Welcome to Cairowood
A Guide to Egyptian Cinema’s Golden Age
As enjoyable as it is to verbally flay the filmic road apples I stumble upon in my journeys, it is the occasional gems that sustain me. All the more enlivening, though even more rare, are those occasions on which I discover an entire, previously unexplored film industry, one whose prolific output of quality entertainments I can gorge upon like a cinephilic Augustus Gloop. As has been well documented, Bollywood was one of these for me–but the rabbit holes I’ve plunged down over seven-plus years of writing about world cult cinema have led to a couple of other very strong contenders for my affections. One of these is the Egyptian popular cinema of the 40s, 50s, and 60s, which offers a glamorous world of artfully wrought escapism comparable to—and yet quite different from–classic Hollywood.
Examples of Egyptian filmmaking date back to the beginning of the 20th century, with Cairo becoming a hub of commercial filmmaking in the Arab world with the introduction of sound. It was there that the country’s first “Hollywood-style” film studio, the well-funded Studio Msr (a project of wealthy financier Talaat Harb) was established in 1936. From that point until the mid-60s, when the film industry was nationalized by President Nasser, a vibrant commercial aesthetic prevailed, with a pantheon of glamorous stars churning out genre entertainments calculated for mass appeal. It was a time during which Egypt turned out a staggering majority of the Middle East’s Arab language films—nearly a hundred a year—and did so with a level of technical sophistication easily on par with that of any Western film industry.
The prolificacy of Cairo’s film industry during this period presents the film fan with both a tremendous boon and a formidable hurdle—in that, of all the many, many films to be enjoyed, it is difficult to decide which ones to start with. Because I have been disappointed by very few of the couple dozen golden age Egyptian films I’ve seen, I’m tempted to recommend diving in blindly. But given I watched those films not just for myself, but also so I could tell you whether they were good or not, I feel honor bound to give you some guidance. Please note, though, that I have not seen every Egyptian movie ever made, and thus cannot make claims to the following list of films being the absolute “best” of them. I think that they will nonetheless provide you with an excellent introduction to this captivating branch of world cinema.
Afrita Hanem (1949)
AKA: Lady Genie
Director: Henry Barakat
Starring: Samia Gamal, Farid Al Atrache, Lola Sedki, Ismail Yassin
Afrita Hanem is a true classic of Egyptian popular cinema, starring two of the country’s most legendary performers: singer, composer, and virtuoso instrumentalist Farid Al Atriche, and Samia Gamal, whose international notoriety as a mistress of the belly dancing arts extended to her becoming a star nightclub attraction in the U.S. during the 1950s. The pair starred together in several highly successful films during the late 40s and early 50s, and were also a couple off-screen. The chemistry between them is palpable, as is their shared joy in performing, which makes this film just as romantically captivating as it is frothy and featherweight.
Al Atriche stars as Asfour, a lovelorn nightclub singer who seeks the help of a curvaceous and irrepressibly ebullient genie by the name of Kharamana (Gamal) in wooing Aleya (Lola Sedki), his boss’s gold digging daughter. Kharamana, meanwhile, has mistaken him for the reincarnation of her lover from a thousand years previous. Thus uninclined to help him make a love connection with someone else, Kharamana follows Asfour’s instruction in letter but not in spirit, leading to a series of comic complications.
Not surprisingly, given the film’s nightclub setting and the specialization of its stars, Afrita Hanem is a musical. And while the Arabic tones and cadences of its songs might prove alienating to some Western ears, the gauzy spectacle of their presentation–rife with spangled chorus girls, billowy curtains, and winding, glitter-flecked stairways to the stars–should be calmingly familiar. Al Atriche, it should also be said, has the kind of voice, beautifully mellifluous and supple, that could make even a musical recitation of the table of elements mesmerizing.
Samia Gamal, meanwhile, is a delight to behold, displaying an infectious, childlike glee at Kharamana’s ability to steer every one of Asfour’s attempts to romance Aleya toward chaos and catastrophe. Kharamana constantly reminds Asfour that she is his servant, though it becomes increasingly clear that she is in fact his puppet master, guiding his fate as she sees fit while appearing to cede to his every demand. To further complicate matters, she introduces a real-life doppelganger of herself—one who, unlike her, can be seen by other people besides Asfour—to become the star dancer in the show that Asfour is producing. This corporeal alter ego, a wisecracking tough cookie named Semsena (the subtitles translate her oft-repeated catch phrase as “no way, Jose”), also falls in love with Asfour, setting the stage for what will become a madcap, four-sided love triangle between her, Asfour, Kharamana, and Aleya.
