Counter-Narratives of the Military Figure in Literature, Film and Song
In connection with the selection of films discussed above, there were other ‘counter-narratives’ in literature, film and song that engaged a sharp and a more explicit critique of the military regime in the aftermath of the 1967 June War defeat. In this context, I analyse Naguib Mahfouz’s novella Al Karnak (Karnak Cafe) published in 1974, and made into a film in 1975. Both the novel and the film raised much debate in Egypt about the cruelty and corruption of the secret police and Intelligence apparatuses under Nasser. But I also question the differences in the storylines between the novella and the film, because these differences show a change of mood in the country in the aftermath of the October War victory in regards to the military figure’s image. Alongside Al Karnak, I also examine two significant films, Shafiqa wa Mitwalli (Shafiqa and Mitwalli) directed by Ali Badrakhan in 1978, and Wara’a al-Shams (Beyond the Sun) directed by Mohammed Rady also in 1978, which articulated a counter-image of the military hero. At the end of this section, I briefly consider a selection of poems and songs produced by the popular duo poet Ahmed Fouad Negm and singer Sheikh Imam which reflected a harsh attack on the regime right after the 1967 June defeat.
In contrast to the sympathetic outlook of the war soldier in A Song along the Passageway, and the portrait of Nasser as the beloved leader in The Sparrow, Naguib Mahfouz’s novella, Al Karnak,2 written in 1971 and published in 1974, directs a strong critique against the corruption and brutality of the Intelligence and secret police apparatuses under the Nasser regime. We know that the figures who were in control of the Intelligence Service, such as Salah Nasr and Shams Badran, were military men and close aides to Nasser’s Revolutionary Command Council. Thus, Mahfouz’s novella portrays another dimension of martyrdom: those men and women who were tortured to death in the military prisons of the Nasserite state, particularly in the years leading up to the 1967 June War. The writer here suggests that such a corrupt network of officials, who killed, raped and tortured so many young people who in fact were ‘the children of the Revolution’, could have never won a war with such a strong and heavily armed enemy as Israel.
The title ‘al-Karnak’ is the name of a coffeehouse (qahwa) which is situated in downtown Cairo, where we meet all the characters. The novella is divided into four parts, each carrying the name of one of the main charac?ters. The first part entitled ‘Qurunfela’ is the coffeehouse’s owner’s name, as the anonymous narrator tells us. The narrator has come across the coffeehouse by mere chance, and when he enters and identifies Qurunfela, who used to be a famous belly-dancer in the 1940s, he likes the place and decides to frequent it. The novella’s events begin around the year 1965, as the narrator reveals to us details about the customers who come from different age and educational backgrounds. There is the older generation, a group of retired men who frequent the coffeehouse and have befriended Qurunfela; and there is the younger generation, a group of students who also frequent the coffeehouse and enliven the place with their discussions and unconventional ideas. Amongst them are the protagonists Hilmi Hamada, Ismail al-Sheikh and Zeinab Diab. The latter two seem to be in a love relationship, as the narrator reflects. We later learn that Ismail and Zeinab come from the same neighbourhood, the working-class al- Husseiniyya quarter, and they grew up together and were intending to get married. They both struggled to get into university as their families worked hard to give them this opportunity in the era of Nasser’s ‘new’ Egypt. Even though the characters we meet at al-Karnak are different from one another, the narrator reveals that they all support the revolution. He refers to the students as ‘the children of the Revolution’ (Al Karnak, p. 12). We also learn that Qurunfela is in love with one of the youths, Hilmi, although he is much younger than her.
The narrator is charmed by the place and starts to spend time in it on a daily basis. He develops an insight into its dynamics and befriends the other customers, and more importantly Qurunfela. The reader is exposed to many details about the characters through the narrator’s lens and his conversations with the main characters. But things begin to take a sharp turn when all of a sudden the students disappear for weeks and they stop coming to the coffeehouse. Qurunfela, together with the narrator, are unable to find an explanation for their absence except when some of the customers start talking about the wide arrests of many students. But the narrator says in response that those students who frequent the coffeehouse are strong supporters of the revolution, so why would they be arrested? Qurunfela falls to pieces, worrying about her lover, Hilmi. However, the students return after a few weeks, but they do not respond to the many questions which the other customers ask about their disappearance. They joke about it and say that they were on a ‘picnic’ (nozha) (p. 22); but one name is repeated in their conversations: Khalid Safwan. Everyone in the cafe knows this name; he is a high-ranking officer in the Intelligence
Service (al-mukhabarat). Despite the ambiguity surrounding the reasons behind the students’ disappearance, the narrator tells us that the cafe regained its energetic spirit after they all reappeared, but everyone became cautious in their debates about politics.
