With Zahra I've watched dance numbers by the exquisite Samia Gamal, romantic scenes with the actress Raqiya Ibrahim, songs from Leila Mourad. I've watched social dramas like one set in a hospital in a desert, which had an extraordinary sequence showing a riot for water. None of them were subtitled, and the Siren often hasn't bothered to ask for a translation, especially for songs, as the reply is so frequently "She's singing about loooove." From Zahra I hear about what she thought of the actresses and the movies, what she heard of the stars in magazines and newspapers, which scenes she remembers best.
On this visit, we came across a musical number from a film starring the Syrian-Egyptian singer Asmahan, the one big rival to Umm Kulthum. Asmahan died in 1944, age 25, under circumstances even the non-conspiracy-minded Siren finds fishy. The Siren watched with Zahra as ball-attired men and women waltzed around Asmahan. The singer's voice was magnificent and she had presence so strong you barely notice what else is in the frame.
"Is she singing about loooove?" inquired the Siren.
"No," retorted Zahra, as one who says take that, smart aleck. "She is singing about Vienna. How beautiful is Vienna." The chorus sank to the floor, champagne glasses aloft, and Zahra added solemnly, "And they should interdire this song."
"She is telling everyone to drink!" Zahra threw back her head and roared with laughter.
The Siren didn't realize it, but she was revealing the true extent of her ignorance, because this song is extremely famous.
So this post is in no way a deep or analytical look at the rich history of Egyptian cinema. It is, rather, about the pleasures of viewing unfamiliar movies with someone you love.
Last week the Siren and Zahra were on the sofa while Zahra flipped through news channels and the many romantic-type TV serials that play a lot during Ramadan. She lighted on a movie that looked very promising to the Siren: Mad Men-era costumes for a musical number being performed in an ancient Egyptian temple.
"Look," Zahra said. "This is the movie that has Lina's dance."
Explanation here. The Siren was married in Tyre in 2000, in a ceremony and reception organized by Zahra with military precision and detail. My husband told me it was going to be small. I arrived to find that in Lebanon, "small" means the ballroom of the local hotel, champagne, dancing, a five-foot-tall cake that you cut with a sword, 150 guests and enough food to feed them all through a four-month siege by the Prussians. It was, of course, a roaring good time.
And one of the Siren's favorite moments was a dance performed by her husband's cousin, Lina, who has spent years studying classical Arab dance. (Please note: My mother-in-law detests the term "belly-dancing." "It's classical, it's folkloric," she says. "It is not vulgar.")
Lina danced beautifully, but this information was completely new to the Siren. "You're telling me that when Lina danced at our wedding, she was doing a number from this movie?"
"Somebody did a dance number from a movie musical at MY wedding? An OLD movie musical?"
"Yes," grinned Zahra. "You're pleased?"
"That," I said, with strong emphasis, "is THE COOLEST THING EVER."
"OK," said Zahra, setting down the remote. "We'll watch. I think Lina's dance is coming up."
Zahra told me the movie was called Love in Karnak (Gharam fi al Karnak, 1965) and was produced, written and directed by Aly Reda. Mahmoud Reda (the Siren has been unable to track down the precise relationship, and Zahra herself wasn't clear on it) was the man on screen sneaking around the ancient temple wearing a bowling shirt. Reda, a major figure in Arabic dance, clearly took some film-dance influence from Gene Kelly. His moves were very athletic and very balletic. "Many female dancers in Arab cinema," said Zahra. "Not many male. He is one of the few."
We were well into the movie and evidently in a dream sequence, with Reda moving gracefully around the temple spying on the proceedings as a pharaoh was carried in on a sedan chair and and a dance number was performed by a chorus line of beauties. "The beauty of our sun," translated Zahra as they sang, "in our country it is always spring." And then the dancers moved to the side, the door swung open and in came the heroine (Farida Fahmy).
"Aha," said Zahra. "Here is Lina's dance." And indeed it was, move for move, although despite Fahmy's skill the Siren's preference was for Cousin Lina. Lina had also incorporated some of the chorus's later moves into her performance.
The dream sequence ended and the scene gave way to Reda and Fahmy's dance troupe building a theatre at Luxor, quite like Judy and Mickey or Summer Stock. Lots of rhythmic shots of hammering, sawing, and people forming work lines and doing fun things like using a plank as a see-saw. In addition to the hero and heroine there was a sidekick in a porkpie hat and there were also plenty of showgirls in mufti, wisecracking away, which did the Siren's heart enormous good. Even Egypt has wisecracking showgirls. They unite the world.
Luxor looked beautiful, clean and empty, as Reda and Fahmy met beside a temple pool and had what was obviously the "big breakup before the make-or-break show opening." "I visited Egypt around this time, in the early 60s," remarked Zahra. "Beautiful. Big boulevards with trees. Lovely hotels. You could drive anywhere. Only 26 million people then."
"Why, how many are there now?"
"Eighty million," she replied. I absorbed that astonishing fact while the scene changed to backstage with a miserable Reda getting ready for his show, and more fabulously smart-mouthed showgirls chatting. Back to the sidekick trying to get Reda to buck up. Then we cut to Fahmy's hotel room, where she was wearing a fetching dress and throwing a bunch of other cute things into a suitcase while nursing one hell of a snit. The sidekick showed up and they argued.
"He's trying to tell her the show must go on," I announced.
"I don't need subtitles," I crowed, immensely pleased with my backstage-musical decoding skills. "I don't even need you to translate."
I had to back off that a bit, however, when Fahmy sent the sidekick away with a flea in his ear and the movie moved to the show's opening number, a sword dance by Reda. "He is singing about a blonde," translated an amused Zahra. " 'I am in loooove, the fire of my love burns…' " Almost without exception the dances were shot very simply, but that was fine with the Siren, as she couldn't get enough of the troupe's energy and grace.
Reda left on a motorcycle to bring back Fahmy, and his journey was intercut with the showgirls' number, which Zahra also translated: "This is a popular-type song. 'This is the daughter of the mayor, see how she dances.' " The daughter of the mayor apparently has adorable verve and sways her flouncy skirt quite a bit. "This is how the people look at her"--with hands waggling near their faces. Man the Siren loves her showgirls.
The movie wound down, with Fahmy showing up at the last minute for her big number with Reda, which again showed a lot of Kelly influence, specifically some of the sweeping circular moves from "Love Is Here to Stay" in An American in Paris. And the Siren says if you're going to be influenced by a romantic pas de deux, you could scarcely do better.
Another big number, which Zahra told me was Nubian in origin, and then the final shot, of three poodles seated in the audience. That 42nd Street-type touch cemented the Siren's delight in the movie. It adhered to every backstage-musical trope you could imagine, but it was done with color and sparkle and enchanting sincerity. The Siren would like to see it all one day--with or without subtitles, but most definitely with Zahra.