One day in early 1977 I went to the cinema in Cairo, to see the one and only screening of Costas Gavras’s magnificent film, “Z”. It had been summarily banned by the President, Anwar Sadat, who must have seen uncomfortable parallels between the story of a Greek politician set up and murdered by hired thugs, demonstrators beaten up, a military regime seizing power – and events in his own Egypt. The Egyptian courts, showing some spine, overturned Sadat’s decision and the film was screened – once – at a small, scruffy cinema called the Cairo Palace, in an alley between Alfy Bey and Fuad Streets. I remember walking through a line of riot police with shields and batons, and filing a little nervously into the packed auditorium. The audience was like no other Cairo cinema audience I have ever sat among. It was completely silent except for the occasional phut of a melon-seed hitting the concrete floor. Every now and then, at unexpected moments, there was a gale of hysterical laughter. The moment I remember specifically is when a Greek policeman chopped off the long hair of a demonstrator – the laughter seemed a cocktail of nervous release and painful recognition. At the end we left the cinema without incident, through a cordon of riot police stationed all round the building. The audience was stunned. The film was not shown again.
In getting one showing, “Z” did better than two recent films, In the Last Days of the City and The Nile Hilton Incident, both of which fell foul of the present military regime. Both have in effect been banned, though the instruments are more weaselly and ostensibly administrative than a straightforward ban. Tamer El-Said’s Last Days got made in Cairo, but is clearly never going to be shown there, at least bonæ sub regno Cynaræ; and Tarik Saleh’s Nile Hilton Incident was not allowed to film at all: much of it is shot in Casablanca, instead, with only actor-less cityscapes apparently filmed in the Egyptian capital. I suppose one shouldn’t be surprised. Egyptian military regimes don’t like being reproached or embarrassed, and the present one is so thin-skinned that Sherine, the Egyptian singer who joked onstage in the Gulf about not drinking the waters of the Nile for fear of bilharzia (good call – one my Egyptian doctor made to me in 1977) got six months in pokey for insulting Egypt; and street-vendors were roughed up for selling a popular clicky toy, itself then banned, made of two wooden balls on a string, and known – alas, so disrespectfully – as ‘Sisi’s Balls.’ Two attempts to show The Nile Hilton Incident in Cairo last November, at the Zawya and the Balcon Heliopolis, ended in its being withdrawn. It too, like Sisi’s Balls is (are) not for public display.
I caught up with Tarek Salih’s film last week, in rural England rather than Cairo. The first thing to say is that it is good – atmospheric, confusing and smelling richly of the seamier end of Cairo. It’s an imaginative patchwork, stitched together from a real murder that took place in Dubai in 2008, a Cairo hotel that no longer existed in 2011 when the film is set and a police force that anyone who has ever lived in Cairo will at least half recognize, though one which foreigners – unless researching labour unions – generally manage to avoid. The film is in the rich tradition of using police procedurals to drill down into the slimy guts of a society, so that the police quickly become a political lens and metaphor (think Aurelio Zen on hashish). It starts with a murder, a nightclub singer and high class tart found dead in a room at the Nile Hilton. Her murderer is seen by a Sudanese cleaner, who knows which side her bread is buttered and skips, while the police and public prosecutor trip over themselves in their hurry to close the case. The prosecutor announces quickly that it was suicide (“She cut her own throat?” asks the police major, Noredin, who is the film’s protagonist, deadpan).
But somehow Noredin can’t quite let it rest. It’s not that he’s a moral paragon – he is far from that, a cop on the make, dealing in back-handers and easy violence, intimidation and extortion. He is part of a gang – made up of the entire force – at the Qasr al-Nil police station headed by his uncle, whose chief raison d’etre is to extract a cut or bribe from every economic activity that passes within range. But this case bothers Noredin, and he can’t leave it alone when told to: a building contractor friend of the president’s son (it’s January 2011, remember) was in the girl’s room, and appears in surreptitiously taken photographs that Noredin gets hold of. The policeman follows up the murdered girl’s friend, spends a night with her and after she too is murdered, finds himself in very similar photographs. Quite why he perseveres is not entirely clear – he is a cussed, obstinate man with a flash, if not of conscience, then of dim moral insight, and growing resentment at the way the powerful friends of the regime ride roughshod over law, rights, justice and life. Resisting attempts to kill the case, he confronts the apparent murderer, and witnesses begin to die. First the girlfriend, then two Sudanese, one of them wrongly thought to be the maid who saw the murderer.
