ISSUE #4 FOREST, AUTUMN 2014
REVIEWS AND CRITIQUE
Desire under the Cedars

The heart and purse of the Egyptian film industry kept Lebanon near and dear from the 1930s until the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War. As cinematic collaboration flourished between the two countries, the verdant landscapes and wooded mountains overlooking Beirut became the idealized setting for romantic fantasies of generations across the Arab Middle East

Since its birth in the 1920s, Egyptian cinema has attracted foreign and Arab artists, especially from Lebanon; some were already living in Egypt, and others came following the growth of the Egyptian film industry in the 1940s. The Lebanese, like other foreigners, were first cast as secondary characters, foreigners living in Egypt. Their lot changed quickly, however, as a result of a number of factors, including the spread of movie theaters in Lebanon, the reliance of Egyptian production companies on revenue from Lebanese audiences, and the permanent relocation of a number of famous Lebanese singers and actors to Cairo.

Lebanon was the first Arab country to distribute and screen its films in Egypt before it was overtaken by a booming homegrown cinema. Egyptian movies soon came to dominate – both in reach and popularity – throughout Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and the rest of the Arab world. This happened around 1937, with the Egyptian release of the film Amid the Temples of Baalbek, directed by the Egyptian-Italian Giulio DiLucca and starring the Egyptian actor Amine Atallah and the Lebanese singer Kawthar. The Lebanese company Al Manar Films had produced and debuted the film three years prior in Beirut, and it was shown in both Lebanon and Egypt thanks to a joint distribution deal. Temples planted in the mind of the Egyptian public a mythical image of Lebanon that had nothing to do with such financial dealings.

Temples (1934) offers one of the earliest portrayals of this imagined Lebanon. It was heavily influenced by the Orientalist representations of the Arab Middle East promoted by colonialism and adopted by the bourgeoisie, which comprised the bulk of film audiences in the region. This image paralleled the prevalent trends in French and American cinema, which at the time favored love stories between lustful emirs and female tourists. In Temples, the ruins serve as a timeless backdrop for the story of an impossible love between an Arab prince from a conservative tribe and a beautiful, liberated European tourist.

The temples of Baalbek and the sweeping vistas of mountains, sea, and forest have been used as a stage in the aforementioned film and dozens of others telling the stories of similarly star-crossed or socially taboo lovers. This image reflected the fruitful exchange that was taking place between Egyptian and Lebanese filmmakers, as evidenced by promotional photos in Egyptian movie magazines of the time. Take, for instance, the March 1951 edition of Cinemode, which features a commemorative spread of The Bride of Lebanon, starring one of the most famous Lebanese actors in Egyptian cinema, Mohammad Salman. In addition to the temples of Baalbek, of course, one photo shows Salman posing against a desert backdrop; in another, he is sitting with the Lebanese actress Hanan under trees that are meant to suggest the Lebanese forest.

Antoun Khoury, a distributor and member of the Cinema Production Bureau in Egypt, who also happened to be of Lebanese origin, wrote an analysis of the artistic, cinematic exchange that characterized this period for a special edition of the magazine Cinefilm (November 1953), titled Egyptian Cinema on the Global Market. Khoury dedicated a substantial portion of his article to Lebanon:

Lebanon and Syria, both of which remained under French Mandate rule from the 1920s till the 1940s, were the first to be invaded by Egyptian cinema due to the culture, the many cinemas built there, and the many [Lebanese and Syrian] pioneers [of cinema]. Most importantly, both were cut off from foreign films after production in France came to a halt with the start of [World War II], and Egyptian cinema rushed in to take its place. Theaters mushroomed in cities, towns, and villages across Lebanon and Syria. Cinema became a lucrative business for everyone involved, to the degree that the value of Egyptian films rose, and any Egyptian production could expect to reap 25 percent of its profits from the Lebanese and Syrian markets.

In response to this booming artistic exchange, Egyptian film magazines began opening offices and hiring correspondents in Beirut. Publications such as Al Kawakib (Planets) and Al Ithnayn wa Al Dunniya
(Monday and the World) regularly covered entertainment news from Lebanon, usually related to the opening of some Egyptian film or a visit by an Egyptian celebrity. This exchange was furthered by the fact that most Lebanese investors in cinema put their money into Egyptian films. Thus a system of “advanced distribution” was built whereby Lebanese investors would pay for the rights to distribute the film in Beirut, Syria, or elsewhere. This arrangement was evidence of the distributors’ trust in the commercial success of the films they chose.

Forests of Desire and Sexual Awakening

As a result of these distribution deals, Egyptian filmmakers needed to take into consideration Lebanese audiences, as both consumers of their product and sources of revenue. Egyptian artists began flocking to Lebanon to sign contracts, pursue business, attend premieres of their films, and let loose and enjoy themselves as tourists in a country that embraced them with open arms.

