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Dialogues artistiques avec les passés de l'Égypte

Mercedes Volait
Emmanuelle Perrin

Fortunes plastiques et politiques de l'art des Anciens Égyptiens

The Cinema of the Pharaohs: Film, Archeology, and Sub-Imperialism

Walid El Khachab

Texte intégral

  • 1  Khaled Fahmy, keynote address at the conference “L’Égypte en ses miroirs,” Paris, Institut nationa (...)

1Khaled Fahmy’s Foucauldian analysis of certain nineteenth-century Egyptian practices based on archival material introduces a rather original notion to modernity studies focused on the encounters between the West and the Arab world: the absence of any sense of an emotional claim to an identity, of any identity crisis among ordinary people in their dealings with the institutions and practices of modernity. Therefore, one may wonder whether this notion of anguish vis-à-vis modernity, or “qalaq” (Constantin Zreiq, Tewfik El Hakim), was the expression of a predicament experienced only by elites and intellectuals.1

  • 2  Jacques Berque, Égypte : impérialisme et révolution, Paris: Gallimard, 1967.

2This anxiety, which compels intellectuals and laypeople alike to return to “safe values” (valeurs refuges)—to use an expression coined by Jacques Berque2—haunts Egyptian cinema. One could write of a return to “safe figures” when one examines the production of certain figures in that cinema, such as the Bedouin, the Sheikh, the ancient Egyptian, the modern officer, and others.

  • 3  Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Lond (...)

3Since Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, it is widely admitted that the production of nationalism as an image of self—as a nationalist imago or, in other words, the production of a national subjectivity—is achieved through certain practices used to construct an imagined community, i.e. a particular image of that community. For instance, having tea at 5:00 pm is part of the performance of belonging to the British Empire.3 These “identitarian” practices are sometimes articulated around what I have called elsewhere “figures of subjectification,” i.e. figures or constructs through which or against which subjectivity is produced. In cinema, figures of the Bedouin and the ancient Egyptian have acted respectively as anchors for the production of an Arab-oriented or Egyptianist-oriented national subjectivity. However, the production of a national self-image with the help of figures of subjectification, particularly that of the ancient Egyptian, is often an indication of a malaise vis-à-vis modernity and its identity politics, an unease that is probably experienced more strongly by intellectuals and artists, including filmmakers, than by laypeople.

4In that sense, “practicing” Ancient Egypt in film is part and parcel of an effort aimed at producing a (national) subject with pharaonic characteristics: enigmatic like the Sphinx, grandiose like the Memnon statues, serene like a funerary mask, or all of the above. I use the expression “cinema of the pharaohs” to refer to this practice, i.e. the representation of Ancient Egypt or the filming of ancient Egyptian architecture and artifacts or anachronic characters in Egyptian movies.

5In this chapter, my approach to the cinematic presence of the ancient Egyptian cultural paradigm is framed by the following four considerations. I argue that any thorough study of that paradigm in cinema needs to carefully address these four points:

  • To reflect on certain aspects of the agency of the pharaonic reference within the production of a national Egyptian subjectivity in cinema. This reference acts both as an anchor for an image of the national self and as an implied alibi for (sub-)imperial attitudes toward otherness.

  • To interpret a striking trait in Egyptian cinema: the small number of films where the representation of, or the reference to the world of Ancient Egypt is a major component of the film. It seems that this is an unconscious erasure of Egyptianist pharaonicism in favor of a more Arab-Islamic version of Egyptian nationalism.

  • As is often the case in colonial and postcolonial contexts, the image of the national self is refracted by the hegemonic cultural vision of imperialism. In this instance, the Ancient Egypt represented in Egyptian cinema is as much European as it is Egyptian. This thesis problematizes the debate on indigenous modernity in a postcolonial context. The question that seems to be endlessly posed, “To what extent is it possible to build a non-Western modernity?” warrants, in the case of Egypt anyway, the following answer: the pharaonic reference is somehow an equally European one. Since Jean-François Champollion, Auguste Mariette and Gaston Maspero, Egyptology has been a French science. The fact that the most historical “Egyptian” reference is also Western implies that the most Egyptian reference cannot be but an equally Western one. This is not necessarily an accurate assumption, but it is certainly a sensible argument.

