaps because other Arab filmmakers thought that Mahfouz’s literature, in its inherently Cairene nature, expressed a locality and specific culture in time and place that could not be transferred to other places. The reality of it however disproves that theory, and makes evident that what the novels in fact depict in a wider sense are things like an urban sensibility, the rise and fall of the middle class, a society grappling with its moral and religious values and dealing with a crisis in sexuality, its positioning in matters of the heavens and the worldly life, and a struggling to move forward without being at odds with its origins, morality and faith.
All of this, along with the driving logic behind his views regarding power, religion and women, make his body of work of global interest. This is what the jury of the Nobel Prize as well as a filmmaker from a country thousands of miles away from the Arab world detected. That filmmaker was Arturo Ripstein, who deeply admired Mahfouz’s novel, The Beginning and The End, and went on- without even approaching the writer- to adapt it to a film set in Mexico and written by his wife, screenwriter Paz Alicia Garciadiego. He kept the original title and the film became a success from its first screening, worthy of taking part in international film festivals and one of Ripstein’s most acclaimed works. Known for the melodrama in his films, which studied the psychological side of the characters and the link between the inner and outer life of human beings, he would say that he saw Mexico in the story and did not face any difficulty in adapting it to the big screen, keeping the same characters and events. We know that the director, who met the author in Cairo, sent him a copy of the movie. Destiny had it that I ran into Mahfouz in the Nile Palace Casino where I would often meet him upon my visits to Cairo. He launched into the particularities of the film as soon as we saw one another. Mahfouz had watched it with an unusual excitement and he began by saying that he would never think of including the erotic scenes in his novel, but that he felt the synergy between Egypt and Mexico in the movie as if he had written his novel specifically about Mexico. Mahfouz also insinuated that unfortunately, this Mexican artist understood his literature cinematically better then any Arab filmmaker, and that while courtesy would have prevented him from ever making such a statement, the fact that he would refer to specific shots and scenes in the film although he rarely gave his opinion about other adaptations of his work, was indication enough.
As for the second Mexican film adapted from his novel Midaq Alley, which maintained the same title as the French and Spanish translations The Alley of Miracles, we are not aware of Mahfouz’s opinion on the matter, but it seems clear that he was less pleased with the outcome probably due to the amount of erotic content which is considerably larger than in the first film. Nevertheless we can assume that it gave Mahfouz joy and satisfaction, not only for the mere fact that this film too was just as Mexican as The Beginning and The End, but also because of the strong presence of a social sensibility, overshadowing the psychological aspect of the film, and despite knowing The Alley of Miracles lacked the panoramic view and description of a deprived society that characterized Midaq Alley as a novel.
The two movies were produced by the same company, but the direction in the case of The Alley of Miracles was assigned to Jorge Fons. However, this time our great writer Mahfouz was asked by Ripstein’s company to be in charge of converting his novel into a script adapted to a Mexican setting, but, predictably, Mahfouz refused saying, as he always did, that his task ended with the last line he wrote, and that he was busy moving onto his next work.
As we approach the end of this article, we will attempt to address many frequently asked questions about the adaptation of Naguib Mahfouz’s body of work to cinema. Here, we feel the necessity to mention the movie that represents the cooperation of two giants of the international and Arabic art scenes: Naguib Mahfouz and Youssef Chahine. The film in question is The Choice, respectively written and directed by the two, and is a riposte to the defeat of the army and the Arab states in the face of the Israeli military onslaught in 1967. If we left The Choice to the end of our review, it is by design, as it stands alone in Mahfouz’s cinematic contributions in that it is not an adaptation of any text or novel. Rather, it is clearly a text written with the intention of being shot as a film, a collaborative effort between Mahfouz and Chahine, which took place during the war. Like many intellectuals, at the end of the war, both tried to rationalize the reasons behind the Arab defeat and were we to take the message in The Choice at face value we will find that the Egyptian intellectual and his schizophrenia is the main (though perhaps hidden) cause of the defeat.