Among the earliest Egyptian movies to emerge from this milieu was A Kiss in Lebanon (1945), written and directed by Ahmed Badrakhan and starring Madiha Yousry, Anwar Wajdi, and Mohammed Fawzi. The film is about a young aristocratic wife who travels by herself to Lebanon for vacation. While driving along a mountain road leading to the forest, she meets a young man whose car has broken down. It turns out they are staying at the same hotel, and their relationship blossoms under the spell of the enchanting natural surroundings, culminating in a passionate kiss one night in the woods. The woman flees the country the next morning.

The credits begin rolling against panoramas of mountains and forests as the Lebanese folk song “Ya Libnan Ma Ahlak” (“Oh How Beautiful You Are, Lebanon”) plays in the background. The credits end, and the word “Lebanon” appears on the screen like a signature certifying that the movie was indeed filmed on location. The film then quickly moves to the young wife’s return to Egypt, where she finds her husband about to engage in a passionate kiss with another woman. The film’s conclusion on marital infidelity appears to be that husbands must remain devoted and not let their wives go on vacation alone to Lebanon lest they fall victim to some romantic threat.

The Lebanese forest represents in this film all that is primitive, pristine, and instinctual, in contrast to the nightlife and social scene of urban Cairo, where infidelity is premeditated and where flirtation, as is the case for the husband’s lover, is a means of catching a husband. Rather than condemning the wife, the film gives her an excuse but at the same time warns against being drawn into an enchanted forest unprepared.

Safa Spring, or Paradise Lost

At the beginning of 1952, just weeks before the July Revolution that overthrew the Egyptian monarchy and with it the liberal lifestyle exemplified in A Kiss in Lebanon, the movie An Egyptian in Lebanon was released. Written and directed by the Egyptian-Italian Gianni Vernuccio and starring the Lebanese singer Nour Al Huda and the Egyptian actors Kamal El Shennawi and Lola Sadki, the film told the story of the brilliant Egyptian journalist Mohammad Al Taabaii.

Unlike Kiss, most of the events in An Egyptian take place in one of the tourist resorts built in the middle of the forests of Mount Lebanon, specifically Safa Spring (known locally as Nebaa Safa). The resort later made many appearances in the movies of the 1960s and 1970s, becoming the subject of a Farid Al Atrash song in Big Love (1968) and appearing in technicolor in My Life’s Song (1975).

An Egyptian is about a frivolous young Egyptian man who falls in love with a bewitching cabaret singer modeled on Rita Hayworth’s character in the American film Gilda. After the singer rejects him night after night, he decides to escape to Lebanon where he can forget about her.

As usual for this genre of Egyptian film, the movie sets the scene amid the majestic mountains of Lebanon and their narrow, snaking roads. Of course, the protagonist’s car cannot but break down, prompting him to ask his chauffeur to take him someplace “nice and quiet, with pools of water and beautiful trees.” When he finally arrives at Safa Spring, exhausted and disheveled, he is greeted by breathtaking vistas and birdsongs mingled with the intoxicating voice of Nour Al Huda coming from the wood, singing a song in praise of Lebanon: “Lubnan Ma Ajmalak” (“Lebanon, How Beautiful You Are”).

Al Huda was discovered by actor Youssef Wehbi during a visit to Beirut in 1941 and was one of many Lebanese singers to become a star of Egyptian cinema. Wehbi promised her a leading role in his film Jewel. The actress and singer became a huge success after that and was soon followed to Egypt by many Syrian and Lebanese artists, including Sabah, who was discovered in 1943 by Asia, a Lebanese producer living in Egypt. Other Lebanese artists to star in Egyptian films included Mohammad Salman, Nourhanne, Fayza Ahmed, and Farid Al Atrash as well as his sister Asmahan.

In An Egyptian, Lebanon appears as a forest representing natural simplicity and pristine innocence. These traits are also present in Nour Al Huda’s character, who falls in love with the young, educated, aristocratic Egyptian. He, in turn, prefers her to the glamorous, worldly cabaret singer he once loved. Vernuccio excels in filming the forest, springs, and mountain, capturing the sounds of nature and the simple details of daily life – transforming the setting into a sort of lost paradise that must have impressed audiences at the time.

An Egyptian was one of a wave of Egyptian films that helped create the archetypal image of Lebanon that was repeated in a number of later films. Many of these films attempted to expand on this superficiality for a wider Arab audience by invoking symbols of Arab nomadism. One example is the film The Bedouin Lover (1963), directed by the Egyptian Niazi Mustafa and starring the Lebanese singer Samira Tawfik, with Kamal El Shennawi playing a role similar to the one he played in An Egyptian. Thus, Lebanese actors, investors, and filmmakers actively contributed to the creation of this stereotypical image of the country and its promotion among a wider Arab audience. When Mohammad Salman returned to Lebanon in the early 1960s, he made a series of movies that all contained the word bedouin in the title, including A Bedouin in Paris (1964), A Bedouin in Rome (1965), and A Bedouin in Beirut (1972).