Granted, Afrita Hanem’s plot is only novel to someone unfamiliar with 1960s American sitcoms (though it was nonetheless an influential one within Egyptian cinema, as exhibited by very similar later films like Ismail Yassin’s Phantom and 1961’s Bride of the Nile.) Nonetheless, it is here handled with so much wit and sincere eagerness to please, and performed with so much charm by its charismatic stars, that the result cannot help but be beguiling. Its climactic scene, a show-stopping production number that takes place in Hell itself with a chorus line of prancing demons and devils, is representative of the film as a whole. Like all of the production numbers in Afrita Hanem, it has its share of visible seams, but is nonetheless leant a considerable amount of glamour by the sheer wattage and infectious enthusiasm of its star participants. If the appeal of that sounds dubious to you, I nonetheless suggest that you check it out for yourself. Honestly, I dare you to hate this movie.
Ebn Hamido (1957)
AKA: Hamido’s Son
Director: Fatin Abdel Wahab
Starring: Ismail Yassin, Hind Rostom, Ahmed Ramzy, And Zenat Sedki
Beloved screen comic Ismail Yassin and muscular dreamboat Ahmed Ramzy star as two undercover cops who arrive in Suez posing as itinerant fisherman in order to sniff out a hashish smuggling ring. Almost immediately, they encounter the boisterous sisters Azeeza and Hamida (played by famed bombshell Hind Rostom and comedienne Zenat Sedky), the daughters of the city’s chief fisherman, and, almost immediately after that, become engaged with them in a spirited screaming match. That this is a prelude to romance should give you some idea of the type of movie that Ebn Hamido is. In other words, if you don’t mind your romantic comedies delivered with a lot of shouting, you might find this well-oiled crowd-pleaser to be a perfect companion for a rainy weekend afternoon.
While Ismail Yassin is adept at the slack-jawed dull-wittedness and cowardly “feets do your stuff” histrionics of the typical 1950s screen comic, he is really at his best when portraying the character who, despite playing the fool, is actually the smartest guy in the room. Ebn Hamido uses this aspect of Yassin’s persona to good effect, and further compliments his comedic chops by pairing him romantically with the rubber faced Zenat Sedky. Hind Rostom, an actress shown to have formidable dramatic skills in films like Cairo Station and Struggle on the Nile, meanwhile plays a delightfully sharp-tongued village belle who, paired with Ahmed Ramzy, provides the film with an undeniable A-list glamour.
The drama in Ebn Hamido kicks up a notch when local operator Al-Baz (Tewfik El Dekn) frames Yassin and Ramzy’s characters as drug traffickers, forcing them to reveal their true identities to the local police. This twist adds to the movie’s already agreeable mix of eye candy, romantic comedy, and gratuitous belly dancing numbers a welcome element of low-intensity crime thriller atmosphere. It also provides the opportunity for some well landed, if somewhat predictable, humor—such as the junior officer, whose reflexive deference threatens to blow our two heroes’ cover, showering them with a torrent of verbal abuse whenever anyone comes within earshot.
Ebn Hamido’s climax combines the old “will they make it to the wedding on time” romcom gambit with a scrappy fight sequence that’s one part slapstick and one part classic B movie roughhouse, as such providing a neat summation of the genre alchemy at work throughout the movie as a whole. As directed by Fatin Abdel Wahab (who helmed the also quite enjoyable Bride of the Nile), it is a slickly accomplished little gem, brimming with comic energy and good humor—all in all, the type of unpretentious popcorn movie capable of provoking demon nostalgia in even those too young to know better.
Cairo Station (1958)
Director: Youssef Chahine
Stars: Youssef Chahine, Hind Rostom, Farid Chawki, Naima Wasfy
Cairo Station is widely considered to be one of the greatest Egyptian films ever made. This is due in large part to a central performance by its director Youssef Chahine that paints a startlingly frank portrait of the toll taken by loneliness and sexual frustration on the individual.
