Bab al-Shams at AUC

Went to a lovely event at AUC tonight: a totally unpretentious panel discussion called “Translating Palestine,” focused on three takes on Lebanese writer Elias Khoury’s novel Bab al-Shams. Panelists were Khoury himself (in town for a brief visit), Humphrey Davies (who has translated several of his novels, and won Seif Ghobash Banipal prizes for Gate of the Sun and Yalo), and Yousry Nasrallah, who made a nearly 5-hour film version of the novel (Ahram profile here), co-written by Elias Khoury and Mohamed Soueid.  Prof. Samia Mehrez, head of AUC’s Center for Translation Studies, introduced.
The event was in English, and Elias Khoury started out by saying that it felt “bizarre to be speaking in English about an Arabic novel and especially to be doing so here, in Cairo, which since the events of last winter has started again to feel like the heart of the Arab world. But if that is how it is, then that is how it will be.”  In fact he and Nasrallah (and obviously Davies) were all lexically precise and utterly charming; perhaps having to think in one’s weaker language somehow focuses the mind.

Nasrallah said making the film, as an Egyptian, allowed him to “reappropriate Palestine,” after “years of the regime using Palestine to repress us.” I’ve never heard it put that way.

A thread running through the conversation was the role of metaphor and allegory. Khoury said that most great love stories are about “impossible loves,” so in Bab al-Shams he set out to write, among other things, “the love story of a man and his wife, something usually impossible, since usually we are in love with our friend’s wife, etc.” But of course the situation – Younis lives in Lebanon, Nahila in Israel, they meet in a cave only when he can sneak across the border – makes their love as obstacle-ridden as that of Romeo and Juliet. Anyway, the important thing is that the love story is a love story, the cave is a cave, the hospital is a hospital, not a symbol of something else. The literal object.  And even more so, Nasrallah insisted, in the cinema.  (Never mind what it “means”: what does it look like? What color and texture is it? How do we light it?)  But curiously, literature has its autonomy, too: the stories within the novel refer to each other and to the Arabian Nights, not to any particular refugee’s particular experiences.  Khoury: “Literature is not a representation of reality. I don’t like allegories.”  Hear, hear!

AUC will eventually put up video of the event – watch for it here.

Two Girls from Egypt

On the plane to the UK I watched a 2010 Egyptian movie, Bintayn Min Masr (Two Girls From Egypt), written and directed by Mohamed Amin (a few details here).  It was kind of an earnest social-critique tearjerker melodrama, as you can see from the trailer:

Like all the other cultural production that has come out of Egypt in the past 10-15 years, this film can be said to “predict the Egyptian revolution” of Jan 25 (yes, the linked article is about a supercomputer model!) or at least lay bare the social frustrations that helped contribute to it (Khamissi, Aswany, etc).

The subtitles mistranslated the title as Egyptian Maidens, probably to emphasize that the desperate 30-something heroines were both virgins — a result of social constraints and their inability to find husbands.  The least expected (and perhaps the least watchable) scene was a conversation in which a group of young women explained this sad fact to… a visiting researcher from Boston University!  Of all things.  The American scholar was depicted as blonde and a bit slow, with an exaggerated American accent.

Other highlights. All the men in the film were either scoundrels working abroad, decent men arrested for falling afoul of the regime (two of these), or depressed. The heroine’s brother was nearly killed after an accident sank the ferry that was carrying him to a dead-end restaurant job in Saudi Arabia. Of the female characters young and old, the only one who occasionally appeared happy was a young nurse or doctor involved in a heterosexual relationship, albeit one that was “external” (i.e., sexual but not damaging to technical virginity) and “urfi” (protected by a customary agreement rather than a formal marriage certificate), and consummated mostly in supply closets.  Everyone else was single or widowed, and totally neurotic/miserable/psychosomatically ill, trying everything (dating offices, the Internet, airport lounge speed-dating with Gulf emigrants) to land a man.

Since I have kids, airplanes are about the only time I get to watch movies. Sometime I’ll tell you about Al-Dealer, another recent Egyptian film I saw on a recent flight to Beirut.  Equally melodramatic but much more exciting, and it touched on the former Soviet bloc!