  • Nevertheless, in spite of the rarity of Egyptian films with a predominant ancient Egyptian reference, the coincidental encounter of imperialism, archeology, and cultural production—in this case, cinema—has impacted the art of the moving image through certain narrative and thematic aspects originally associated with those references in Egyptian culture.

6More specifically, this impact is palpable in the treatment of the theme of the gap between a dominated and subaltern culture, on the one hand, and a glorious past, like that of the pharaonic era, on the other hand, a gap that replicates the contemporary discrepancy between indigenous culture and Western modernity.

7The other aspect at stake here is that of the distribution of gender roles, which parallel the power relations between the imagined self and the imagined other. The national self in Egyptian culture is often associated with masculinity when it encounters or confronts the other, which is by opposition associated with femininity. The gendered pattern of the male national self, versus the female other is prevalent in the cultural production and social representations of many Western modernities and seems to have been imported by Egyptian cultural productions. As a matter of fact, the pattern can be traced directly to Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Aida, where the pharaonic reference is precisely located at the point of encounter between (Western) imperialism, sub-imperialism, and archeology. That gendered pattern is predominant in Egyptian cinema and in most of the films that construct an encounter between an allegory of Egyptian-ness and one of otherness, and it exceeds by far the occasional presence of that pattern in the Egyptian film Aida, partly based on the opera.

Rare Pharaohs

  • 4  Iman Hamam, “Al Momia,” in Gönül Dönmez-Colin, The Cinema of North Africa and the Middle East, Lon (...)

8In her analysis of Shady Abdel Salam’s film Al Momia (The Mummy, 1969), Iman Hamam rightfully notes, “Few Egyptian films have taken on Ancient Egypt as their subject, while others, such as Youssef Chahine’s Sira fil wadi … have used it as a backdrop to the narrative, with ancient monuments typically functioning as silent reminders of Egypt’s colossal past.”4 Of the roughly 4,500 Egyptian films produced in about one hundred years of cinema, only a handful of feature films recreate the world of Ancient Egypt. As Hamam indicates, a few more films are set in modern times but in a location dominated by pharaonic architecture. One should add, however, that dozens of films feature romantic or tourist visits to pharaonic sites, turning these into a huge prop referencing the very modern notion of leisure time spent among ancient “ruins.” Egyptian films in which Ancient Egypt provides the framework for the narrative are extremely rare: Cleopatra by Ibrahim and Badr Lama (1947) and L’Émigré by Youssef Chahine (1995) are practically the only ones in that genre that the memory of critics has preserved.

9The scarcity of ancient Egyptian references in cinema may be a manifestation of the triumph of the Arab-Islamic reference in modern Egyptian identity politics, which is much more thoroughly explored in historical epics than the pharaonic one. Therefore, “pharaonicity” is more a mark of otherness. The large number of Hollywood films set in Greek and Roman times speaks volumes to the role played by the Hellenic/Latin heritage in Western self-representation and, by contrast, underscores the seemingly weak impact of the pharaonic heritage in the Egyptian national imagination throughout most of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

  • 5  Israel Gershoni and James Jankowski, Egypt, Islam and the Arabs: The Search for Egyptian Nationhoo (...)

10In their extensive and authoritative scholarship on Egyptian nationalism, Israel Gershoni and James Jankowski have identified the major identity labels used in intellectual and political discourse to anchor their perception of Egyptian nationalism in the twentieth century: Oriental, Islamic, Arab, and Egyptianist. The pharaonicist image was one of the manifestations of territorial or integral Egyptian nationalism.5 According to the historians, pharaonicism was predominant in national self-representations until 1930, when it was rendered obsolete by the rise of an Egyptian appropriation of discourses on Arab nationalism. Egyptian cultural production, particularly in cinema, ultimately identified Arab and Islamic discourses as the major source for an ethical and aesthetic framework for the construction of the self. Hence, pharaonic images in Egyptian cinema are scarce, except in the many films where they are introduced as a backdrop for tourist activities or romantic escapades.

