Conclusion: “What Happened Next?”
Modern history has been in vogue in Egypt for the past few years, fueled in large part by Mahfuz ‘Abd al-Rahman, Usama Anwar ‘Ukasha, and other prominent scriptwriters who have penned historical dramas for television that attract wide audiences and have been extended over several seasons. The nineteenth century and prerevolutionary era of pashas and nationalist struggle are particular favorites. Their influence has recently rolled over from the little to the big screen, although with much less panache or success. Consequently, the tarboosh, Farouk and Queen Farida, and Ismail, have become popular images on T-shirts, in window displays of upscale shops, in television commercials geared toward young professionals, even in traditional “fast-food” eateries. The popularity of such items and images reinforces notions of creative rather than passive consumption, and should give those of us who read these melodramas as text cause to reconsider how their audiences in fact imagine them (Ang 1985; Armbrust 1996). Still, Nasser 56, because its subject is so recent, in the living or at least public memory of so many Egyptians, and because of its immediate political subject, is more serious business.
Demographics, the passing of the old-regime generation, the rise to prominence of the generations that lived and were shaped by Nasserism, and “serious matters in the present” point Egyptians ever more in the direction of Nasser and his era. The foundations of a resurgent nostalgia are a complex construct of political cynicism, uneven development, glaring social inequities, unfulfilled material expectations, and the vise of radical Islamist and state violence. Amid all this Egyptians are confronted daily with an alternative vision. Radio and television remain dominated by the cultural production of what was by all accounts a golden age of artistry. The songs, concert and comedy stage clips, and movies that captivated a generation still work their charms amid all that is new. Young boys in the street still croon ‘Abd al-Halim Hafiz songs (Gordon 1997a), and teenage girls still fall for Rushdi Abaza’s Egyptian-Italian eyes. If their loyalties are divided and distracted by younger—and foreign—stars, they still recognize the genuine national-cultural articles for what they are.
Historical memory among Egyptian youths is short. When Port Said (Dhulfiqar 1957a), a propaganda film about the Suez War, aired in June 1996—on the anniversary of Evacuation Day—the newspaper movie listing explained the historical context as if describing an event much longer past. That was several months before Nasser 56 hit the theaters. Now the Nasser generation is reliving the period, rediscovering nationalist anthems that stirred their youth. “We have waited forty years for this film,” wrote one reviewer. “And because we waited so long, I found myself sitting in anticipation, my eyes, ears, and heart tuned in anticipation” (al-Ghayti 1995a). And a younger generation is asking their parents about the period. The filmmaker Yusuf Francis (who has recently directed a historical film about Howard Carter) sat near an eight-year-old boy at an evening screening who pressed his father for details, then turned to him after the film ended to ask, “What happened next?” Egyptians in their twenties and early thirties are no less curious.
The popular response to Nasser 56 has taken all involved by surprise. State officials have been quick to reassert their positive role in its production, notwithstanding the obvious irony of a state-funded film glorifying nationalization in the age of privatization and championing a charismatic, idolized ruler in an era of political malaise. The most cynical observers still fear the film may never make it to television, that “like many political films that the film industry has produced, it will be locked away in a can after ending its run in Egyptian theaters” (Khalil 1996). For the true believers, the Nasserist faithful, Ahmad Zaki has thrown a little water on the fire, reasserting his desire to now play his other hero, Anwar Sadat. And Mahfuz ‘Abd al-Rahman has provoked unease in various circles by evincing a willingness to accept the challenge, put forth by critics who accuse him of taking the easy road via Suez, to pen Nasser 67 as a sequel (al-Hakim 1995).
Other contemporary history projects are in the works. ‘Abd al-Rahman has been scripting a serial about Umm Kulthum, and Zaki says he intends to film the life of ‘Abd al-Halim Hafiz. With the silver anniversary of the October 1973 war approaching, the Egyptian defense ministry announced its willingness to support—with guns, manpower, technical expertise, and financial aid—a silver screening of “the crossing” (al-‘ubur). However, a controversy over who should script the film has held up preproduction. In the Manichaean intellectual world of Nasserists and Sadatists, the leading candidate, Usama Anwar ‘Ukasha, is considered to be the former, and this is deemed unacceptable by the latter. ‘Ukasha retorts that his script will feature not the commander but the common soldier. This fails to appease his critics, who well sense the implicit barb. The Defense Ministry has announced its unhappiness with several draft scripts, implying a threat to withdraw support.
For the time being Nasser and Suez serve as springboards for the rediscovery and rescripting of an era that so far defies official ossification. On the heels of its Egyptian success Nasser 56 has played to audiences outside Egypt. The first screening scheduled was a single screening in Paris in June 1996 before the Egyptian opening. Shortly after its Egyptian premiere the film played to great acclaim in Gaza and the West Bank. The film has since shown in several cities in the United States—“The Arab film event of the year”—and is currently available on video with English subtitles. To non-Egyptian Arabs and to Arab diaspora communities the film undoubtedly conveys other particular meanings, addressing Nasser’s legacy in a broader Arab context.Nasser 56 may be a flash in the pan; some certainly hope this will be the case. Conversely, it may become the Revolution Day television matinee, which, if it displaced the classics, would be a shame. Within Egypt the film clearly does speak to “serious matters of the present,” and it may well inspire, or perhaps become—if it is allowed to be—the monument to Nasser that never was.