The film looks to the bustling train station of its title–which also serves as its sole location–as a portal into the world of Egypt’s working poor, ignoring the thousands of commuters, tourists, and travelers who pass through its gates daily in favor of the various porters, hacks and vendors who keep its gears turning. Front and center among these is Qinawi (Chahine) a newspaper hawker who lives in a lowly shack on the station grounds. Gimp-legged, slow witted, and oddly passive, Qinawi is an easy target for bullying and ridicule by the calloused bunch who are his fellow workers.
Qinawi has developed a fixation on Hanouma (Hind Rostom), one of a number of unlicensed female juice vendors who make up part of the underground economy that has grown up around the station. A boisterous troublemaker, Hanouma teasingly encourages Qinawi’s crush, even though she is engaged to marry Abu Serih (Farid Chawki), a burly porter who is engaged in an uphill struggle to unionize the station’s workers. Hanouma’s flirting inspires delusions in Qinawi that, once shattered, send him spiraling into madness, at which point Cairo Station takes a very dark turn indeed.
As Qinawi, Chahine is alternately pathetic and sinister, sympathetic and repellent. Deprived of human touch, he can only look, and look he does. The walls of his shack are plastered with pictures of pinup girls, which, it is implied, he spends most of his time clipping out of magazines and whacking off to. We are repeatedly shown close-ups of his eyes as he looks at the chests and legs of female passersby, and at Hanouma in particular. To Chahine’s credit as a director, he never lets us forget that Hanouma, as wanton and free as she might seem, is nonetheless a prisoner of Qinawi’s tyrannical gaze.
Hind Rostom was in her time referred to as Egypt’s answer to Marilyn Monroe, while I have elsewhere compared her to Rita Hayworth, Sophia Loren, and even the famed Bollywood femme fatale Helen. Like Helen, she here portrays a vamp who must suffer for the desire she creates in the men around her. As Hanouma, she projects an almost savage sensuality while at the same time maintaining the hard, cynical edge one would expect from a character attuned to a life of scrabbling. As such, Chahine affords her a level of sympathy not necessarily seen in other films where she plays a similar role.
Like its namesake, Cairo Station contains multitudes, both narratively and in terms of genre. The primary story of Qinawi, Hanouma and Abu Serih is periodically pushed aside to focus on Abu Serih’s battle against his union-busting superiors, as well as a series of silent vignettes about a young girl who is waiting at the station to say goodbye to her apparently indifferent boyfriend. Stylistically, it combines gritty neo-realism with moody Film Noir atmospherics. It also, to some extent, works as a Hitchcockian thriller, albeit one that undermines its own suspense somewhat by playing havoc with audience sympathies.
Cairo Station was rightly praised by critics upon its release, though Egyptian audiences– accustomed to the frothy, Hollywood-style entertainments of Egypt’s studio system—gave it a much less cordial welcome. This hostile reception led to it being banned in its home country for twenty years. And while those who rediscovered it may have been somewhat over-generous in their praise, I still highly recommend it. It is a well-crafted work of considerable risk taking, marked by both a clear-eyed vision of the human condition at its most humble and debased and an uncommon compassion.
I Am Free (1958)
Director: Salah Abouseif
Stars: Lobna Abdel Aziz, ZouZou Nabil, Hussein Riad, Shukry Sarhan
I Am Free is one of a trio of films from esteemed director Salah Abouseif that deal with the changing role of women in modern Egypt. Set in the years prior to the anti-monarchist revolution of July 1952, it stars Lobna Abdel Aziz as Amina, a rebellious young woman chafing at the strictures she faces in the home of her fiercely traditional aunt and uncle. Finally reaching her breaking point, she makes it her single-minded mission to achieve freedom from the dictates of others at all costs–even if she’s not quite sure what that will look like–and essentially sets out to do so by acting as if this were already the case.
Lobna Abdel Aziz, in one of her earliest featured roles, gives a star making performance here, portraying Amina’s fierce intelligence while, during the film’s first half, imbuing her with a perpetual air of smoldering insolence that’s both amusing and vicariously thrilling. As the film progresses, Amina shakes off her impediments like a rocket leaving Earth’s atmosphere, freeing herself from the authority of her Aunt and Uncle when she rejects an arranged marriage they’ve proposed, and then her community when she, against the outraged objections of her elders, heads off to Cairo to pursue a college education. Finally she attains the last stage of her plan, that of gaining financial independence, by taking an office job with an oil company, whereupon she crashes headlong into the antithesis of freedom that is the nine-to-five grind.
