Reading Egypt from the Outside In, Youssef Rakha’s “Baraa and Zaman”

24 August, 2021
Direc­tor Sha­di Abdel Salam ® instruct­ing lead actor Ahmed Marei in The Mum­my

Baraa and Zaman:  Read­ing Egypt­ian Moder­ni­ty in Sha­di Abdel Salam’s The Mum­my , by Youssef Rakha
Pal­grave 2020
ISBN 9783030613532

Sherifa Zuhur

Baraa and Zaman:  Read­ing Egypt­ian Moder­ni­ty in Sha­di Abdel Salam’s The Mum­my by Youssef Rakha is a sur­pris­ing book, con­struct­ed as a series of sep­a­rate para­graphs, like prose haiku.  The author calls our atten­tion to the 1969 film, which like oth­er pro­duc­tions of Egypt’s gold­en age of cin­e­ma, 1940s-1960s, interroga

barra and zaman: reading egyptian modernity in shad abdel salam's the mummy
An insight­ful vol­ume in Palgrave’s Arab cin­e­ma series.

tes the country’s iden­ti­ty.  Thus, an adven­ture into cin­e­mat­ic his­to­ry pro­vides a method­ol­o­gy for inter­pret­ing Egypt and its inter­nal and exter­nal rela­tion­ships, and sheds light on Egypt’s trajectory.

Rakha is the author of The Book of the Sultan’s Seal: Strange Inci­dents from His­to­ry in the City of Mars  (Kitab at-Tugra: Gharaib at-Tarikh fi Mad­i­nat al-Mar­rikh, Cairo: Dar Al-Shorouk, 2011) which has been trans­lat­ed to Eng­lish and French, and oth­er nov­els, essays, and poems. His lengthy expe­ri­ence as a cul­tur­al­ly-ori­ent­ed jour­nal­ist, edi­tor, and photographer/writer, as well as his intro­duc­tions of oth­er impor­tant younger poets, writ­ers and cul­tur­al fig­ures on his web­site, sultansseal.com, posi­tion him in the cur­rent Egypt­ian scene. He is part of a gen­er­a­tion of Egypt­ian writ­ers who often explore top­ics through a per­son­al and his­tor­i­cal lens. In this new work, he, like The Mum­my, invokes the past, zaman (an age) as a key prin­ci­ple, rely­ing on lega­cy and authen­tic­i­ty.  Con­trast­ing this, we learn of a con­trast­ing con­di­tion, baraa, (lit­er­al­ly, out­side, bar­ra in my translit­er­a­tion) — exter­nal­i­ty, colo­nial­ism, neo­colo­nial­ism, and per­haps even Occidentalism.

The bar­ra-first rule in Egypt is that one must attain recog­ni­tion, fame or suc­cess in the out­side world, to mat­ter, or to have influ­ence.  One needs a for­eign lan­guage edu­ca­tion. One must pub­lish in for­eign lan­guages and for­eign con­tacts are use­ful. Opera singers and actors should gain renown abroad. Rakha also explains that the ideas of the Arab Spring were bar­ra-derived at the expense of the local. (69) Bar­ra-ori­ent­ed per­son­ages impor­tant to the ill-fat­ed Jan­u­ary 25th Rev­o­lu­tion were the God­fa­ther of the Rev­o­lu­tion, Mohamed El Baradei and come­di­an Bassem Yousef, both of whom had, iron­i­cal­ly, to escape bar­ra (from Egypt).

Egypt’s moder­ni­ty goes back to strug­gles between Egypt’s rulers and for­eign pow­ers. The exploits and achieve­ments of Khe­dive Isma’il Pasha (1830 – 1895), the grand­son of Muham­mad ‘Ali Pasha who mod­ern­ized Cairo, and enabled the con­struc­tion of the Suez canal, and 8,000 miles of irri­ga­tion canals, as well as thou­sands of miles of rail­roads, tele­graph lines, 400 bridges, and 4,500 schools, exem­pli­fied a bar­ra-ori­en­ta­tion which jus­ti­fied Egypt’s use of Euro­pean mod­els, and designs.  In these efforts, Khe­dive Isma’il accrued enor­mous debts lead­ing to his down­fall, British mil­i­tary seizure of Egypt and to Isma’il’s exile. All this is sig­nif­i­cant as The Mum­my is set in the year 1881.