11Films set in contemporary times that include significant pharaonic references are more numerous than historical pharaonic biopics. Nevertheless, they remain far fewer than historical films set in the Arab/Islamic Middle Ages—modern Egypt remaining, of course, the overwhelming contextual framework for narratives of Egyptian cinema. One can cite: In the Land of Tutankhamun directed by Victor Rosito (1924); Adrift on the Nile by Hussein Kamal (1971); The Collar and the Bracelet by Khairy Beshara (1986); Strangers by Saad Arafa (1972); Alexandria Again and Forever by Youssef Chahine (1989) (which film refers more accurately to Hellenistic Egypt under Alexander then under Cleopatra’s rule in dream and fantasy sequences); The Mountain by Khalil Shawqi (1965); In Search of Tout Ankh Amon by Youssef Francis (1988); The Mummy, by Shadi Abdel Salam (which is set in the nineteenth century, not in contemporary Egypt). Outside of this short list, examples of non-historical Egyptian films where pharaonic antiquity is omnipresent other than as a picturesque set are extremely rare.

  • 6  Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath, Le Théorème de Nérfertiti : itinéraire de l’œuvre d’art, la créat (...)

12The image of Ancient Egypt or the paradigm of its partial representation in Egyptian cinema is often informed by the orientalist gaze and copies Western motifs (and sometimes fantasies) instead of reproducing, for instance, historically based iconography or depicting a world grounded in documentation about the age of the pharaohs (with the possible exception of Shadi Abdel Salam’s The Mummy). Part of the orientalism of these images is derived from their use within the traditions of European romanticism, as an enhancer of exoticism. In the exhibition Tea with Nefertiti, the co-curators Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath compiled an impressive montage of dozens of—mainly black and white—scenes shot on pharaonic sites, such as the Giza Pyramids, from commercial entertainment-oriented movies.6 Put together, these scenes testify to the continuity of the “touristic” estrangement sought by the movie’s protagonists, always leaving the bustling modern city to find refuge and entertainment in an “exotic” pharaonic site.

Figure 1: A scene from Al Momia (The Mummy), 1969, of Shadi Abdel Salam.

Figure 1: A scene from Al Momia (The Mummy), 1969, of Shadi Abdel Salam.

Source: Author's collection.

“Pharaonicist” Sub-Imperialism

13The first Egyptian long feature, In the Land of Tutankhamun (1924), recounts the adventures of a Western archeologist who discovers the intact tomb of the famous pharaoh. It seems that the value system attached to that foundational pharaonic reference in Egyptian cinema has since informed every filmic imagination with a pharaonic substance. In Egyptian films, the reference is envisaged almost exclusively in connection with a Western modernity that helps the national self discover its own origins, but which explains these origins only insofar as this national self sets its eyes on the West as a model.

14The globalization of modernity relied on a process of importation/exportation of the cultural products of modernity and its values. This process was not limited to Europe exporting administrative models and systems, novels and films, and technologies toward Asia and Africa, nor to Europe purely and simply colonizing Asian and African territories by sending troops to directly administer these continents. Some emerging states, particularly Egypt, imported and implemented what I have called in previous publications “sub-imperialism.” Since its constitution as a modern entity under Muhammad Ali at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Egypt established imperial power relations with the rest of Africa that reproduced the dynamics between the European powers and Africa—including the power dynamics between Europe and Egypt itself. Egypt occupied Sudan in 1821 and was the sole imperial colonial power in that country until the end of the nineteenth century, when an official British-Egyptian condominium was established in Sudan. It was only in 1956 that this country became totally independent from both Egyptian and British imperialism. By the 1860s, the Egyptian empire included territories in Ethiopia and on the coast of Somalia, which made Egypt a sort of pale imitator of contemporary European imperialism, a sub-imperial power of some sort, an imperial subaltern so to speak: a state imposing its empire on African territories, yet being itself subjected to Western hegemony.