Then, the students disappear again, but this time everyone in the cafe is shocked and worried about what might happen to them in the detention cells. The narrator ponders how the regime claims to excel in many spheres, industry, military and politics, but when it comes to the basic rights of human beings who live in the country, ‘they are crushed like a mosquito, with no dignity or protection’ (p. 29). With the prolonged absence of the students, both Qurunfela and the narrator feel that the place has grown ‘unbearable’. However, the students come back, but this time they are far more subdued and confused. And then they disappear once again for the third time within two years. The narrator conveys to us that during this third absence the war erupts. It is June 1967 and the whole country is in turmoil. No one knows what has happened to the students. Political debates take centre stage at the cafe about the war defeat and its consequences on Egypt as well as on the whole Arab world. The atmosphere grows bleak and ambiguous.
After the war, the students reappear at the cafe, but without Hilmi, who is believed to have been tortured to death in detention. However, we also learn that Khalid Safwan has been arrested and will stand trial (thus mirroring the real Salah Nasr). No details are given at this stage in the narrative, but the narrator concludes the first part by saying that his friendship grew over time with Ismail al-Sheikh and Zeinab Diab, and they both reveal to him the missing details about their relationship and their imprisonment. The following three parts are entitled ‘Ismail al-Sheikh’, ‘Zeinab Diab’ and ‘Khalid Safwan’. Through conversations between the narrator and the two students, Mahfouz here exposes the horrors of political detention under Nasser’s regime, and the irreversible physical and psychological damage which this entailed. Zeinab Diab was raped while in prison, and was forced to be an informer for the secret police, thinking that she was protecting Ismail. She did not know that Ismail was also exposed to much torture after being accused first of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood organisation and then to the communists, and became an informer under duress. Zeinab later realises that by informing Khalid Safwan about Hilmi and his political activities as a communist, she took part in his killing. Both Zeinab and Ismail come out of prison broken and defeated, symbolising the defeated nation after the war. She tells Ismail: ‘I am a person without a name and without an identity’ (p. 69). They have lost their innocence, as well as their belief in the revolution altogether. Yet, Nasser did not lose popular support after 1967, and we learn from the conversations between the narrator and Ismail on the one hand, and with Zeinab on the other, that they all went out onto the streets in support of Nasser after his resignation speech on 9 June 1967 (similar to Bahiyya and her friends in the concluding scenes of Chahine’s The Sparrow).
In the last short chapter entitled ‘Khalid Safwan’, the narrator conveys to us the atmosphere at the cafe in the few years following the 1967 defeat. The customers are preoccupied with one primary theme: when will the next war erupt with the enemy? The narrator says that their discussions have focused on this topic over and again, until one day everyone is bewildered by the appearance of Khalid Safwan himself at the cafe. It was Ismail who first identified him. Safwan appears after spending three years in prison and the confiscation of his property. He appears as a pale, sick man, yet he makes his voice heard to the customers. When he sees Ismail and Zeinab, he says in an ironic tone: ‘We reunite in a place with the worst of memories. [...] We are all criminals and victims at the same time’ (pp. 106-107). But Qurunfela responds sharply: ‘The criminal is one individual, and the victim is another’ (p. 107). Safwan reappears at the cafe a few times, and in his last visit he shares with the other characters what he has learned from his position as a powerful man in the ruling elite: he no longer believes in dictatorship and despotism or violence; and he now believes in scientific progress based on respecting people’s rights (pp. 112-113). He declares before leaving the cafe for the last time: ‘This is the philosophy of Khalid Safwan which he learned in the depth of hell’ (p. 113). With Safwan’s departure from the scene, Mahfouz concludes his novella with the appearance of a new young member at the cafe, Mounir, whom the narrator feels represents a ray of hope in the long bleak tunnel the country has been in.
