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Fire and Light
A Fragment on, among others, Bonaparte, Sheikh Imam and Youssef Chahine
Before this piece became what it is, I spent an inordinate amount of time drafting and redrafting paragraphs on Bonaparte in Egypt and Sonallah Ibrahim. A series of fragments inspired by the Institut du Monde Arabe grand exhibition “Bonaparte et l'Égypte: feu et lumière” (14 October 2008 to 29 March 2009), which opened 15 years ago next month, remain stray:
When Hosni Mubarak’s long-time culture minister Farouk Hosni opens the IMA show “Feu et lumière”, there is an outcry in the Egyptian press. Built with oil money funneled through the Arab League in the wake of the Oil Embargo of 1973, after all, the IMA itself hasn’t had the best reputation in Cairo. It is one of François Mitterrand’s Grands Projets, intended as awesome monuments to the role of French civilization in the future of the world, but the politician who conceived and launched it was Mitterrand’s predecessor, the former Gaullist finance minister Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. And in Egypt Giscard d’Estaing is associated with president Anwar Sadat, the man who ruleld for a decade before Mubarak.
Until he was shot dead by a sleeper jihadi in a military parade while surveying his troops from a dais, Caesar-like, in full military regalia, Sadat flouted every leftist and anti-imperial aspiration possible by making peace with Israel, embracing the free market, and bolstering up political Islam. During the French president’s state visit in December 1976, the legendary underground duo consisting of lyricist Ahmed Fouad Negm and composer-singer Sheikh Imam made a hilarious song named after him:
Calling out Sadat’s pomposity and disregard for the poor, its rhyme scheme pillories the French vowels Egyptian aristocrats and their imitators had affected since the 19th century. In 1984, when the French culture ministry invited Negm and Imam to give a concert at Paris’s Parc de la Villette, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing may even have been heard there.
The 3.6 million euro “Feu et lumière” is a bigger commemoration of Bonaparte’s 1798-1801 campaign in Egypt and Syria than anything that happened on the actual bicentenary 10 years earlier. It shows “national treasures” supplied by Egypt, which according to one headline looks like one country celebrating its occupation by another. It prompts Arab nationalist memory to summon Suleiman Al Halabi, the 23 year old Kurdish student who had his hand burned to the bone before being anally impaled for assassinating Jean-Baptiste Kléber, the commander Bonaparte appointed in his stead when he left in 1800.
But while newspaper reports dwell on the two, brutally suppressed grassroots revolts that broke out, the French troops’ desecration of Al Azhar (then as now Sunni Islam’s greatest mosque), and the countless incidents of rape, looting, and torture – none of which “Feu et lumière” sets out to hide or deny, exactly – writers and academics focus on a statement made by Hosni as he joined the IMA president Dominique Baudis: that the expedition paved the way to the renaissance Egypt saw at the start of the 19th century. Bonaparte’s expedition famously brought the first print press into the country. It included 167 “savants” who started their own Institut d'Égypte, which produced the monumental Description de l’Egypte and discovered the Rosetta Stone. Now critics of the exhibition are responding to the implication that it was Bonaparte (he was not yet Napoleon I) who turned Egypt from a medieval Ottoman province to the modern nation state it is.
The real story is complicated. Since 1250, and through the Ottoman conquest of 1517, Egypt has been ruled by a Turkic-speaking caste of slave warriors called the Mamluks – Bonaparte’s incompetent but tenacious adversaries – so distinct from the general, Arabic-speaking population that he can claim he is overcoming them in order to liberate good Muslims. But the French are really driven by competition with the British, and when the British manage to expel them three years later (81 years before the start of their own, 74-year occupation of Egypt), it is allegedly to help their Ottoman allies take back what’s theirs. One Albanian officer who arrives from Istanbul as the second in command of a 300-man Ottoman battalion fighting the French turns out to be so shrewd that, in ten years from 1801 to 1811, he not only replaces the typically ineffective Ottoman viceroy but – partly by staging the notorious Massacre of the Citadel, killing 470 Mamluk emirs over a single evening’s feast – takes full control of the Egyptian territories. It is this man, Muhammad Ali Pasha, who presides over the renaissance of which Hosni casually spoke. He monopolizes agriculture, regulates the religious establishment and, crucially for the “Feu et lumière” debate, sends prospective professionals and bureaucrats to study in Europe.