  • 7  Cheikh Anta Diop, Nations nègres et culture, Paris: Éditions africaines, 1955; Martin Bernal, Blac (...)

15Modern Egypt was built on a European-modeled colonial memory that often disregarded its African roots and that perceived its relationship with the rest of the continent in terms of a civilizing power enlightening/dominating Africa. Modern Egypt has thus been positioned as a “sub-imperialist” power, enduring Western hegemony, on the one hand, while replicating these power relations with fellow African countries, on the other hand. Evidence of this claim lies in the agency of modern European Egyptology: even when appropriated by Egyptians, this field has often separated pharaonic Egypt from Africa. The theories of Cheikh Anta Diop and Martin Bernal about the African origins of civilization7—ancient Egyptian or other—are often excluded from African Studies, in Egypt and elsewhere.

16This situation explains the paradox of the “African-ness” of Egyptian cinema—by far the largest and oldest in Africa. Much like the pharaonic references in Egyptian cinema, the Africans ones are also similarly quasi-absent: very few long features made in Egypt deal with the world to the south of the cataracts on the Nile. These few films mention the African nature of Egypt only to confirm its status as a civilizing force practicing a sort of sub-imperialism vis-à-vis the rest of Africa, either in the traditional form of occupation (Aida directed by Ali Badrakhan, 1942) or a more modern one, that of “cooperation” in archeology (Amasha in the Jungle, 1972). These examples point to the otherwise “unconscious” connection between pharaonicity and African-ness in Egyptian cinema. Very often—but not always—it is the few films in which references to pharaonicity are significant that also reference the African-ness of Egypt.

17It is fair to say, however, that the power relations constructing the powerful (pharaonic) self, dominating its other, were replicated in other representations that are Arab-Islamic-based or modern-based. In The Mummy for instance, the modern urban archeologist exerts power over settlers of nomadic Bedouin origin because he holds both the knowledge of ancient Egyptian history and is part of the modern bureaucracy based in the capital. The film is set in a state in which Egypt endures European hegemony: the film’s opening sequence features the French archeologist Mariette translating the hieroglyphs inscribed on a papyrus to his Egyptian employees. Yet Egypt reproduces this imperial hegemonic power dynamic with an othered segment of its indigenous population: the settlers recently arrived from non-agricultural regions in Upper Egypt.

18These examples illustrate the organic relationship between archeology and imperialism. In the rare Egyptian films acknowledging the pharaonic dimension of Egyptian heritage, the “black” African aspect of the cultures alongside the northern Nile is either totally obliterated (The Mummy) or introduced as an alibi for the hegemony of the modern Egyptian state, established in the name of cooperation or non-alignment (Amasha in the Jungle). In the first case, cinema contributes to the discourse connecting Egypt to the Northern Hemisphere rather than to the South. In the second case, it partakes in the legitimization of imperial hegemony in both traditional and postcolonial forms.

19Through an analysis of certain Egyptian films, including the above-mentioned ones, the following sections of this article will shed light on the connections between archeology, cinema, and sub-imperialism. I argue that discourses on origins and otherness are in fact nationalist or imperialist monologues using the construction of the other in order to build a narcissistic image of the self, in opposition to its other. However, the cinematic unconscious reintroduces the repressed or exploited other beyond the power of the conscious discourse.

20Otherness being that of the “alien” African, the subaltern uneducated Bedouin, or the poor rural proletarian, “the cinema of the pharaohs” appears always to showcase a cultural and political hegemony of the powerful self associated with the pharaonic reference, in the face of its many others. Nevertheless, films unconsciously “admit” the rhetorical nature of their representation of power relations and the hegemonic intention of these representations and point to the apparent silencing of the repressed other. The Mummy completely omits any mention of Africa, but the omnipresent frescoes in the film are full of African figures; Amasha, which shows archeologists/tourists traveling through the jungle in Uganda in search of an ancient Egyptian treasure, points to the many Arabic words adopted by the languages spoken in Uganda, but in the process it also acknowledges the African genealogy of Ancient Egypt.