Mahfouz here uses al-Karnak cafe as an urban setting to reflect on the state of political instability, confusion and violence which the country was entangled in before and after the June defeat in 1967. While commenting on the novella, Trevor LeGassick (1977) considers al-Karnak cafe as a metaphor for Egypt at the time (p. 211). He observes that the novella’s ‘graphic portrayal of the excesses of the repressive machinery of Nasir’s police state was a shocking revelation to many Egyptians’ (p. 212). In my view, by giving voice to a military figure, Khalid Safwan, who was clearly part of the ruling junta and responsible for many of the crimes commit?ted against young people and opposition figures, Mahfouz shows that the past must be confronted despite the pain involved in the process of selfcritique. There is a subtle suggestion that no country can move forward without looking its defeat in the eye and learning from an era of dictatorship rule. By situating Khalid Safwan as one of the arms of the authoritarian state, whilst revealing his absolute despotism, and then later on as an insignificant, broken figure, Mahfouz is condemning a whole class of dictators and depicting their downfall. Yet, they are still to be brought to justice for all the crimes they have committed.
Roger Allen (1977) considers Al Karnak as a ‘political document’, where Mahfouz ‘uses the format of the novel to express certain political realities and to explore the possibilities for the future. More specifically, his frank treatment of the subject of the torture of political prisoners in the 1960s reflects the changing attitudes in Egypt after the death of Abd al-Nasir and the beginning of the Sadat regime’ (p. 107). Allen is correct in pointing out that Mahfouz resorted to a similar format in Al Karnak as in Miramar, his famous novel which came out in 1967. In these two novels, Mahfouz uses a certain urban setting to bring together all his characters whilst reflecting on their newly formed relationships, ideas, attitudes and insights into what was happening in the country at the time. By following their trajectories through critique and commentary, Mahfouz is able to dissect social and gender relations before and after the 1967 June War. Whereas Al Karnak uses the coffeehouse as the central place where we learn about the characters, Miramar uses a small guesthouse in Alexandria named ‘Miramar’ as the main setting. Furthermore, in his novel Tharthara fawqa al-Nil (Adrift on the Nile), published in 1966, Mahfouz uses a boat by the Nile in Cairo to bring together his characters, who all come from the urban middle class, whilst delving into social commentary about their lives and choices. In these three novels, it seems that Mahfouz has a preference for this literary form by focusing on one place as a microcosm for a particular class or even for the country as a whole. Interestingly, these three novels (amongst others by Mahfouz) were made into films which acquired wide popularity. Of course, we also need to remember that Mahfouz, ironically, was in charge of several influential positions in the world of cinema in the 1960s. For example, he was at various times in charge of the censorship department and of the film fund, and worked for the ministry of culture as a consultant for cinema for many years (quoted in Shafik 2007a, p. 133).
When Al Karnak film came out in 1975, the differences in the storylines between the novella and the film were notable. The film was directed by Ali Badrakhan and used star actors: So‘ad Hosni (as Zeinab Diab), Nour al-Sharif (as Ismail al-Sheikh), Shouikar (as Qurunfela), and Kamal al-Shinnawi (as Khalid Safwan). It is a well-known story that when the film was released, Salah Nasr (the famous director of the Intelligence Service under Nasser) sued both Mahfouz and the film producer (al-Leithi Film) claiming that the representation of Khalid Safwan was indeed of himself (Allen 1977, p. 110). Allen also reminds us of Salah Jaheen’s cartoon which was published in al-Ahram newspaper on 9 January 1976, and ‘showed a film producer asking the secretary of a company called “The Salah Nasr Company for Film Propaganda” whether Salah Nasr would do some advertising for a film of his!!’ (p. 110). In other words, it was quite obvious in the film that Khalid Safwan was a cinematic portrait of Salah Nasr.