In October 2008, one disgruntled archaeologist named Ahmad Al Sawi tells the Egyptian press that, while the campaign actually impeded “the development of the Egyptian people” in ways that require an apology, Hosni’s statement tacitly endorses the French narrative that this was, at least in part, a mission to liberate and civilize Egypt’s indigenous population. Much of what was transported from Cairo to be shown in Paris has no connection with the expedition, Sawi says, but exhibits that would testify to the campaign’s hostile intent and its barbaric practices, or indeed reflect the standpoint of Egypt as the victim of an invasion, are omitted. Questioning the achievements of the expedition’s scientific contingent, Sawi goes on to say that Bonaparte’s misadventure has nothing to do with the French influence on Egypt’s cultural renaissance under Muhammad Ali, which is accounted for by the fact that many of the leading figures of that renaissance happened to study in France. But the most interesting thing Sawi says is this: “France paid funds in the past to help a famous Egyptian director produce a film on the French campaign in Egypt and its Enlightenment role.”
What Sawi means is the 1985 film Adieu Bonaparte by Youssef Chahine, who in October 2008 has only just died. He was 82, Egypt’s best known filmmaker outside of Egypt. With films like Saladin the Victorious (1963) and Return of the Prodigal Son (1976), Chahine had already established his Arab nationalist credentials when, with Alexandria… Why? (1979), he began to make autobiographical films. For three decades he managed the seemingly miraculous feat of expressing a partially queer perspective while remaining a respected figure in Egypt’s conservative public sphere. It is likely the homoerotic overtones of Adieu Bonaparte, not any pro-French undertones, that Sawi is really objecting to. Like many left-wing Arab intellectuals, Sawi has little tolerance for either pederasty or auteurship.
A sprawling, colorful orchestration of how the arrival of Bonaparte’s troops might have affected an ordinary Egyptian family from Alexandria, the film focuses on the one-legged general and Institut member Cafarelli du Fulga’s relationship with the two young Alexandrian baker’s-son brothers at the center of the action. But, while sensually celebrating the cross-cultural contact underlying its maker’s sensibility, it remains an unequivocal condemnation of the occupation. In fact when it premiered at Cannes, the city’s mayoress, Anne-Marie Dupuy, reportedly refused to attend in protest of what she saw as anti-French work funded with French public money. The Gaullist press decried Chahine’s connection with the film’s avant-garde producer Humbert Balsan, the force behind it becoming a French government coproduction.
In Adieu Bonaparte as in other Chahine films, the action is busy without being plot-driven, and the dialogue leaves nothing to the imagination. Chahine’s style is neither subtle nor lyrical but there is a carnivalesque vivacity to it, a studied naiveté that at its best is both moving and intellectually articulate. I had not realized before writing this piece that – strangely, considering how central and divisive the French campaign has been to the culture’s sense of self – Chahine’s turns out to be the only Egyptian film about it. Notwithstanding “Feu et lumière”, the director’s death in 2008 marks the end of the kind of cosmopolitan sensibility that can be anti-colonial without discrediting deeper, meaningful connections to the human side of Europe.
Which brings me to the fact that – rewatching some of my favorite Chahine films for a panel I am joining in Saudi, also in October – I found myself falling in love with him all over again (hence Dalida above). That and having made a start on The Complete Stories of Truman Capote, which I am translating to Arabic, is practically all the news I’ve had since Emissaries came out. I am still attempting to pitch, publish, and generally just hustle a niche for my Postmuslim essays in the English-speaking world. I suppose I am also writing them.