Aida and the Birth of the African Empire of Modern Egypt

21Since its inception in the nineteenth century, the Egyptian modernization project established the model of a state acting toward its African neighbors as if it were the regional power or, more accurately, as if Egypt were a culturally European power located “next to” Africa. On a geostrategic level, in the nineteenth century, modern Egypt’s African policies started to emulate those of the pharaonic empires: expansion southward in order to come as close as possible to the sources of the Nile and thereby to control the flux of this major engine of the agriculture-based economy. When, in 1821, Egypt occupied Sudan and, in 1861, it expanded its African empire to certain areas of Somalia and Ethiopia, it appeared to replicate, on the one hand, European colonial policies in Africa and, on the other hand, the imperial policies of the (pharaonic) New Kingdom in the southern regions of the Nile and in the Horn of Africa. The most obvious cultural trace of these policies is undoubtedly the opera Aida by Verdi.

  • 8  Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism, New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1994.

22In Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said suggests that Aida is a crucial moment in the cultural history of imperialism because, in its production, archeology, opera, international trade, and military actions converge to provide a perfect example of what he calls “the Empire at work.”8 The storyline of the opera, allegedly based on a historical account, was created from a synopsis by Egypt’s leading archeologist at the time, Auguste Mariette. Aida is an Ethiopian princess who falls in love with the commander of the Egyptian army, who lands in Ethiopia to annex it to the empire of the pharaohs. In composing the music, Verdi, the champion of Italian nationalism, was providing his cultural services to the small Egyptian empire newly expanded by Viceroy Ismael. The very reason Aida came to exist was Ismael’s desire for an opera to be played during ceremonies celebrating the inauguration of the Suez Canal, that miracle of engineering that contributed to the exponential speeding up of commercial exchanges between the metropolises of the European empires and their colonies.

23As an ancestor of cinema, the first “Egyptian” stage melodrama transmitted to the film bearing the same title certain characteristics that continued to haunt the metaphorical representation of power relations between Egypt and the rest of Africa throughout the twentieth century. Elsewhere, I have pointed out that when it comes to the relationship to otherness, the pattern and dynamics of gender roles in Aida have remained the same during the entire history of Egyptian cultural production. Otherness is always feminized and dominated, while the national self is always masculine and dominant. This vision of the integration of otherness in Egyptian cinema has come to transcend the racial and ethnic barriers. The film Aida creates a metaphoric parallel between the Ethiopian princess of the opera and a young woman, also named Aida, who settles in Cairo during World War II, and who, by the end of the film, plays the title role of an Arabicized version of Verdi’s opera before accepting the proposal of her wealthy urban suitor. The conquest by the Egyptian army commander of a land and a fiancée, both foreign, is compared to the conquest by a young urban upper-class man of a young woman of modest rural origin. The other here is not just the African, but also the poor, the non-modern.

24However, it is worth noting that the film does not display the traditional quips about acculturating to modernity. Aida does not question what may be perceived as the alien nature of the Italian lyrics or of the very (European) genre of opera. She naturally sings the Arabic rendition of the lyrics to original Arabic tunes. This simple gesture of cultural appropriation is a performance of indigenous cultural modernity as an assimilation and reproduction of Western cultural products packaged in a local outlook. Interestingly, the film does not adopt the most elitist westernized attitude by filming the opera in Italian or by keeping the original music with an Arabic libretto. The director chose a completely Arabic musical version of the drama. Hence the film is a site where layers of languages are displaced and replaced by the language spoken by contemporary Egyptians. In Aida, the characters who should speak ancient Egyptian and Ethiopian languages were made to speak Italian by Verdi in the nineteenth century, then Arabic, by the film director Badrakhan and were confidently embodied by twentieth-century Egyptian actors.

