The call of the city

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The call of the city

“My son, enjoy Cairo’s magical night … and never visit my grave-site” — Salah Jaheen

“Some poor man stopped at a deserted campsite to ask about his girl,
But I have stopped to ask where the local boozer is” — Abu Nuwas

Even before the rise of Islam there has been a common trope in Arabic poetry: a lonely traveller arrives at a desert camp to find it has been destroyed and his beloved is gone. At this point the hero will usually then weep for a while then mount his camel, ride off into the desert and reflect deeply on fate, death and loss.  As early as the 8th and 9th Century A.D. this image was not only clichéd but false. Abu Nuwas, for example, frequently and mercilessly skewers such an unrealistic fantasy in his work. Why should we be writing about deserts, he asks, when we are all living in cosmopolitan cities and having a fantastic time?

This debate is brought to mind watching, Pillars — the penultimate film shown at the London MENA and Nour Festival’s screening of Arabic shorts on 31 October. This 15-minute Emirati film begins in a desert camp where a fire is destroying the huts. As in Abu Nuwas’ poems, the scene only needs to be shown for a few seconds for the viewer to make the connection with this poetic tradition (Imru’ al-Qays’ classic version as well as an Abu Nuwas spoof are available in part here). Again, as in Abu Nuwas, it does not take long before the illusion is pricked. The next scene is set in a supermarket in a UAE that is modern, urban, and diverse. It is in the present that the heart of this short film lies. The action poses difficult questions about love, marriage and inter-cultural relationships in the modern UAE.

If there is just one thing that unites the nine films shown at this festival, which were screened in Leighton House Museum — itself a fantasy, though an amazing one — it is not deserts but cities. I do not want to go so far as to say that an urban lifestyle has always been the key to Arabic literature (even if I, personally, think it is a tempting conclusion) but cities dictate the mood of nearly every one of these films.

This mood is often far from positive; the city is full of threat and terror. The first, and also one of the most memorable and emotional shorts of the evening, was Mohamed Adeeb’s Five Pounds. This film exploits the low-level paranoia that is pervasive in large crowded cities, revolving around a mysterious man who tries to help a woman carry her shopping up to her flat.

Again in Omar El Zohairy’s Zafir the city is dominant, with Cairo playing the role of a third character in the action. It is, from one aspect, a tale of the isolation of living as an elderly couple in a big city and who never leave the house. In fact, this could have been the stand-out film of the evening but, unfortunately, it was played in the final slot and my patience, as well as the feeling in my legs, had rather diminished. The slow pace ended up being frustrating when it need not have been.

although most Orientalist stereotypes see the appeal of the Arab world in its deserts… The image of the Arab world from within itself is one of crowded cities

Living in a city one always feels a steady undercurrent of danger, aggression or segregation (both personal and societal). But living in a city is also alluring. Jessica Jacob’s consistently entertaining film Visualising the Past: Rebranding the Present II interviews Western tourists who have come to Damascus (before 2011) and asks them what appeals to them about it. Few can put their feelings into concrete words but all agree that the city has an inescapable allure. As my neighbour to the front noted, however, the two American ‘students’ who arrived on diplomatic passports may have had more definable motives.

The film I enjoyed perhaps the most (though this is because I am a frivolous person and, in truth, all of the films had great merit) was one whose quality was dependent on its urbanity. The premise of Ahmed Samara’s The Hardest Question was to ask several people in Amman what they would do if the human race was going to end in 24 hours. In itself, I find this quite an annoying question – “God knows” is my answer – or perhaps just one I want to avoid. Fortunately, the beauty of the film was mostly not in the single answers but in a layering of responses. Cities are usually only truly united in disaster and this thought experiment managed to create a putative disaster and a real sense of community, despite the fact that those interviewed never met each other. One man’s response to the question was “I would settle all my debts and forgive those who owe me money, good enough for you?” That is the response of a man who lives in a society.

For me, this compilation of shorts all showed just how important urban life is to modern Arabic culture and literature. This is not to say that this is an unproblematic conclusion. Of course these (mostly) young film makers live in the big metropolises of the Arab world but it would be wrong infer that all Arabic culture is urban. Pierre Cachia argues passionately in his book Exploring Arab Folk Literature that rural cultural production in the Arab world is very rich, if often ignored. Still, it is interesting to note that although most Western Orientalist stereotypes — Wilfred Thesiger being the most obvious example — see the appeal of the Arab world in its deserts and empty quarters, the Arabic view is the opposite. The image of the Arab world from within itself is one of crowded cities and people living closely together.

When Iraqi author Safa Khulusi wrote a picaresque travelogue of America he chose as his companion Abu Nuwas (conjured from the past from a postage stamp). This medieval Arabic poet fit in perfectly at the parties of New York’s Upper East Side, the casinos of Las Vegas, and the beaches of LA. Abu Nuwas himself might not have approved of all the films on display at Leighton House Museum but the urban themes would surely have been instantly recognisable to him.

Raphael Cormack is a graduate student at Columbia university in Middle Eastern Studies. His current research is into the adoption of Ancient Greek themes in modern Egyptian theatre.