In his previous film The Land, Chahine had already hinted at this idea in the face off between Muhammad Abu Suwailem (the militant maverick farmer who at the end is defeated in the face of a totalitarian regime and by its army) and Sheikh Hassouna the intellectual activist who fought alongside Abu Suwailem at the time of the revolution in 1919. But now, because of his hesitation to take any sort of action towards engagement against the authorities, he becomes irrelevant in the rebuilding of his country’s future, a responsibility which now rests on the shoulders of the farmer who fights without his “other half”. Sheikh Hassouna is criticized for his inaction and his hesitation, as he lets down those around him with his inability to meet expectations.
It is as if we were looking into Kamal‘s hesitations in Mafouz’s Cairo Trilogy, which prevented him from living his life and made him live for others. The criticism of the intellectual class became increasingly staunch and accusatory, in The Road, Quail and Autumn and The Thief and The Dogs. Chahine went quite a bit further in the script of The Choice, where there is an outright conviction of the intellectuals: Chahine’s filmmaking was clearly up to par in traveling this distance, Mahfouz’s literature was what provided the groundwork for it. Therefore, we may be entitled to assume that this film owes its ideas more to Mahfouz than to Chahine: not an unfair assessment of Chahine since he fully adopted the conviction to then package it cinemtically in a manner that unlocked for him a new and more contemporary approach which would from then on distinguish his filmmaking from the more classical The Land onwards. And in this way, the collaboration with Mahfouz marks the second stage of Chahine’s genius, on the formal level at least. But the form is linked to the core of the film and its objectivity. In other words what was deemed experimental in The Land, and deemed European in The Dawn of a New Day became in The Choice the very essence and the subject of the film. How can it be otherwise when a movie that made schizophrenia its subject, a crisis of ideas its essence, and the relationship of the intellectual to authority and to himself its main question? In terms of cinema, Chahine followed his ideas faithfully at the risk of, producing a film that might not be a mainstream success, and at the risk of being viewed as someone who opposes intellectuals. He went so far as to trigger the anger of Yousef Al Siba’i (the renowned writer and minister of culture at the end of the Nasser and the beginning of the Sadat eras) with his inclusion of a character that was viewed as being strongly based on him.
Of course, neither Yousef Chahine nor Naguib Mahfouz intended to criticize Yousef Al Siba’I directly, despite a few jabs at the beginning of the picture, but the schizophrenia of the intellectual came from the true state of the intellectual class and therefore, many intellectuals might have recognized themselves in the film, and perhaps Youssef Al Siba’i was simply one of them.
The main protagonist of the film is named Sayed, and is a successful playwright who has close relations in the government. His plays are on the best stages in the country and he travels as he pleases on governmental missions. His wife, Hasnaa, seems to be at ease in her husband’s world, surrounded by the political and intellectual elite. At the start of the film Sayed is with the minister of culture before travelling to a literary convention, as he knows that he is on the verge of being assigned to a post as a cultural attaché in a European country. Everything seems to be working to his advantage: power, status, money, wife and a bright future. But in the midst of all of this, police find the murdered body of a certain Mahmoud, who turns out to be the twin brother of Sayed. He is physically Sayed’s exact match, but is otherwise his exact opposite: a sailor, who chose to live as he pleased without financial needs, and without making any concessions.
Here we are in the middle of the police investigation that uncovers the secret hidden side of Sayed’s life, and makes us travel between the past and the present. Furthermore, we discover that due to the loneliness she was experiencing and the indifference of her husband, Hasnaa had thrown herself into the arms of Mahmoud. All of this combines to create an element of an eventful police mystery in the film. However there is another more internal and profound aspect of the film that, at least on the surface, has nothing to do with the aspects we have been discussing, and that is that Sayed and Mahmoud are in fact one person, and this is where the schizophrenia occurs. It could be said that Naguib Mafouz –and not Yousef Chahine—had began to develop this idea in The Beggar where instead of the twins, we have the hero and his militant friend whom he betrayed and left imprisoned. Here, the hero escapes prison and goes on to live a life of luxury until he has to face his own crisis represented through his relationship with his estranged daughter. This relationship slowly reveals to him her beauty, and the level to which he and his wife had stooped. She also reveals herself to be pure and innocent. Realizing the error of his ways he offers her to his friend in marriage, perhaps in his wish to return to the innocence of being an activist on the one hand, and to repair the damage done to his daughter on the other. In the end, the mirroring between the hero and his friend lies in sharing the hero’s daughter while Mahmoud and Sayed’s occurs in the sharing of Sayed’s wife. But what was a act of purification in “the beggar” becomes here a moral struggle between the twins that ends with the death of one of them.