25This confidence is made possible because the actors connect on the imaginary level with a manufactured memory of pharaonic superiority, which put contemporary Egyptians in symbolic parity with the hegemonic powers of their time. The trope of resurrection enhances this sub-imperial confidence. Aida features an optimistic ending: the opera character dies and therefore is separated from her lover, but her contemporary counterpart goes on after the performance to marry her fiancée and prepare for a happy life. The allegory of the feminine other in the original opera is therefore metaphorically resurrected and incorporated in the modern twentieth-century Egyptian nation.

Adrift on the Nile Away from Pharaonic Heritage

26Hussein Kamal’s Adrift on the Nile (1971) has been under attack by nationalist, Nasserist critics since its release, because the film is seen as a satire of the Nasser era. The narrative is basic: it tells the stories of a group of idle friends, men and women, who meet on a boat to smoke hashish and chat, completely disillusioned by the official nationalist rhetoric and mocking it in their casual conversations.

27The pharaonic presence in the 120-minute film emerges in a literally central scene, at minute 52: the group of friends goes on a visit to an archeological site. In a long shot, their car stops before a sphinx. The leader, half drunk, harangues the group in an ironically grandiloquent tone, saying that they are in a pharaonic cemetery and that they should pay their respects to “our Forefathers who brought us to this world,” amid the group’s giggling and laughs. The following images alternate a long shot showing local female villagers gathered around an eroded pharaonic statue and medium-close shots magnifying the statue and a female elder rubbing it, as well as a young female villager standing opposite the statue. The elder ceremoniously asks the young woman to perform a fertility rite while touching the pharaoh’s statue, as if she were “channeling” the magic/blessings of the statue toward the young woman in order to help her in her quest for procreation.

28The pharaonic statue was called by the villagers “Abu Khodeir” (literally: Father Green) and it was credited by them with “making the trees green for the birds’ pleasure.” The trope of green is evidently a metaphoric allusion to fertility, which is also explicitly mentioned by the villagers. The gesture of rubbing the phallic statue therefore appears as a sexual metaphor inaugurating the fertility ritual. The ritual involves the young woman hugging the statue and whispering “I want a (baby) boy” then throwing a clay jar full of water on the statue. The jar shatters, scattering water and clay. The gentle contact between the “male” statue and the young woman turns metaphorically violent when the woman’s “surrogate,” the jar, is broken. The ritual is clearly a symbolic reenactment of a primordial sexual encounter.

29The pharaonic paradigm has been associated in many ways with fertility and historical procreation, from antiquity up to the present day. But in the film’s present, the scene describes an interruption of lineage because of a sudden sterility. The scene does not simply confirm the narrative of national continuity between ancient and contemporary Egypt. Rather, it is a scene about the disruption of filiation, one that arguably is about the symbolic death of the (pharaonic) father and about the impossibility of fertility in a modern society in crisis.

30Contrary to the villagers’ attitude toward the ritual, the idle middle-class urban group is skeptical. They are all aligned facing the camera, as if watching a spectacle and distancing themselves from it. One Cairene woman suggests the younger villager should go to a doctor. A male elder explains: “These are traditions we inherited from our ancestors the pharaohs.” Another woman from the urban group makes fun of the pharaoh, saying he is skinny and anemic. She then drags the group toward another, bigger statue, saying, “I desire this one.”

31The following scene is shot in a museum built around a gigantic statue of Ramses lying on the ground. In a wide shot, we see the Cairene group climb the statue; its members look extremely small compared to the colossal Ramses, whose left leg is missing. The women rub their bodies against the Pharoah’s chest and head. In a close-up, the youngest woman torridly locks lips with him. The men regroup and sit around the statue’s stomach and pubic area and start smoking hashish from a shisha. They crack jokes about pharaoh being high like they are. The final joke that makes them explode into laughter comes when one of them asks how history was oblivious to the fact that the pharaoh was a hashish user. The answer is: “History itself was high.”