That I Am Free brings a divided mind to the issue of female self-determination is evidenced, among other things, by a recurring dream sequence in which Amina is dressed down by the booming male voice of the almighty himself, who feels she has fallen short of understanding the true meaning of freedom. More heartening is the fact that, when Amina does discover a meaningful way of expressing her liberty, it is through radical political action and, more particularly, through risking the sacrifice of her treasured freedom for the sake of her beliefs.
Though noted for his pioneering realism, director Abouseif shows himself throughout I Am Free to be a finicky visual stylist. As such, he delivers a film that suffers no shortage of beautiful and expressive compositions, while still making time for a few engagingly lively, stolen scenes of Cairo street life.
It also should be said that, subject matter notwithstanding, I Am Free is a film falling squarely within the tradition of Egyptian popular cinema, and for much of its running time brings a surprisingly light touch to its depiction of Amina’s quest for self-determination. Nonetheless, it does seem to be making a sincere attempt to depict the obstacles faced by women in Egyptian society on the eve of the revolution, as well as provide an honest rumination on the nature of freedom. For that and Lobna Abdel Aziz’s performance alone, it is well worth seeing.
Ismail Yassin’s Tarzan (1958)
Directed by: Niazi Mostafa
Starring: Ismail Yassin, Abdul Salam Al Nabulsy, Fayrouz, Zenat Sedky
The popularity of comedian Ismail Yassin led to him becoming the face of a long series of branded starring vehicles, among them Haram Alek, a close remake of Abbot & Costello Meet Frankenstein, and 1959’s A Trip to the Moon, which may be the closest thing to a straightforward science fiction film ever produced in Egypt. That Ismail Yassin’s Tarzan is among the best—or perhaps the best—of them is as surprising to me as it is to you.
The Tarzan myth has been a ripe subject for satire throughout world cinema, providing as it does the opportunity to expose the bestiality of so-called “civilized” man when placed in a so-called “uncivilized” setting. Ismail Yassin’s Tarzan, however, takes an opposite approach, showing what happens when Tarzan’s grasping, well-to-do relatives, in keeping with the terms of a will that guarantees them a steep inheritance, take the Ape Man out of the jungle and bring him back to civilization. Tarzan, you see, is the decedent’s long lost son, and no funds will be distributed to this greedy clan until he has been repatriated and re-acclimated to polite society.
That this proves easier said than done goes without saying. Tarzan, as played by a pot-bellied and preposterously mustached Yassin, quickly proves to be more ape than man. So much so that, once he is returned to the family home, the rest of his family is held hostage to his animalistic ways, so afraid of losing out on their big payday that they’re forced to look on approvingly as he and his ape companion Cheetah (played by someone in a flea-bitten monkey suit) cheerfully lay waste to all of the expensive tchotchkes adorning their spacious estate. Further complicating things is the fact that Cheetah, rather than just a companion, is Tarzan’s fiancé, and flies into a jealous rage whenever he is approached by another woman.
During this first half of Ismail Yassin’s Tarzan, Yassin’s performance is a dialog-free combination of physical gestures and eruptions of gibberish. His Tarzan is a true force of nature, both a bringer of chaos and a server of just desserts, and he does a great job of injecting into the role a palpable and infectious merriment. Further comedic gold is mined from all attempts to civilize him. This task falls to Safy (former child star Fayrouz), the kindly black sheep of the family, who, sensing Tarzan’s affinity for music, wisely chooses to teach him in song. This within weeks transforms Tarzan into a perfect caricature of upper-class sophistication, complete with crisp suit, pocket square, and neatly trimmed pencil mustache. It also results in him and Safy falling in love, which leads Tarzan’s relatives, now further from the loot than ever, to turn to some surprisingly nasty methods in order to see their scheme through.
