'Barra and Zaman': Essay explores story of Egypt through the lens of 1969 film 'The Mummy'

Writer Youssef Rakha analysed Shadi Abdel Salam's masterpiece in context of the world at the time

A still from Shadi Abdel Salam's 1969 film The Night of Countring the Years, also known as The Mummy. courtesy: IMDb
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Acclaimed Egyptian novelist, essayist and poet Youssef Rakha has written Barra and Zaman: Reading Egyptian Modernity in Shadi Abdel Salam's The Mummy. The idiosyncratic essay on the film also known as The Night of Counting the Years is part of publisher Palgrave's Studies in Arab Cinema series, and will be released on Saturday, February 13.

Celebrated Italian neorealist Roberto Rossellini produced Salam's period drama, and the film is widely acknowledged as the greatest masterpiece of Egyptian cinema. Released in 1969, The Mummy was Egypt's nomination for the 43rd Oscars, although it didn't get shortlisted.

The film, starring Ahmed Marei, Ahmed Hegazi and Nadia Lutfi, is based on the true story of the discovery of 40 royal mummies that had been undisturbed for 3,000 years. In 1881, in Thebes, the capital of the pharaonic empire, archaeologists from the government's Department of Antiquities in Cairo noticed that several objects related to the 21st dynasty were appearing on the black market.

The only people who knew the whereabouts of the tombs from which these items came were members of the Horabat mountain tribe, and in the film, it’s left to the two sons of the dead tribal chief to decide whether to reveal the secret.

What's interesting about Rakha's essay is that he approaches the film with a huge degree of scepticism. It begs the question, why did he want to write about it? "It's complicated," he tells The National. "To me, the film is like a very close friend or a partner, somebody you've known for a very long time. So, you both love them and hate them.

“Obviously, you love them enough to pay that much attention and be involved to this degree,” he adds. “You see their faults and you see what’s wrong with them.”

Egyptian novelist and poet Youssef Rakha has examined each scene in the film, studying what it said about Egypt.

Rakha, 44, describes how he uses the film as an entry point to look at Egypt. He highlights that The Mummy was being shot during the aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict. The action depicted is set at the tail end of the Ismaili era, just before British occupation, and it's about items created when Egypt was the centre of the world. "The Mummy is Egypt, and The Mummy is cinema, and The Mummy is mortality," Rakha says.

From this starting point, he says: "What's happening in the book is I'm using the film as an interface with reality. So, it isn't even necessarily about the film. It's a celebration of The Mummy in one way, but in another way, it's looking at the world through the film. At my world."

His perspective dominates the work. It’s written as if he is watching the film as we read. However, unlike a director’s commentary on a DVD, Rakha’s adjuncts and anecdotes are not about the film per se, but observations on Egypt. “I wanted to follow the film, almost like a viewing, scene-by-scene almost, but also I wanted to see how far I could go with each scene outside of the film.”

It isn't even necessarily about the film. It's a celebration of 'The Mummy' in one way, but in another way, it's looking at the world through the film. At my world

He would watch and rewatch a scene, contemplating how much he wanted to narrate or describe the moment in words. “But mainly I wanted to see what it meant to me in the widest possible context and how that connects with everything else I’m saying about Egypt.”

It's a style in keeping with his acclaimed novels The Book of the Sultan's Seal (2011) and The Crocodiles (2012).

“I’ve always had a kind of abstract philosophical aspect to my thinking,” Rakha says. “If you’re creating emotions and characters, it can be hard to bring in ideas unless you allegorise or orchestrate them somehow. It’s always been interesting to me to bring different kinds of writing together and have a few passages of speculative thinking without that being jarring.”

His inimitable prose style immediately marked him out as one of the best writers of his generation. Rakha was born and raised in Cairo. At the age of 17, he moved to the UK and went on to read English and philosophy at Hull University. He graduated with first-class honours and was awarded the Larkin Prize for English and the Chris Ayers Prize for Philosophy.

He returned to Cairo and has since worked as a cultural journalist and literary translator. His 2006 photo travelogue, Beirut Shi Mahal, was nominated for the Lettre Ulysses Award for the Art of Reportage. He was also among the 39 best Arab writers under 40 selected for Hay Festival's Beirut39 in 2010.

The book cover: Barra and Zaman by Youssef Rakha.

Rakha's first novel, The Book of the Sultan's Seal, won the Banipal Seif Ghobash Prize for Paul Starkey's translation in 2015, and his third, 2016's Paulo, was on the long list of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2017 and won the 2017 Sawiris Award. Paulo was the second part of The Crocodiles, which the author presented at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair in 2015.

As with The Crocodiles, his new writing, Barra and Zaman (the Arabic words meaning outside/abroad and time/of the past), features numbered paragraphs and a first-person perspective. There is music to his sentences and poetry to his prose. It's a work of auto-­theory, an emerging term used to describe works of literature, art and criticism that integrate autobiography and subjective expression with philosophy and theory to transgress genre conventions. The term became popular after the release of Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts in 2015.

It's always been interesting to me to bring different kinds of writing together

“The writing between academia and creative non-fiction is always in the back of my mind,” Rakha says. “So, when I discovered auto-theory, quite recently, maybe a couple of years ago, it felt like something I wanted to do.”

However, he does not call himself a disciple of this literary movement. “My problem with auto-theory is that it tends to be very ideological and emanates from a very specific sort of identity political perspective, and I don’t like that,” he says. “I like to start from a very sort of human perspective and see what happens.”

'Barra and Zaman: Reading Egyptian Modernity in Shadi Abdel Salam’s The Mummy' is out on February 13, 2021