32The magnificent and grandiose pharaonic history overshadows present times: the first statue is often framed in a medium-close, low-angle shot that literally magnifies its size and underscores its overwhelming presence in the village. The second statue, of Ramses, is four times the size of an average human. It is obvious that the women find “grandpa”—as one woman calls him—sexually attractive because of the physical “intimacy” they demonstrate with him. However it is impossible to have a baby with him, since he is made of stone. And the men’s take on him is that he is distracted by hashish, which means he is no longer interested in procreation, or—on the symbolic level—he is no longer able to be part of a cultural transmission of the prestigious civilization he once represented.

33This is a variant of the gender role pattern previously outlined: the national pharaonic self is always masculine, as are the pharaonic statues. But here, this self is infertile except on the mythical level. This self does not produce babies, but discourse. The other is still feminine, but this time in the form of a modern Egyptian woman. Nevertheless, the modern woman here is not submissive. Quite to the contrary, she makes her own decisions and enjoys her freedom. But she is just as unable to have a “fruitful” relation with her own heritage, a situation that alienates and “others” her, in a way.

The Mummy: Egypt Embalmed and Reborn

  • 9  Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media, New York, NY (...)

34The mummy in cinema has always been considered an allegory of a national renaissance within the colonial and postcolonial contexts, as shown by Ella Shohat in Unthinking Eurocentrism.9The Mummy by Shady Abdel Salam is no exception. The film tells the real-life story of the central state’s intervention in the late nineteenth century in order to put an end to the pillage of a pharaonic necropolis in an Upper Egypt village by the Hurabat tribe, settled in the nearby village. The film is not about the resurrection of the type of mummy that haunts the history of Anglo-Saxon cinema. It is about the discovery of a mummy that problematizes the search for, or the invention of, the national identity as well as the rebirth of the nation. The film does not tell the story of the indigenous mummy that terrorizes the modern West. Rather, it describes the complex process of negotiating modernity, in a traditional mosaic-like context.

35The Mummy is aesthetically striking: all the pharaonic artifacts and buildings are colossal and grandiose, while all that is contemporary is comparatively smaller. In the film, these two worlds, on two different scales, are nevertheless superimposed one on the other, or are intertwined: pharaohs in stone and (modern) Egyptians in the flesh. The ancient Egyptians, cast or carved in stone, dominate, fascinate, feed, but also terrorize the modern (living) Egyptians. The inhabitants of the village located on the mountain live from the smuggling and illegal trade of pharaonic antiques, obtained through the profanation of “their ancestors’” tombs. In a sense, the dead live among the inhabitants of the mountain in the form of statues, frescoes, and mummies, shape their everyday lives, and contribute to their livelihood. This means, however, that it is difficult for the living to sever themselves from the authority of the past.

36The terrible secret that unites the dead and the living and that makes the ancient Egyptians the main source of income for the modern Egyptians, the main factor in their survival, establishes an almost necrophilic relation between the members of the two worlds. Those who betray the secret are sent into the otherworld—which is the fate of one of the village’s young men shown in the first minutes of the film.

37On a visual level, the relationship between the living Egyptians and the dead ones translates into a movement of descent, like the excavation of the mountain necropolis. The journey into the inner world of the tribe is also a physical descent into hell and demonstrates a paradoxical relation to the past: at the same time a living connection and an example of disconnect from history (living from the sale of treasures and the dismemberment of ancestors’ bodies). In one of the most violent scenes of the film, the mummy is cut into pieces to enable the tribesmen to remove the jewelry it wears. This gesture embodies a break with roots and traditions. It is a literal disconnect with the ancestors’ metaphorical and physical body.

38Although the movement of bodies in the film is mainly oriented downward, in the direction of digging, the camera movements are often oriented upward. The camera shows that the modern world is not only rooted in the ancestors’ (mummy) trap, but that it is observed from on high by the pharaohs’ past grandeur. The statues and frescoes of Ancient Egypt always dominate the view. Tilt-ups and high-angle shots create the effect of a deity from the past observing the landscape and watching over the Moderns from on high.