In this peri­od, the archae­o­log­i­cal col­lec­tion at Azbakiyya was hand­ed over to the Arch­duke Max­imil­lian of Aus­tria, and end­ed up in Vien­na. So too, at the out­set of the film The Mum­my, French Egyp­tol­o­gist, Gas­ton Camille Maspero who can trans­late Egypt­ian hiero­glyph­ics is jux­ta­posed to Ahmed Effen­di, the young Egypt­ian Egyp­tol­o­gist. Both of these men — West­ern­er and Egypt­ian — have pharaoh­phil­ia (love of the pharaohs) at the heart of their pur­suit of zaman, here rep­re­sent­ing antiq­ui­ty, authen­tic­i­ty and tra­di­tion. “Egyp­tol­ogy turned Egyp­tian­ness into an object of Euro­pean scruti­ny, also avarice, mar­gin­al­iz­ing (indeed crim­i­nal­iz­ing some Egyp­tians)  but also a hith­er­to nonex­is­tent sub­ject for a col­lec­tive sense of self” writes Rakha (73).

Ital­ian film­mak­er Rober­to Rosselini’s dis­cov­ery of Shadi’s script helped to pro­pel the film’s cre­ation. “Just as ancient Egypt can­not exist with­out Euro­pean inter­ven­tion, so Shadi’s career can­not kick off until an Ital­ian approach­es the Egypt­ian state,” (68) because of the bar­ra-first prin­ci­ple. In this way, the Mus­lim Brotherhood’s so-called ‘mod­er­ate Islam’ gained trac­tion through Amer­i­can think tanks (bar­ra) and Mohammed ElBa­radei gain­ing fame by suc­ceed­ing Hans Blix in the IAEA, Bassem Youssef by being called the “Egypt­ian Jon Stew­art,” or the late fem­i­nist Naw­al El Saadawi being labeled the “Egypt­ian Simone de Beau­voir.” These unequal cul­tur­al val­u­a­tions, con­sid­ered bar­ra as com­pli­ments, grate domestically.

Can one read the book with­out hav­ing viewed The Mum­my? Baraa and Zaman is worth read­ing with­out hav­ing seen the film, though it will speak more dis­tinct­ly to those with some, or a good deal of back­ground knowl­edge of Egypt.  Rakha is not mere­ly ren­der­ing an homage to The Mum­my; he rec­og­nizes that it is fas­ci­nat­ing with­out being a very good film, and irrev­er­ent­ly asks why? As the sto­ry of the dis­cov­ery of a cache of mum­mies by the Abd al-Rasul gang, the film address­es greed, and the past and present theme of cor­rup­tion. Rakha points out the illog­ic in the script — that the younger gen­er­a­tion would be so revolt­ed by the des­e­cra­tion of tombs that they would risk their lives and give up their fam­i­ly lega­cy (44).  This isn’t mere­ly a lack of log­ic, it cen­ters moral­i­ty in moder­ni­ty, as if the younger gen­er­a­tion would, through sheer will, break with the past, and, there­fore be cursed by the Moth­er, the Lady of the House.

