An unemployed young man wanders into a mosque where an Islamist is calling for jihad against those who falsely claim to be Muslim. The “fundamentalist” quotes the Qur’an: “For he who lives not by my law is but an infidel.” Prayer. Voiceover: “Cut.” The fundamentalist and the unemployed man jump up and walk off of what we had forgotten is, after all, a mise-en-scene in Youssef Chahine’s film Cairo.

Chahine, one of Egypt’s leading film directors, appears next to a camera directing the 23-minute docudrama we have been watching. [1] Its premiere at the 1991 Cannes Festival was found offensive by three Egyptian critics in attendance because they felt it gave the West a false image of Egypt by showing Cairo’s poverty. Their vociferous campaign against the film led the Egyptian Censorship Department to ban the film unless certain scenes were cut. These scenes included footage of Cairo University students demonstrating against Egyptian involvement in the Gulf war. Chahine responded to the ban by taking his case to the Higher Council of Culture which ruled that the demonstration scene could stay, but the scene featuring the Islamist had to be cut. Chahine refused to oblige. [2]

At the forefront of the controversy was the issue of representation. Instead of portraying a Cairo as it is usually represented to foreign VIPs — a Cairo cleared of its people and of the traffic and commerce of life — the film allowed the city’s crowds to inhabit it, giving space to a representative sample of the city’s 14 million people. [3] Scenes of students demonstrating in solidarity with Baghdad under attack or a meeting of Islamists bespeak a fundamental disunity on the home front. More important is the film’s unpatronizing stance towards the people of the city it represents. The so-called poor who live in crowded quarters are not an abstract entity signifying economic ruin and demographic explosions, but individuals who, regardless of their poverty and daily difficulties, have faces of their own.

“I love Cairo,” Chahine’s voice accompanies an aerial view of a golden Nile at dawn. As he speaks, the camera rises with the sun, moving through the window of the high-rise where he is seated, into his study, back out, the camera focusing finally on a rooftop flat: “It’s the people I love, not the stones. I love their kindness, their sense of humor.” The camera moves through the window of the rooftop flat to focus on three children, asleep, snuggled together, sharing a bed — people sharing a tiny space learn to deal with others, to understand them, most of all, to love them. The Cairo Chahine loves is, to take the poetry out of Chahine’s words and reinscribe them into a demographic discourse, a crowded Cairo, a city suffering from poverty, rural-urban migration, urban explosion, unplanned housing and so on.

The question of representation is raised at the beginning of the film. Chahine tells a group of students from the Film Institute that he has received a fax from France asking him to do a film on Cairo. “What do you think they expect?” he asks. The answers are: belly dancing in the Palmyra cabaret, the Pyramids and camels, a felucca sailing on the Nile, the bazaar. As the students list their suggestions, a succession of those expected images, done in the expected styles (cinema verite, nouvelle vague, social realism), accompany the students’ comments and their laughter, as they reveal their appreciation of the irony of these images. For example, one montage presents, in surreal forms, the stock metaphor for the problem of overcrowding: children in pajamas playing with a cardboard skeleton in the city of the dead.

The film, however, makes no concessions. Crowding might signify a demographic problem to some people, but as Raymond Baker sensitively notes, Chahine’s image of the three sleeping children sharing a bed in the “I love Cairo” scene “challenges the dehumanizing and heartless mantra of overpopulation, self-righteously and one-sidedly pronounced by the profligate squanderers of the world’s resources and responds politically to a world that stigmatizes the children of the poor as the source of the world’s ills.” [4]

Chahine’s “humanizing” touch extends to his treatment of the predicament of space which most Egyptians experience. For example, a newlywed couple in a tiny flat are descended upon by the young man’s brother, who has come (with his wife, four children, television and bundles of clothing) from the village to find a job. A curtain is erected in the one room flat to create two separate spaces; the young couple make love to the sounds of the soccer game the brother is watching on television as his wife attempts to put three of the children to sleep. This scene, like several others in the film, juxtaposes erotic pleasure and family values in entirely natural, sympathetic ways.