However, while the novella voices a strong indictment of the violations of citizens’ rights by the Intelligence and secret police apparatuses under Nasser, the film does not stop at this representation but expands the story to show a clear support for the Sadat regime in the aftermath of the 6 October 1973 War. The opening of the film diverts completely from the novella, as it begins with an announcement on the radio of the October War victory and the crossing of the Suez Canal. We see the characters at al-Karnak cafe gathered around the radio listening to a voiceover making the announcement, with documentary footage of the Egyptian soldiers destroying the Bar Lev line sand wall, while the air force shelters them. We also hear a famous nationalistic song in the background. In this first opening scene, we also see Ismail al-Sheikh sitting at the cafe on his own, lost and broken, but once he hears about the victory he immediately gets up and leaves the cafe. The next scene shows Ismail approaching the university hospital where he used to study and work, hoping to volunteer to treat the wounded of the war. He accidentally sees Zeinab, who had moved on and became a doctor after her graduation from medical school. Ismail is refused entry, but Zeinab convinces the hospital’s director to permit him to join in. After the opening credits, the film goes back in time to follow the story of Zeinab and Ismail from the start, as we have read it in the novella, except that the film situates them in the medical school preparing to become doctors (which constitutes another difference from the novella). The film focuses on the trajectory of the three students, Hilmi, Zeinab and Ismail, whilst showing graphic scenes of the extreme torture, rape and killings which they were subjected to in the military prisons of the Nasserite state, thus magnifying visually the oppressive details which we have read in the novella.
But while the novella concludes with open-ended uncertainty about the future of the country and the main characters, the film closes on the new ‘hope’ which the October War victory has brought to the country. We see clear support for the 15 May 1971 ‘Corrective Revolution’ or thawrat al-tasHih, a term coined by the Sadat regime to signify a new approach for correcting the wrongdoing of the previous regime. We see in the film that Ismail, together with the other political detainees, is pardoned and released from prison as a result of the new measures of 15 May 1971, whereas in the novella they are released just after the 1967 War defeat. Furthermore, we see Hilmi’s death in the film coinciding visually with the war defeat, thus emphasising a direct relationship between the failure of the state in protecting its citizens’ rights and the military defeat. The scene of Hilmi’s death intersecting with the death of soldiers in the war adds another layer of meaning to the image of the martyrs: they are those who sacrificed their lives for the nation whether on the battlefield or as a result of torture in detention cells. In this way, by portraying the 1973 War victory as symbolic of a new era and new hope, we see once again how the content of one of Mahfouz’s works was changed when adapted to cinema in order to fit in with the current political situation and show support for the new regime. The film gained much popularity after its release, mainly because it was one of the first films to represent visually the crimes which were committed by the Intelligence and secret police apparatuses under Nasser, and because the state’s propaganda machine aimed at further popularising the war victory through the cinematic medium.
Similar to the theme of Al Karnak and its treatment of the issue of torture and unlawful detention, particularly of university students, under Nasser’s regime, director Mohammed Rady’s film Wara’a al-Shams (Beyond the Sun), released in 1978, came as a direct attack on the severe corruption within the military establishment itself, thus exposing its total responsibility for the 1967 June defeat. The film aimed to dissect the reasons for the defeat by portraying the crimes that the secret police and the Intelligence apparatuses committed against university students and professors who were demanding an investigation into these reasons. We follow the brutal torture methods which a group of students and their professor are subjected to in the military prison at the hands of ruthless military figures. By focusing on the military prison as the space where civilians
(rather than military figures) from all walks of life were locked up, tortured and killed for simply voicing their views about the June War defeat, the film indicts the whole Nasserite regime and insists on the responsibility of those military figures for the atrocious crimes they committed against human rights.
Another noteworthy film which came to disturb the public image of the military figure in an allegorical way was Ali Badrakhan’s Shafiqa wa Mitwalli (Shafiqa and Mitwalli), released in 1978. The film was the production of Youssef Chahine’s company Egypt International Films. The story was written by Ahmed Shawqi Abdel Hakim, and the script and dialogue by Salah Jaheen. Jaheen also wrote the songs’ lyrics for the film, and he is the narrator of the story through a voiceover.3 The film turns upside down and complicates (visually) an allegorical story of a sister and a brother, Shafiqa and Mitwalli, who come from the village of Girga in Sohag (south of Egypt). The story is sung as a popular folksong by Hifni Ahmed Hassan (who sings it in a raidi or Upper Egyptian dialect) and tells of the courageous brother Mitwalli in times gone by who kills his sister Shafiqa after finding out that she became a prostitute after he left home to be recruited as a conscript in the army. The song in fact celebrates Mitwalli as someone who avenged his honour, and even after he was arrested and put to trial, the judge praises him for his courage and sentences him to only six months, which Mitwalli spends in a military camp. In this way, Mitwalli does not spend any of his term in prison, as he is not perceived as a criminal. Thus, the song comes as an indictment of the woman and in praise of the man who kept the family’s honour intact.