1970s Beirut: The Raucous Flesh

By the 1960s, a number of socialist-inspired laws had been enacted in Egypt, including the nationalization of many film production companies. Foreign investors, including Lebanese, fled the country. Similarly, many Egyptian filmmakers sought refuge in Beirut, where they resumed their work. Lebanon had recently gained independence and was ripe for investment. The capital, Beirut, became a modern, cosmopolitan city. Thus, from the 1960s till the early 1970s, the film industry witnessed unprecedented prosperity in Lebanon; both Egyptian and Lebanese productions flourished, and the line between Egyptian and Lebanese become blurred as joint-productions; drawing heavily on Egyptian talent and shooting on location in Lebanon, became a dominant trend.

However, Lebanon was no longer just virgin forest and pristine natural vistas. Beirut had transformed into a liberal city with a thriving nightlife imbued with the social movements of the 1970s and hippie culture. It was a city of cabarets, beach clubs, short skirts, and bikinis. This transformation was perhaps best captured in the Egyptian director Henry Barakat’s Big Love (1968), starring Faten Hamama and Farid Al Atrash.

The production was Lebanese in name only. Barakat, like many Egyptian filmmakers, moved in the early 1960s to Beirut, where he founded a production company that he registered as Lebanese. This spontaneous Egyptian-Lebanese duality, born of necessity and upheaval, found expression in Big Love. Most of those who worked on the movie were Egyptian. As in many films of that era, the Egyptian characters speak in their own accent, and the film offers no backstory explaining their presence in Beirut.

Big Love portrayed the modern face of Lebanon and Beirut in particular: the big Byblos department store where the female lead works; the luxurious cinemas surrounded by trendy boutiques; the nightlife; the elite clientele of the Jockey Club; the bustling streets of Beirut lined with fancy cars; the tourist restaurants in the mountains overlooking the city and surrounding forests; and, of course, the area of Safa Spring, which was no longer remote and isolated but humming with life, with its own Safa Spring Café and Great Safa Casino.

This renaissance of Egyptian cinema proved temporary, however, declining and finally dying with the collapse of the public sector in Egypt, the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser, and the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War in the mid 1970s. But the many films of that era clearly indicated a shift in how Egyptian filmmakers imagined Beirut and Lebanon. Although this image remained linked to enchantment, seduction, freedom, and romance, the liberalism of the 1970s was sweeping the whole world, and Lebanon and Egypt also embaced this sensuality to a certain degree, culminating in a series of films bordering on pornographic, including erotic comedy, such as The Greatest Child in the World (1974) and Mr. Ayoub (1975). The women of the silver screen were not only beautiful but sexy as well. Love scenes were more graphic, and nudity not uncommon. Thus the old image of Lebanon as a land of forest, sea, and mountain shifted, and the forest in particular became the site of exploration and sexual awakening. This change is apparent in the films The Best Days of My Life (1974) and The Tune of My Life (1975). The great divas of yesteryear were replaced by bombshells like the Lebanese Georgina Rizk, Miss Universe 1971, who broke out as an actress in The King and I (1975) and Bye-Bye Darling (1975), or Amal Ibrahim, the smoldering temptress who has figured in the fantasies of generations of adolescent boys across the Arab world.

The Lebanese Civil War and the End of Lebanese-Egyptian Cinema

Civil War Beirut appeared in just three Egyptian films, all of them released after the bloody conflict’s end in 1990. Naji Al Ali (1992), directed by Atef El Tayeb, tells the life story of the eponymous Palestinian cartoonist, who lived in Beirut and was assassinated in London in 1987, with warring Palestinian factions trading accusations of his murder. Mohammad Abu Seif’s A Hero from the South (2000) is about an Egyptian family that loses a son to the Sursock Souk explosion in the early years of the war. Gate of the Sun (2005), an adaptation of Lebanese writer Elias Khoury’s novel of the same name, was directed by Yusry Nasrallah. The story follows the Palestinian cause from the Nakba in 1948 till the final years of the Lebanese Civil War. None of these films relied on the stereotypical portayal of Lebanon. The new Lebanon, including its capital, was a place of nightmares. The enchanted wood of beauty and romance had faded or sickened and become a place of death, haunted by the ghosts of infighting, invasions, or wars raging in the shadows. Perhaps the decline in the number of Egyptian films set in Lebanon suggests an unconscious desire within Egyptian cinema to cling to the old image of Lebanon as a symbol of frivolity, optimism, and hope.

Translated by Meris Lutz

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ABOUT AUTHOR
 Essam Zakarea is a journalist and film critic based in Cairo. 

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