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It is not difficult to trace the presence of the Palestinian cause in Egyptian cinema, the oldest in the Arab World. The number of films discussing the conflict is small compared to the total number of productions since the inception of Egyptian cinema.
Like any political or social issue discussed in Egyptian films, Egyptian cinema supports the narrative adopted by the Egyptian regime. The Palestinian cause is no exception, mainly because it once influenced the political winds of change in the political system in Egypt. Furthermore, chances for independent cinema to shape its lens, either opposing the government or reflecting public opinion towards Palestine, were increasingly rare.
The Nakba Cinema
The 1948 War was a key trigger for the political change in Egypt that spurred the Free Officers Movement to overthrow King Farouk’s rule in 1952. An arms deal scandal and prevalent corruption directly implicating the King undermined the Egyptian role in the war. This allowed a group of officers, led by Mohamed Naguib, to lead a coup against the monarchy that had ruled Egypt since the 19th century.
The 1948 War influenced the political scene in Egypt and consequently had a role in Egyptian cinema production in the 1950s and can be traced back further to 1948’s “Fatat Min Falastin”— a romantic film, starring and directed by Mahmoud Zulfikar, typical of the era but themed around the Palestinian War. The film tells the story of an Egyptian pilot who falls in love with a girl from the Palestinian village his plane crashed in. The girl cares for him and supports the revolutionaries against the Zionists.
The image of the Egyptian army in the film aligns with the official narrative at the time; the army appears active in the war, a soldier on his way to fight, bound to Palestine by blood, and considering Palestine his top priority. Although this image seemed to contradict the role of the Egyptian army and its leadership at the time, particularly in light of the arms deal scandal, it persisted as a stereotype in Egyptian cinematic works for many years.
In the 1950s, after the removal of King Farouk, the romantic theme of the Egyptian soldier and the Palestinian girl continued. However, the arms deal scandal began to appear as a theme and perhaps became the main plot for many of this period’s films that addressed the Palestinian cause. In The film “Ard al-Abtal,” produced in 1953 and directed by Niazi Mustafa, an Egyptian soldier loses his sight to faulty weapons during the 1948 war. Weapons that had been delivered to the frontline fighters by his father.
These very weapons caused amputation to one Egyptian officer and killed dozens of others in “Allah Ma’ana” produced in 1955 and written by Ihsan Abdel Quddous, the same writer and journalist who shed light on the arms deal scandal in an exposé he published in Rose al-Yusuf Magazine in 1950. In the film, the victimised officer returns to Egypt to fight against the authorities. The Free Officers Movement will be his, the army’s and the entire country’s saviour. Naturally, the film fit Egypt’s political propaganda and censorship.
Presenting a political issue in Egyptian cinema in the 1950s and 1960s and even beyond has traditionally been precarious. Cinema at the time was purely commercial, and its repetitive themes were popular with the masses. A large proportion of the films produced told similar stories, sometimes even identical, so much so that the odd films that did discuss the Palestinian cause were similarly inspired, with timid attempts at presenting something new. An example is 1957’s “Ard al-Salam.”
Kamal El Sheikh directed another film about an Egyptian soldier in love with a Palestinian girl. However, he attempted to use the Palestinian dialect and a star-studded cast, including Faten Hamama and Omar Sharif. The movie focussed on the occupation’s crimes, which previously hadn’t had a strong presence. The film’s seriousness may be attributed to the fact that it was produced after the Tripartite Aggression against Egypt in 1956, in which Israel was a major party.
The 1960s ushered in a revolution in the craft of filmmaking. More professional directors with new techniques and advanced equipment started appearing. The 1963 film “Nasser Salah Eddin” by Youssef Chahine is considered the first shift toward an indirect portrayal of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Despite being a historical drama, the film crops up every time the Palestinian conflict in cinema is discussed. The film is considered a benchmark for depicting the Palestinian cause because of the cinematic identity the director imbued it with. He loosely followed historical facts and liberally interpreted actual events, leading some critics to categorise the film as historical fiction.
The film was allegoric by design, drawing parallels between the past and the present. In the past, Western Crusaders occupied Palestine in the name of religion. Today, they are trying to build an illegitimate state in Palestinian territories, again, in the name of religion. Chahine makes you wonder if different religious symbols are just a cover for politics, war and oppression of the masses.
The June Setback Cinema
The different image of the Palestinian cause resulting from the June Setback was reflected not just in cinema but in culture in general. The Six-Day War cemented Israel as the primary enemy across the Arab World. The Palestinian cause was shaping to be the unifying cause for all Arabs, especially after the Setback gave way to the occupation of Egyptian and Syrian territories. Subsequently, a new form of Egyptian cinema began to appear, albeit timid, as the theme of flagrant defeat was never the main plotline in Arabic cinema, which was aligned with the regime’s narrative and subject to censorship that prevented screens, silver and small, from portraying the theme of defeat.
Produced five years after the event in 1972, “Oghniya Ala al-Mamar“, directed by Ali Abdel-Khalek, was the most prominent production addressing the defeat. The film tells the story of soldiers stranded on a deserted passage, besieged by Israeli troops —each soldier with a tragic tale linking them to the current political discourse in one way or another. Countless viewers fainted when the film was screened, affected by its events and message. The film was free of violence and direct depictions of war, but it pressed heavily on the scar the June Setback had left on Egyptian society. Until then, stories of defeat rarely appeared in films and were primarily portrayed indirectly.