Badrakhan’s film, however, turns this story upside down in order to complicate gender, class, and political issues and relationships. The film’s events take place in the second half of the nineteenth century during the time of the construction of the Suez Canal, hence situating the story within national parameters. The story opens with Turkish soldiers in their uniform and full force (al-‘askar or al-ghuzz,4 as referred to by the villagers) riding on their horses and arriving at the village where Shafiqa and Mitwalli live, in order to take by force all the capable young men and send them to the Canal Zone. Shafiqa tries hard to warn Mitwalli and persuade him to hide away as he is the sole breadwinner after both their parents passed away, leaving behind their old disabled grandfather as the only survivor of this small, abandoned family. But Mitwalli feels ashamed to hide, and hence he is taken away by the Turkish soldiers, along with all the young men of the village, except for the mayor’s son Diab. As
Mitwalli departs, Shafiqa and the old grandfather feel totally devastated, miserable and vulnerable. How is Shafiqa going to provide for herself and her grandfather, while they live in dire poverty with no family or government support?
After Mitwalli’s departure, the film juxtaposes the trajectory of Shafiqa to that of her brother as they lead their separate lives: Shafiqa is taken advantage of by the mayor’s son, raped and then falls into the trap of prostitution and becomes the mistress of a rich businessman, al-Tarabeeshy. We discover later in the film that al-Tarabeeshy is part of the corrupt clique who ‘sell’ young men as slaves to the military authorities to exploit them as conscripts in the army or in digging the Canal. These young men, like Mitwalli, die in their thousands of thirst, hunger, disease and torture. However, Mitwalli is lucky to survive, as he is recruited into the army rather than continuing to serve in the Canal Zone. So, as we see the rising awareness of Mitwalli as an army conscript who gets to learn gradually about the political situation of the country and within the military establishment, we witness Shafiqa’s downfall and eventual murder by al- Tarabeeshy’s aides. She became aware of his secretive operations of enslaving people and his connections as an agent to the Khedive, hence she had to die. As Mitwalli was returning to his village after hearing the news of his sister’s downfall into prostitution and his plan to kill her to avenge his honour, and as the brother and sister approach each other after many years of being apart, Shafiqa is shot dead in front of Mitwalli’s eyes.
The roles of Shafiqa and Mitwalli were played by the two star actors So‘ad Hosni and Ahmed Zaki. They added to the film’s success and popularity through their inspirational acting, together with veteran actors Ahmed Mazhar as al-Tarabeeshy and Gamil Rateb as the Khedive. There are iconic scenes and sequences in this film which make it one of the most significant films in the history of Egyptian cinema, especially in terms of visual effects, colours, costumes and music—for example, the sequence when So‘ad Hosni sings the revealing song ‘Banou’ (Show your Real Selves) and dances to its music. The song’s lyrics, written by Salah Jaheen, came to condemn not only al-Tarabeeshy, the Khedive, and their whole class of despots and thieves, but also the symbolic indictment of any corrupt ruler who exploits and oppresses the people (al-sha‘b). The song is truly timeless, and is indeed the climax of the film, as we see Shafiqa afterwards deciding to go back to her village to wait for her brother Mitwalli. She says that ‘there is an account that needs to be settled between us’, meaning that Mitwalli will certainly want to avenge his honour.
It can be argued that the film and the song are the aesthetic representation of what was covered earlier in the Introduction to this book about the continued exploitation of poverty-stricken Egyptian men in Mohammad Ali’s army and then on the hands of the later Ottoman officers. We see in the film, for instance, as Khaled Fahmy wrote in his book All the Pasha’s Men (2002), how one young man cuts his finger in order to be exempted from the army. The film is an allegory for times of extreme poverty, oppression, the loss of honour and dignity, and death, which could also be perceived as a metaphorical representation of the Egyptian state at the time, when millions of Egyptians rioted on 18 and 19 January 1977 to oppose Sadat’s policies of lifting the state subsidy on basic foodstuff. These famous riots came to be known as the ‘Bread Uprising’ when the Sadat regime sent the army to quell the demonstrations whilst killing and arresting hundreds of protesters across Egypt. The film could also be interpreted in the context of Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem in 1977, which was condemned by many artists and writers and perceived as the ‘loss’ of Egypt’s honour and dignity in relation to its enemy, Israel.