39In front of a gigantic fresco, the young lead, who hails from the mountain village, and the Stranger, the peasant from the fertile valley of the Nile, appear as two small spots against the massive background. The image sums up in a few seconds a whole vision of time: like the mountain dweller and the migrant from the rural area, we are no more than grains of sand in the fresco of a millennial history; like these two characters, we do not fully grasp what happens around us because we are overwhelmed by history.

40The trope of digging and that of the body overwhelmed by the grandeur of the past can be metaphors for an identity crisis, referring both to the quest for an answer in the past and a malaise vis-à-vis the past. The film reproduces an image of Egyptians in the nineteenth century, faced with an accelerated, state-sponsored, imported process of modernization. They are a people at the threshold of modernity, at odds with the power of the modern nation-state—police and inspectors of the Antiquities Authority—who encounter the modern knowledge of the science of anthropology, and who collectively reorganize their lives. This people is somehow cut from its historical roots, given that it has no knowledge of the magnitude of the pharaonic civilization. Yet it has no means to rival this past glory. These are precisely the terms of the crisis endured by many peoples in the phase of decolonization.


41By contributing to performing the identity politics of nationalism, cinema and archeology have proven to be organically connected to sub-imperialism. Archeology joins imperialism in a literal manner. The former proceeds in a movement oriented toward depth: it is about digging. The latter acts in the sense of a horizontal expansion: it annexes to its own center as much land as possible, in order to constitute a territory. Imperialism and archeology meet in that both strike the imagination with their symbolism, in order to consolidate a political project, to legitimize a state. Cinema often operates in the same direction, in order to create “imagined communities.” Nevertheless, the cinematic unconscious always brings to the surface the repressed or manipulated other, beyond the control of the conscious rhetorical discourses.


1  Khaled Fahmy, keynote address at the conference “L’Égypte en ses miroirs,” Paris, Institut national d’histoire de l’art, INHA, June 26-27, 2013; Constantin Zreiq, Nahn Wal Tareekh [History and Us], Beirut: Dar Al Ilm Lel Malayeen, 1985 (1st ed. 1959); Tewfik El Hakim, Bank Al Qalaq [Anguish Bank], Cairo: Dar A Shorouq, 1987.

2  Jacques Berque, Égypte : impérialisme et révolution, Paris: Gallimard, 1967.

3  Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London/New York, NY: Verso, 1983.

4  Iman Hamam, “Al Momia,” in Gönül Dönmez-Colin, The Cinema of North Africa and the Middle East, London: Wallflower Press, 2007, p. 31; see Ali AbuShady, Classiciat Al Cinema Al Misreya [Classics of Egyptian Cinema] (Contemporary Works, vol. 2), Cairo: General Book Organization, 1998. He lists 24 films as modern classics, out of which only one is set in a pharaonic context: Youssef Chahine’s L’Émigré; see also Mahmoud Kassem, Al Adab Fi Al Cinema [Literature in Cinema], Cairo: Dar Al Amin, 1998. None of the literary works adapted into films reviewed by the author are set in the pharaonic age.

5  Israel Gershoni and James Jankowski, Egypt, Islam and the Arabs: The Search for Egyptian Nationhood 1900-1930, New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1987, p. 274; Idem, Redefining the Egyptian Nation 1930-1945, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, p. xiii.

6  Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath, Le Théorème de Nérfertiti : itinéraire de l’œuvre d’art, la création des icônes, Exhibition Catalogue (Paris, Institut du monde arabe, April 23-September 8, 2013), Paris: Institut du monde arabe, Skira, 2013.

7  Cheikh Anta Diop, Nations nègres et culture, Paris: Éditions africaines, 1955; Martin Bernal, Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, New Brunswick, NJ.: Rutgers University Press, 1987.

8  Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism, New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1994.

9  Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media, New York, NY: Routledge, 2013.

Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1: A scene from Al Momia (The Mummy), 1969, of Shadi Abdel Salam.
Crédits Source: Author's collection.
Fichier image/jpeg, 37k


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