It’s clear that the mirroring between Sayed and Mahmoud is like Mahfouz’s views regarding the mirroring of the intellectual and his relationship to society, that was for Chahine the answer to questions that he had on his mind for a long time, but which he treated with the spontaneity of an artist.
He poses these questions as a series of encounters, the moral connotations of which remain unresolved. We have on the one hand a character like Kenawy the newspaper publisher and the Trade Union man who is an alert student of the world, with ambitions to travel to Germany (in The Iron Gate), and on the other, a woman of social standing acquiring a revolutionary awareness (in The Dawn of a New Day). And then there are the encounters between Mohamad Abu Soueilem and the cultured Sheikh Hassouna (in The Land). The dilemma in most of these encounters is largely a moral one. The Choice however, is a different matter altogether, where we are faced with an internal psychological chasm, one which in the end is explained politically and is interpreted as “the betrayal of the intellectuals”, to borrow the words of French philosopher Julien Benda. The epitome of this in The Choice is that from the halfway point of the movie, we are no longer concerned with the investigation and the police-related aspect of the film, but rather we are immersed in what may be happening in the mind of the character we have before us. We even find ourselves wondering from time to time whether the person in front of us is Mahmoud or Sayed. This is not because Sayed is taking on Mahmoud’s personality, but rather because they are the same being. Here the defeat is a reality upon which the entire plotline rests, unlike what happened in The Land where the text preceded the actual occurrence of the defeat, since the events being told take place in the 30’s. It is Yousef Chahine and not Abdel Rahman Al Sherkawy that gave the events a consciousness of the present moment, which posed the question of whether the intellectual had contributed negatively to the defeat by his mere hesitation. This accusation had become increasingly common, especially since the intellectuals had become such a part of the establishment and the state, which had been viewed as being responsible for the defeat. Let us briefly look back on Egyptian history here, at least towards the 50’s and 60’s when we know that the intellectuals have in fact become an integral part of the state, not just as advisors to the leaders of the revolution (such as Mohammad Hassanein Haykal for example) and not simply for being artists, creative individuals or novelists out of the revolution and who use their trade to justify all of the actions of the revolution, but rather, they have quite literally become ministers and have taken leadership positions.
We can go so far as to say that most of the so called Free Officers who conducted the 1952 revolution prided themselves on being readers and writers of books. Even the biggest among them, the late Abdel Nasser, would regularly use literary references in his speeches. He even published a novel entitled The Price Of Freedom, said to be based on Tewfik Al Hakim’s novel The Return of the Soul. While all of this may seem like a tangent here, we are simply looking to contextualize the extent and more importantly the reasons for Yousef Chahine’s dismantling of the intellectual from the inside as well as from the outside (under the auspices of Naguib Mahfouz). This will be a recurring theme for the filmmaker to varying degrees of clarity throughout the remainder of his career.
The times following the 1967 defeat were still grappling with the issues of accountability and responsibility. Chahine would later say that “while The Land blamed the feudal class structure, which was supported by the intellectual class as well as the clergy, for the defeat; The Choice accused the intellectuals directly and blamed their schizophrenia for the defeat.”
As for us, we do not need to think very hard before coming to the realization that Naguib Mahfouz, even more than Yousef Chahine was responsible for raising this critical awareness, in the film that can quite simply be considered among cinema’s most important compliments to Mahfouz’s literature.
(Note: This last section on The Choice is adapted from our book Youssef Chahine: The Eye of The Child and the Capture of the Rebel published in 2009 by Dar El Shurooq in Cairo.)