Elsewhere, Chahine’s film restores human content to a religion often depicted as either puritanical or intrinsically fundamentalist. In a crowded city, people will sometimes have to pray in the street. During one such scene in the film, the camera zooms to the collection of shoes, shed for prayer, each a different size, shape and footprint. Unlike images often pushed by the Western media of Muslim prayer as engineered and fascistic in its appeal, Chahine’s sensitive camera allows the praying men’s shoes to testify to their different walks of life.

In the same scene a woman with her face covered, leaving only eyes exposed, wanders over to look at a ladies’ shoe shop display. Close up on her eyes: They are warm, sensual, individual, belonging to someone who has her own dreams, fantasies and opinions, certainly not the puritanical life-denying stereotype constructed by secularists across the “East/West” divide.

As this scene demonstrates, piety and sexuality can inhabit the same civic and psychic space without violence being done to either. Nor does Chahine lapse into the sentimentality that menaces such a counter-stereotyping enterprise as his. People cope with the necessity of sharing a tiny space, but giving up your only bed to your brother is not an ideal situation if you are newlywed. The faces inhabiting the film might be kind, might smile, might enjoy the leisure with which they listen to Umm Kulthum and smoke shisha (water pipe), but they belong to people who cannot find jobs or support their families.

A sequence of eight images shows the voracious nature of urban sprawl. Like the city’s public buses, Cairo is splitting at the seams. The manifest agent of such splitting is the real protagonist of the film: She whom Chahine loves, s/he who is capable of sharing a tiny space with others and who, as a result, learns to deal with others.

Those who are not forced to share such spaces, like the Mercedes-driving high-rise owner, representing Egypt’s new economic order by trying to sell the viewer a penthouse on the twenty-third floor of a high-rise, assume that they do not have to deal with others. “From the twenty-third floor, people are like ants; you don’t feel their existence at all.” From this point of view, people can be made invisible, and if they must remain visible, they are as points similar to those which can be plotted on a graph.

Unlike the high-rise owner depicted in Cairo, Chahine admires the values that come with crowding. But, and here is the ideological difficulty, Chahine’s song of praise and admiration is conducted, after all, from a high-rise. Values might as well be, as one character declares, “things that the rich invented so as to trick the poor.” Chahine resolves this, however, by allowing the camera not only into his room, but also into the intimacy of the crowded room. Chahine does not hide the fact that, in spite of his empathy and love, he is enmeshed in the status quo. The first “view” of Cairo in Cairo is followed by the dates January 16 to February 23, 1991, then the title, then subtitle, “Racont par Youssef Chahine.” The film begins conscious of itself as a constructed narrative, a story told from a particular vantage point, of a city at a particular historical moment. In this respect, the film is honest about its subjectivity. Still, the final scene, in which the young, unemployed man attends an Islamist gathering, the one which would have been cut had Chahine obliged the censors, is, despite its realism, a scene, and as such Chahine teaches us an important lesson: one can never be too vigilant in the process of truth production and truth reception. Even those films which go out of their way in their opening scenes to foreground the uneasy relationship between documentation and storytelling, fact and drama, can, in their potential for transparency, all too easily beguile and be wielded in the service of mystification. Films, however, can also show what the “powers that be” would censor. A finger points at a screen. Cut to:Cairo was, and still is, banned.


[1] For an overview of Chahine’s entire oeuvre within a politics of identity framework, see Maureen Kiernan, “Cultural Hegemony and National Film Language: Youssef Chahine,” Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics 15 (1995).
[2] Interview with Khaled Youssef, Chahine’s assistant director who played the unemployed protagonist of Cairo, July 11, 1996.
[3] Had the film been screened in Egypt, its title would have been al-Qahira Munawwara bi-Ahliha (Cairo Is Illuminated by Its People).
[4] For a reading of Cairo which emphasizes the ways in which the film is a critique of the new international order, see Raymond Baker, “Combative Cultural Politics: Film Art and Political Spaces in Egypt,” Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics 15 (1995).

How to cite this article:

Nur Elmessiri "Youssef Chahine’s “Cairo”," Middle East Report 202 (Spring 1997).

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