Dreams of Alternative Modernities on the Nile
Abdelfattah, Heba Arafa
This study accounts for the ability of Egyptian cinema, as a modern art form and popular culture, to critique rigid social realities and imagine modern social experiences despite overt and covert censorship regimes, thereby pushing boundaries towards social change. Focusing on the inter-revolutionary period of 1919-1952, I examine the deep-seated problems and attempts to overcome overt and covert censorship by the colonial state, the Cairene bourgeoisie, and the ‘ulama’. I argue that censorship is a byproduct of a dominant false consciousness of modernity, which the colonial state, the Cairene bourgeoisie, and the ‘ulama’ reduced to sustaining an amour-propre of a modern civilizational image without the internalization of modern notions of equity and social justice. This false consciousness of modernity drove a number of passive colonialist cultural policies and anti-colonialist reactions, which reduced film to an instrument of cultural hegemony. Pioneer filmmakers, who witnessed the anti-British 1919 revolution with its limited success in advancing the project of modernity in Egypt, found in cinema a powerful new communication medium, which they used to present a counter-discourse. Filmmakers used the screen to construct a public sphere where subaltern social groups— such as working class Egyptians, peasants, women and performing artists— occupied a central position. A secularizing society—but not anti-religious society—, in which people enjoyed surprising levels of social liberties and social justice for the period, was the marker of that cinematic public sphere. In doing so, early Egyptian cinema amplified the unheard voices of the marginalized within the public sphere. At the same time, cinema critiqued the root causes—not the symptomatic policies—of the modernity discourses shaping overt and covert censorship. In a way, this study is an archaeology of the alternative forms of modernity prevalent in Egyptian popular culture through the lens of cinema, a modern art form negotiating overt and covert censorship in the public sphere.
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