In the hands of screenwriter Abu El-Soud Al-Ebyari, Ismail Yassin’s Tarzan is a cleverly scripted farce, using the Tarzan mythos as a jumping off point for lacerating social satire. The care he has taken in crafting the film to fit Yassin’s distinctive comic persona is obvious. The typical caricature of Tarzan as an oafish simpleton won’t work here; Instead Yassin makes of him a force of gleeful anarchy, upsetting the balance of hypocrisy within the stultifying propriety of the family manse–and entertains the bejeesus out of us while doing it.
Director: Salah Abouseif
Starring: Faten Hamama, Mariam Fakhr Eddine, Omar Sharif, Hind Rostom
For Sleepless, another film in his “Female Empowerment Trilogy”, director Salah Abouseif draws upon a controversial novel by Ihsan Abd al-Qudus dealing with the queasy subject of the Electra complex. Legendary actress Faten Hamama portrays Nadia, a pampered 16 year old so determined to be the sole object of her father’s affections that she does everything within her power to sabotage his new marriage. This accomplished, she is so racked with guilt over the unhappiness she has caused him that she endeavors to set him up with a sultry friend from school (Hind Rostom, in a characteristic home-wrecker role), who is too late revealed to be a gold-digging hussy. Nadia beseeches God to punish her for her sins. He does.
While Sleepless is certainly notable for its lurid plot, it is flat-out remarkable for the luridness of its visual presentation. The film’s combination of overwrought melodrama and over-saturated color might conjure comparisons in some viewers’ minds to the works of Douglas Sirk—and, given the plentiful influx of Hollywood films into Egypt during its period, Abouseif very well might have intended it as an homage. Just the same, Abouseif exceeds Sirk on every front. Every one of his painterly, hyperreal compositions overflows with both intricate detail and deep, over-ripened hues. As a result, Sleepless comes across as a melodrama whose characters appear to be going through their life struggles while trapped inside an over-rich dessert.
Sleepless was a big hit in its day, due in no small part to its stellar cast. In addition to Hamama, who—given the intimations of emotional incest and the queasy, age inappropriate pairings she’s depicted in—we can at least be thankful was 25 at the time, there is also her then-husband, the young and dashing Omar Sharif. Sharif was near the height of his stardom in Egyptian cinema at the time, though still a few years off from making his English language debut in Lawrence of Arabia. Hind Rostom, meanwhile, brings to the film her usual welcome dose of raw sex appeal.
On the whole, the film’s cast commit themselves admirably to the over-amped proceedings, a feat made even more impressive by just how outrageous the subject matter must have seemed at the time. Hamama, in particular, is deserving of praise. Her Nadia, despite the archetypal nature of her predicament, is well-drawn, fully dimensional, and sympathetic. Whatever we think of her behavior, it is clear that she is suffering, and that, while she is fully aware of the destructive consequences of her actions, she feels nonetheless helplessly compelled to commit them.
Given the above, I was curious to see whether Sleepless, at its conclusion, would take a therapeutic or moralistic approach to Nadia, though I was not all that surprised to see it take the latter. Nadia’s god, it turns out, is indeed merciless, and Sleepless, despite its challenging subject matter, is not quite as modern as its surface might at first lead you to think. Nonetheless, it is a unique film within Egyptian cinema that deserves to be seen, whether as a kitschy oddity or a fascinating missed opportunity.
Antar The Black Prince (1961)
Director: Niazi Mostafa
Starring: Farid Chawki, Kouka, Aida Hilal, Nour El-Demerdash
According to scholars, the work of 6th century poet Antarah ibn Shaddad is among the greatest in the Arab language. Arab cinema, however, tends to focus on his exploits as an ass-kicking badass. As the title Antar The Black Prince implies, Antar was indeed black, the son of an Arab tribal leader and an Ethiopian slave, though in the film he is played by a light-skinned Arab actor in black face. As you might imagine, this lends some cognitive dissonance to the movie’s frequent admonitions against judging men by the color of their skin. It’s sort of like watching Al Jolson sing “Fight the Power.”
That aforementioned light-skinned Arab actor is Farid Chawki, a popular star of Egyptian action films during the 50s and 60s who crowned himself with the title “The King of the Terzos”. The term “Terzos” refers to Egypt’s third class movie theaters, the lowest level in the Egyptian cinematic food chain. From what I can tell, these were comparable to America’s grindhouses, being somewhat disreputable urban movie houses running a constant program of second and third run films for the benefit of a largely male, working class audience.
