Like most couples, we often argue about what to watch on television. Recently however, we quickly agreed to watch Alexandria, Why?, the first part of a semi-autobiographical trilogy produced between 1978-89 by the renowned director Youssef Chahine. It happened to be streaming on Netflix much to our great joy and surprise. My husband was born in Alexandria so for him, it was a trip down a fictional memory lane. He took great pleasure in pointing out the significance of the different places he remembered from his summers during his childhood.
The film is a drama that unfolds during the chaos of World War II when the Germans were at Alamein, advancing towards Alexandria. The story centers around a teenage boy named Yehia (Chahine’s alter ego) who is in his finally year at Victoria College, a British school set up by the 1st Earl of Cromer to produce a class of upper-class graduates steeped in secular imperial values. The list of students included the scions of the local and regional ruling classes as well as the likes of actor Omar Sharif, the intellectual Edward Said and tycoon Adnan Khashoggi. In addition to members of the Egyptian, Jordanian and Iraqi royal houses, the war period also saw a host of Romanovs, Saxe-Coburgs, Hohenzollerns, Zogos and Glucksburgs.
Yehia – like Chahine of more modest means than his classmates and of Lebanese and Greek ancestry – spends his free time going to the cinema to watch Hollywood movies over and over. He escapes the reality of his circumstances, dreaming of becoming a famous actor, much to the chagrin of his father who would prefer him to become an engineer and avoiding his own predicament as a failed lawyer. As surreal as the film is at times, it presents a real slice of life at that time, and takes a daringly liberal approach in addressing subjects such as homosexuality, prostitution and inter-faith romance between a wealthy young Jewish woman and a young Muslim that leads to a child out of wedlock, all generally taboo subjects in Arab cinema.
Alexandria in the 40s was a cosmopolitan city in the midst of both a world war and an anti-colonial struggle. The wealthy pashas and foreigners were allied with the monarchy and the British, the middle classes and proletariat tended to be revolutionary
Alexandria in the 1940s was a cosmopolitan city in the midst of both a world war and an anti-colonial struggle. The class system was almost immutable. The wealthy pashas and foreigners were typically allied with the monarchy and by association the British, while the lower middle classes and proletariat tended to be more revolutionary. Workers In their bleu de travail are forming unions and fighting for higher wages. Yehia’s lower middle-class family, struggles to cling onto their way of life and are suffering financially due to his father’s professional failures. In one scene, we watch their furniture being carted away by pawn brokers, a reminder of the sacrifices they have made to educate their son at his school.
As in most places in wartime, bars and houses of ill repute prosper. Alcohol flows, and a general sense of doom hangs over the city as people enjoy their last dance. Changes are coming.
Chahine’s cinematography is surreally anachronistic. He portrays a fetishized Alexandria with aspects of its beauty and ugliness magnified depending on through whose eyes things are seen. Old war footage is interspersed between love scenes and dance numbers. Yehia has flashbacks of his childhood when he accidentally burns a tiny wooden statue of the baby Jesus, which is viewed as an omen of bad luck which is manifested in the death of an older brother who was the family’s golden child. This explains his internal struggles resisting his father’s wishes to have him fill his late brother’s shoes.
Prerevolutionary Alexandria – like Lebanon in the 60’s and 70’s – harbored and cherished all ethnicities. One of the main characters Sara – played by a young Naglaa Fathy – is Jewish and in love with the aforementioned Muslim revolutionary from the wrong side of the tracks. As British colonial power appeared to be waning with the Germans sweeping eastwards across North Africa her father decides to flee to South Africa but also contemplates a more permanent move to Palestine, where the Zionists are beginning their dream of creating a Jewish state.
Today, we are all in the midst of a worldwide struggle for democracy. Social inequalities are escalating. Throw in an undiscriminating virus and a confused and ill-qualified leadership steering us blindly into chaos, and the outlook isn’t rosy
While social classes and allegiances collide in the midst of a power shift, Yehia never abandons his dream of becoming an actor. The promise of a place at the Pasadena Playhouse (a suggestion made to him by an American woman who sees him perform) with a full scholarship remain his only objective during these turbulent times. To him revolution and war are simply background music to his personal aspirations. The film is about a dying way of life. It also shines a light on the hazy question of national identity as well as on the struggle of everyday Egyptians, all of whom, great and small, rich and poor, Muslim, Christians or Jewish, live in some kind of pain. For Yehia/Chahine, Hollywood and the movies will release him from this inevitable cycle of suffering.
Today, we are all in the midst of a worldwide struggle for democracy. Social inequalities are escalating. Throw in an undiscriminating virus and a confused and ill-qualified leadership steering us blindly into chaos, and the outlook isn’t rosy. We are arguing about wearing masks which is a necessary veil to protect society. I wonder what Youssef Chahine would make of Alexandria and the rest of the world if he were alive and working today. I welcome your answers as I’m in a state of bewilderment.