Rakha explores the nation­al­ism and near deifi­ca­tion of Gamal abd al-Nass­er involved in the mak­ing of this film, explain­ing Salah Jahine’s  (poet, lyri­cist car­toon­ist, edi­tor) “patho­log­i­cal rela­tion­ship to Nass­er,” an extreme patri­o­tism  actu­al­ized in songs of that era, includ­ing those by com­pos­er Kamal al-Taw­il with Jahine and sung by Abd al-Hal­im Hafez.  Egypt’s gold­en age of cin­e­ma includ­ed singer/actor Soad Hos­ny (1942–2001), super­star come­di­an Adel Imam (b. 1940) and Sha­di Abdel Salam, who even­tu­al­ly made The Mum­my — a grad­u­ate of Vic­to­ria Col­lege, an archi­tect and aspir­ing film­mak­er who appren­ticed him­self to film­mak­er, Salah Abu Seif.  In many ways Abdel Salam was like film­mak­er Youssef Chahine, but his roots were in Upper Egypt.  Abdel Salam told an inter­view­er in 1975 that he was inspired in Mallawi, his mother’s town in Minya, to inves­ti­gate “the mean­ing and the life of being Egypt­ian…” (40).  Rakha also explains how the Naksa, Egypt’s defeat by Israel in 1967, pow­er­ful­ly impact­ed Abdel Salam who admit­ted that the film might be his way of assert­ing both Egypt’s con­ti­nu­ity and the pain of its decline.  Rakha asso­ciates the griev­ing at the open­ing and end­ing of the film, at the death of the patri­arch, cel­e­brat­ed in rur­al Egypt with the fir­ing of weapons, with the grief for Egypt-the-father or Egypt’s father (Nass­er) in the Naksa. (47)

Rakha describes the visu­al beau­ty of the film, and its odd and unex­plained sym­bol­ism, as that of the eye — the Eye of Horus, and the viewer’s eye gaz­ing at the film’s spec­ta­cle, “see­ing past aes­thet­ics into his­to­ry.” (51) Rakha reminds us of the pop­u­lar­i­ty of ancient Egypt­ian themes in lit­er­a­ture, as in Naguib Mah­fouz’ first three nov­els, and in Taw­fiq al-Hakim’s quest for revival and an ‘idol’ in his 1933 nov­el, Return of the Spir­it, each vol­ume of which begins with cita­tions from the Book of the Dead.

Of the many oth­er mean­ing­ful insights in this book, among them the mum­my por­traits ful­fill­ing their func­tion of pro­vid­ing eter­nal life, I enjoyed Rakha’s dis­cus­sion of the mawaw­il, the often lament­ing, vocal impro­vi­sa­tions on folk texts.  He con­nects the deep emo­tion­al­ism of the maww­al to the mor­tu­ary tra­di­tion in upper Egypt.  In one maww­al from Minya, a singer implores the boat’s cap­tain to car­ry him to the West Bank of the Nile, where he can meet his deceased loved ones.  This exam­ple of an ancient tra­di­tion liv­ing on in folk music is Rakha’s insight, not The Mum­my’s, but it’s emblem­at­ic of the film’s goals.  Whilst ril­ing against taboo break­ers, the dis­cov­ery of the mum­mies was a “res­ur­rec­tion spell,” and also a nation­al lib­er­a­tion slo­gan” (94) that Rakha claims for mod­ern Egypt.

The authen­tic­i­ty vs. moder­ni­ty dynam­ic that I myself encoun­tered in my twen­ties in Cairo, was a more prim­i­tive ver­sion of the baraa-zaman polar­i­ty.  It was always framed from bar­ra — on the edi­fices cre­at­ed by West­ern schol­ars.  Rakha writes, “It is not as if you can choose to relin­quish moder­ni­ty how­ev­er attached to tra­di­tion you might be. But it is not as if you can for­get that, rather than grow­ing out of it or being organ­i­cal­ly graft­ed onto it, moder­ni­ty was sud­den­ly imposed on your his­to­ry, over­tak­ing your sense of self in demean­ing ways.” (89)

The sto­ry of The Mum­my, then, is per­haps not what direc­tor Sha­di Abdel Salam intend­ed to tell, but with Rakha’s exam­i­na­tion, its under­ly­ing truth emerges.  It seems that an Egypt­ian, like Rakha, may indi­rect­ly address equal­i­ty, jus­tice and free­dom (the goals of the Jan­u­ary 25th rev­o­lu­tion) and focus on the bar­ra-zaman dialec­tic (103) at present, in order to per­ceive the like­ly future.

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Sherifa Zuhur is a scholar specializing in the study of Egypt and other MENA countries, who has held faculty positions at The American University of Cairo, UC Berkeley, and SSI at the US Army War College. She has lived, researched and taught in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, the Negev, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, the US and Europe. Zuhur has published 19 books, hundreds of chapters and articles, is a past-president of the Association of Middle East Women’s Studies and was a Senior Regional Fulbright Scholar.