Academic journal article Arena Journal

Arab Cinema: Possibilities of Modernity, Nationalism and Resistance

Academic journal article Arena Journal

Arab Cinema: Possibilities of Modernity, Nationalism and Resistance

Article excerpt

In a striking passage from his essay Being Arab, Samir Kassir makes reference to the significance of cinema for a discussion of modernity in the Arab world:

But of all the arts, the cinema best illustrates the Arabs' embrace of modernity. Once again Egypt was the driving force accounting for three-quarters - maybe more - of Arab film production. Its success, and the demand for its films throughout the Arab world, made it a transnational Arab phenomenon.1

Kassir's reference point is the rise of the Egyptian film industry, which in the period after the Second World War attained such productive heights as to be named 'Hollywood on the Nile'. For Kassir, cinema is part of the culture of Arab modernity, and not only because of the cinema's demand for technically trained personnel, creative writers and directors, or because of the existence of a mass audience. Kassir regards cinema as an exemplar of the historical spirit of modernity in the Arab world that he is at pains to bring back to the foreground of Arab self-consciousness, the spirit of the cultural movement known as the Nahda, the Arab 'awakening' or Enlightenment. The Nahda was a multifaceted movement of social and cultural modernization from the mid-nineteenth century up to 1918. It included the reforms of Mohammad 'Ali in Egypt, the Ottoman state reforms of the Tanzimat, the modernization of Arabic, the creation of new literary genres including the novel, poetry and drama, and the first articulations of Arabism under Ottoman rule.2 Kassir rejects the idea that the Nahda as a cultural dynamic ended with the rise of Arab nationalism proper in response to the European empires' division of the Middle East after the First World War. Kassir argues that the cultural dynamic of the Nahda is an under-recognized and ongoing counter-paradigm to the two dominant grand narratives of what he terms the 'Arab Malaise', his term for the political and cultural stasis of Arab states in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.3 These historical narratives, in secular nationalist or religious fundamentalist guise, frame the present as a period of decline, either by reference to the confident and futureoriented period of newly won national independence after the Second World War, or to the earliest days of Islam, the 'golden age' of Arab cultural and political power.4 Kassir views these narratives as cul-de-sacs, depriving the present of a sense of its own legitimacy, and obscuring sources of cultural, social and political dynamism that exist within the histories and memories of the Arab peoples' experience of modernity. This means, for Kassir, viewing the history of Arab modernity so far as one possibility that does not exhaust the field. The Nahda represents this unexhausted reservoir of cultural creation, and prominent within it can be counted the contribution of cinema.

Besides the cult of entertainment that led the Egyptian and Arab public in general to worship the stars of the big screen - in particular its singers - the cinema also showed the excitement Middle Eastern societies felt at how their daily life and symbolic representations were changing. Often backed up by great writers who had no qualms about seeing their novels turned into films or who wrote the scripts themselves, Egyptian directors rendered modernity in black and white, then Technicolor - a modernity that was transfiguring the image of women, who, after the spectacular taboo-breaking of Hoda Shaarawi, the women's rights activist who was first to take off her veil in public at Cairo station in 1922, controlled their appearances if not their bodies. Idealized on a monumental scale by the posters in the street, women underwent a startling change of public image: previously recluses, they were now the crowd's idols.5

From Kassir's comments above, we can draw the observation that cinema depicts and dramatizes experiences of modernization, and can also play an active role in challenging and changing symbolic representations. …

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