The story, which ends with the discovery that the whole thing is a State Security operation, from murder to cover-up, from pay-off to blackmail, is no real surprise. What is fascinating is the texture, the sense of a rotten society run by crooks for their own benefit. Noredin, splendidly played by Fares Fares, has a tremendous, eloquent face, dark eyed and melancholy with a majestic, sculptural nose, by turns clever and dim, but always interesting. The street scenes, filmed in Casablanca, are redolent of both cities, alarming and often sickening. Oddly, the playbook here could have been a book called The Honored Dead by Joseph Braude, a young Iraqi-Jewish American who managed to get himself embedded with the Casablanca crime squad a decade ago, and wrote a terrific, illuminating account of his time there that smells and reads very like Salih’s Cairo and Noredin’s Qasr al-Nil. The music is evocative – Abdel Halim Hafez’s irresistably heartstring-twanging Ahwak accompanying both the scenes when Noredin is alone with a woman, first the girl who plans to blackmail him, and then the Sudanese maid. It is in both cases an ironic accompaniment – to a tryst with a whore and an escape with an illegal immigrant with a price on her head. Both women nonetheless touch and waken something in the flinty-hearted cop, something perhaps untouched since the death of his wife in a motor-accident.
The film ends as demonstrations of the 25th January 2011 rock Cairo. Noredin, his moral clock in some still perverse way reset, joins the protests and rebels against the glutinous turpitude of his uncle Kammal, who runs the police racket. In the middle of a crowd of angry demonstrators Noredin tries to arrest him, and is kicked senseless by the vengeful crowds who recognize a policeman. Kammal escapes with his briefcase of banknotes, the fruit of blackmail and as far as he is concerned the only relevant outcome of the case. Noredin is last seen lying on the tarmac, in a pool of blood, alive, as the crowd surges on. “We’re not like them,” says one protester, urging the others away from the fallen cop.
In one sense nihilistic, a vision of despair and powerlessness, the film gives a curiously optimistic and realistic glimpse of what redemption looks like. No bright lights, no total reversals, but a surfacing realisation that the individual can make a small difference, if not to society as a whole then to a small number of people around him, and to himself. No inversions of moral polarity, no love interest, no escape from the mire, except for the fact that Noredin’s grasping at the hem of decency takes place as Egypt does the same thing – finding the courage to confront the immovable monolith of oppression and corruption, regardless of the consequences. That Egypt, like Noredin, will get kicked in the teeth, does not vitiate the awakening courage that they both show.
The other star of the film ought to be the Nile Hilton, though by 2011 that grand old lady was in reality a Ritz Carlton and a shadow of her former self. Once the crossroads of the Middle East, scene of summits and secret meetings, espionage, tacky deals and – yes – murders, it is now just another lacklustre five-star hotel. It is glimpsed from a distance, its old name decorously restored (in English), looking portentous in long shots down hazy streets. It’s odd to be sentimental about an American hotel, but the old Hilton had a curiously perverse magic about it, an oasis of immediate post-war America, glitzy, false and reassuring in a grubby city from which it occasionally offered equivocal refuge. Its bar, bookshop and patisserie were agreeable, if entirely artificial, retreats. Not long after the moment recorded by the film, one of its Nasserite neighbours, the old Cairo municipality building, by then the headquarters of the infamous National Democratic Party, went up in flames; and Tahrir Square, immediately behind the hotel, became, of course, the epicentre of the Arab Spring. The story of The Nile Hilton Incident is the seething story beneath the surface of this little patch of central Cairo, bubbling towards the 25th January. And it is of course the story of Egypt.
But as we know, all does not end well, and “Z”, the film with which I began, again provides the text: as a plot summary drily puts it, “Instead of the expected positive outcome, the prosecutor is mysteriously removed from the case, several key witnesses die under suspicious circumstances, the assassins receive (relatively) short sentences, the officers receive only administrative reprimands, the Deputy’s close associates die or are deported, and the photojournalist is sent to prison for disclosing official documents. The heads of the government resign after public disapproval, but before elections are carried out, a coup d’etat occurs and the military seize all the power.”