Perhaps the most notable film was “Thartharah fawqa al-Nil” in 1971, an adaptation of Naguib Mahfouz’s novel, directed by Hussein Kamal. The film tells the story of Egyptians from different walks of life with different professions who gather on the Nile River to tell the stories reflecting their lives after the Setback. Perhaps this style, which was more present in cinema between the 1960s and 1970s and presented the audience’s feelings towards the defeat, had a more significant impact and led to many films of this era being dubbed as some of the best films in the history of Egyptian cinema to date.
Post-October War Cinema
The decline in movies depicting the Palestinian cause after the June Setback was countered by an abundance of films after the October War in 1973, mainly due to the regime’s portrayal of the war as a victory and the marketing of this suggestion in various forms of culture, including cinema. However, while cinema was busy with the Egyptian army’s victory, it focused less on the Palestinian cause.
Palestine was absent and forgotten, with the exception of the aforementioned romantic themes. Perhaps the most famous example of the era was “Al-Rasasa La Tazal fe Gaibi,” directed by Hossam al-Din Mostafa in 1974. The film tells the story of an Egyptian soldier returning from the June Setback defeated in battle and spirit. Later, the October War provided salvation and a solution to his problems, and he married his lover after coming back victorious. Mahmoud Yassin, who starred in more than seven films about the October War, played the protagonist in this film.
The signing of the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel in 1978 did not change Egyptian cinema’s approach to the Palestinian conflict and the issue of the conflict with Israel. The agreement was not criticised in cinema, especially during the era of the late president Anwar Sadat, who had signed it during his presidency. It was, however, targeted later in the 1990s and 2000s.
After the Camp David Accords, spy films grew popular, glorifying Egyptian intelligence feats. In the same year that the agreement was signed, Kamal El Sheikh directed “Al-Sou’od ela al-Hawiyah.” which follows Egyptian spy Heba Selim, who was recruited by Mossad and later exposed and executed by the Egyptian authorities. The production of these films continued strongly throughout the 1990s. Some of the most notable examples are “Mohemma fi Tel Abib” in 1992, “48 Sa’a fe Israel” in 1998, and “Fatat min Israel ” in 1999.
Naji al-Ali: The Shocking Film
In 1991, director Atef al-Tayeb presented a film that would stir up controversy in Egypt’s politics, culture and art. This film, “Naji al-Ali,” starring Nour al-Sherif, told the story of the eponymous Palestinian cartoonist. Immediately upon release, state media queued to attack the film. It was interpreted as criticism of the Egyptian regime since Naji al-Ali, the Arab World’s most famous cartoonist at the time, viciously criticised the Egyptian authorities when the Camp David Accords were signed.
Al-Ali also attacked all Arab states that adopted normalisation policies with Israel. He was assassinated by the Mossad in London in 1987.
Naji al-Ali, the film, was exceptional and shocking compared to previous Egyptian cinematic productions. The film’s director and the actor portraying the protagonist were subjects to relentless criticism that went as far as denunciations and accusations of treason and conspiracy with late Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi. It was rumoured that the production was funded by Libya, which the producers denied.
Unlike other post-October War films, this film focused mainly on the June Setback, which provoked further ire of the government that wanted to keep the spotlight entirely on the October War’s victory.
The way in which the Egyptian persona was portrayed triggered Egyptian media. The only Egyptian character in the film, played by Mahmoud al-Gendy, was always drunk, waiting in vain for the Arab army to save the day. Critics noted that the character implied the weakness of Egyptians and dwarfed Egypt’s role in the Palestinian cause.
During the 1990s and beyond, particularly after the Oslo Accords in 1993 and the Jordan-Israel Peace Treaty in 1994, the political trend in Egypt and most Arab countries was towards peace. Israel was treated as a fait accompli, with campaigns stressing solidarity with Palestine every now and then. Accordingly, the presence of the Palestinian cause in Egyptian cinema was in line with the regime’s stance, a plot point or a setting that appears superficially and disappears quickly. Examples include a scene of students burning the Israeli flag in the 1998 film “Sai’di fe al-Gamaa al-Amrikiya” and an Egyptian expat in Europe refusing to work with an Israeli character in the 1999 film “Hamam fi Amsterdam.”
Occasionally, the theme appeared more broadly, like the refusal to live next to the Israeli embassy in the 2005 film “Al-Sefara fe al-Emara.” Mentioning the Palestinian cause, however briefly, was out of solidarity and in a way that makes the protagonist cry during the climactic scene of the film.
The Palestinian cause rarely appeared in serious cinema during the past 30 years. The most important exception was the 2004 film “Bab el-Shams,” directed by Yousry Nasrallah, based on a novel by the Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury, starring actors from multiple Arab countries. The film tells the story of the Palestinian tragedy over a period of 50 years. Perhaps it is one of the few Arab films that received backlash from Israeli media and officials.
However, calling “Bab El-Shams” an “Egyptian film” may not be accurate. It did not have the characteristics of an Egyptian cinematic work. The film was Arab, with a Lebanese script, an Egyptian director, Syrian, Lebanese, Egyptian and Tunisian stars, and a Euro-Arab production. It was ranked one of the ten best films in 2004 by Time magazine.
Producing any Egyptian film with a political theme today has become difficult, given the regime’s cultural and artistic censorship, as is illustrated by, for example, the 2021 Egyptian film “Reesh” (Feathers). The movie addresses poverty in the countryside and has instigated attacks by mainstream and state-backed media as it contradicts the official narrative of the “New Republic.” It is, therefore, difficult to discuss any political issue without considering the challenges and consequences.
Today, the presence of topics related to Palestine in Egyptian film is almost non-existent, neither as the main plot nor superficially as a subplot. Strangely, the presence of any serious Egyptian films has been uncommon in the past five years. Vastly due to regulations and restrictions the industry faces in Egypt, but above all, the whims of moviegoers.