This audience had their own name for Chawki: “The Beast”. And any mystery surrounding that moniker can be easily dispelled by watching a film like Antar The Black Prince. Chawki is gifted with both imposing physical stature and brute intensity, as well as a seething, street level machismo that makes him quite the credible screen brawler. When angered or cornered, he frequently lets out a loud, guttural roar, making for quite a contrast to those moments in the film when he spontaneously gives voice to florid romantic verse.
Antar depicts its hero’s struggle to free himself from slavery, gain the acknowledgement of his nobleman father, and win the hand of his highborn cousin, the legendary beauty A’abla, who is played by Kouka, the wife of the film’s director Niazi Mostafa. None of this comes easy for Antar, as he faces opposition to his worthiness at every turn. Only after countless acts of selfless heroism and repeated instances of him saving the collective behinds of his tribe is he recognized as a worthy son and suitable mate. And then he must deal with the devious designs of the foppish Prince O’Mara, who wants A’abla for himself. When he is finally forced to make a perilous pilgrimage into hostile territory via a particularly treacherous stretch of dessert, one can only wonder why he doesn’t just tell everyone to shove it and go off to form a tribe of his own.
Given its combination of high technical standards and limited means, the Egyptian film industry—despite its leanings toward Hollywood-style razzle dazzle—made a rare practice of making costumed period pictures during its golden age. Only twenty or so such films were made between 1935 and 1950, and even less in the following era. When they did, however, they compensated for their budgetary constraints with a surplus of vibrant color, swashbuckling action, intense drama, old school star power, and—in the case of Antar The Black Prince—the occasional jolt of surprising gore. (The Count of Monte Christo adaptation The Prince of Cunningness and the Italian co-production Oh Islam!, both starring Chawki, are also good examples of this practice.) In this tradition, Antar is a lively and rousing entertainment, even if it may not provide a lesson in tolerance for those otherwise inclined.
El Achrar (1970)
“The Bad Guys
Director: Houssam El-Din Mustafa
Starring: Rushdy Abaza, Adel Adham, Amira, Wahed Sharif
Like many of the most entertaining Egyptian pop films, The Bad Guys takes time-tested genre elements recognizable to all classic film buffs and places them within a uniquely Arab context. In this case it’s a classic heist-gone-wrong/dishonor-among-thieves tale set against the desolation of the Western Desert and punctuated with encounters with bloody events from Egypt’s recent history.
Famed leading man Rushdy Abaza stars as Khaled, a rugged good Samaritan who comes to the aid of Efran, one of a trio of smugglers who have been contracted to transport a fortune in U.S. dollars to El Alemain, the site of a decisive battle in World War II. Efran has been stabbed and left for dead by his partners, who have since realized that he has pulled a switcheroo with the loot and hidden it for himself. Before dying, Efran confesses to Khaled that he has hidden the money in Rhommel’s Cave, a manmade cavern near Mersa Matruh that the infamous general used as a base of operations. Now accompanied by Efran’s daughter Zara (Wahed Sharif of Wolves Don’t Eat Meat), Khaled takes off in search of the treasure—and soon finds himself closely pursued by the gang’s psychotic leader Hatem, who is chillingly portrayed by Adel Adham.
After a suspenseful scene in which Khaled and Zara try to lose Hatem by leading him on a foot chase through the twisting catacombs of a cemetery dedicated to the battle’s war dead, they are captured. Joined by a third smuggler (Ibrahim Kahn), they are then subjected to a perilous forced drive across a vast stretch of open desert, where the tense little quartet runs the constant risk of dehydration, automotive breakdown, unexploded mines, and killing each another.
All in all, The Bad Guys is a lean and mean little crime thriller, combining the stylish fatalism of 50s noir with the worried edges of 70s Hollywood’s more cynical capers. Cinematographer Aly Khairallah flaunts an accomplished arsenal of claustrophobic angles and off-balance compositions in driving home the increasing dementia of the principals. Meanwhile, the specter of the war’s thousands of dead hanging over much of the picture grants it a haunted, almost supernatural veneer. The performances by the accomplished cast entirely live up this expertly established mood, making The Bad Guys both a gritty spectacle of psychological endurance and a cracking good genre entertainment. As with all of the above reviewed films, I simply can’t recommend it enough.