Moving on to the music realm, I would like to address briefly a selection of poems and songs produced by the popular duo poet Ahmed Fouad Negm and singer Sheikh Imam in condemnation of the June War defeat. Poet Ahmed Fouad Negm, who wrote satirical poetry in the vernacular, and his friend singer Sheikh Imam, who sang a large collection of Negm’s poems, were rising to prominence as a duo in the late 1960s as part of the leftist movement amongst workers, students and artists.5 Their pioneering experience in the ‘political song’ stems from their ability to incorporate popular motifs and symbols which are taken from the daily lives of ordinary Egyptians, in order to compose a specific political message through each poem. Popular and folkloric tales, expressions, sketches, images and symbols permeate Negm’s poetry, sung by Imam,in a way that aimed to ‘dramatise’ these various motifs to make their message clear, ironic, humorous and like a ‘bullet’ when it hits their opponents. Their repertoire of songs belongs to resistance and protest music.
Immediately after the 1967 June defeat, Negm wrote his famous poem ‘Wah ya Abdel Wadoud’ (Oh Abdel Wadoud) prompting the young military conscript to stay steadfast and never to abandon his weapon and military position. Abdel Wadoud, who could be any Egyptian male conscript joining the army from remote rural areas, must remain hopeful and brave, as the battle with the enemy was not yet over. The poem was composed and sung by Sheikh Imam using an Upper Egyptian accent to dramatise the situation. This song was followed by another important one entitled ‘Baqaret Haha’ (Haha’s Cow). In his memoirs, Negm referred to this poem as ‘the first response to the defeat’ (as quoted in Eissa 2000, p. 19). In it, Egypt is represented metaphorically as ‘Haha’s cow’, a popular expression used in many Egyptian villages to refer to the vicious circle the cow follows while being blindfolded in the field. Haha’s cow in Negm’s poem is being completely emptied of its milk (or its resources) by the corrupt politicians and the foreign thieves. The lyrics acquired much popularity after it was sung by Sheikh Imam and Negm, together with their group of friends. These two songs by Negm and Imam were among many others which were sung every day by the protesters on Tahrir Square during the first 18 days of the 2011 January Revolution. Negm himself, by then a very old man, came to Tahrir to take part in the protests and to witness the revolution which he had imagined and articulated in much of his poetry for many years.6
Negm’s next poem, condemning the full extent of the June defeat, was a significant one because in it he attacked the figure of Nasser himself (in a metaphorical way) and referred to him as ‘Abdel Gabbar’, both a name and an adjective meaning someone who is tyrannical (also ‘powerful’ in a different context). The poem is entitled ‘Alhamdulillah Khabbatna taHt Batatna’.7 The song was banned as its lyrics clearly condemn Nasser as the one responsible for the defeat. The lyrics are sung with an ironic tone by Sheikh Imam, where he mocks the leaders who live a life of luxury while their people are left to suffer defeat and humiliation.
Negm and Imam were indeed working against the grain, in stark contrast to the nationalist approach of Abdel Halim Hafez (amongst others) in song. The two musical experiences could not be more different in content, aesthetic form and outlook. While Hafez rose as the star singer of the regime during the Nasserist era, Negm and Imam were imprisoned in 1969 as a result of their harsh criticism of the same regime. They were acquitted when Sadat came to power, only to be repeatedly imprisoned during his reign due to their famous poems and songs against him personally as well as against his policies. They were finally released from prison after Sadat’s assassination in 1981.
In sum, the 1967 June War defeat had enormous and long-lasting implications on the Egyptian cultural field. The country witnessed the production of groundbreaking and innovative works in almost all artistic genres, aiming to interpret and reflect on such a crushing and humiliating defeat. The military figure, who was revered and held in high esteem by the population, as we have seen in the previous chapter, came to be criticised and even condemned in a number of popular works of literature, film and song. This picture, however, was reversed with the 1973 October War victory.