Counting the Years
Shadi Abdel Salam’s Words
I am from both Upper Egypt and Alexandria … the son of conservative families from Minya and Alexandria. My father was a lawyer, a man of the law … My name is Shādī Muhammad Mahmūd ‘Abd al-Salām. I was born in Alexandria, but I’ve continued to visit our house in Minya throughout my life … Naturally, I am a son of the Sa‘īd… I fell in love with Minya. I loved everything about it: the houses, the clothes, the way of speaking: the traditions and customs; the moral character. The color of the people of the Sa‘īd – that’s the color that soothes my eye!
– 1952 –
My father opposed the monarchy and opposed the British occupation, of course. The  Revolution took place in my youth, and I watched everything that happened, although from a distance. I am against all forms of social tyranny, and I find myself always on the left … a liberal. Yes, most certainly, I would like to reiterate that I am a Sa‘īdī....The Sa‘īd is the real Egypt … the Pharaonic Egypt.
– 1954 –
There’s not a single artist in my family. Myself, I began to draw when I was a child. In truth, no one encouraged me, but at the same time, no one tried to keep me from pursuing my hobby … I tried to take up reading, but my father’s library was limited to difficult books on history and law … When I was 13, there was no choice but to read: I lay in bed for two years until I was 15, because the accelerated growth of my body was putting my heart in danger … After these two years, my growth slowed down, and I had become somewhat isolated, quite emotional and impeded in my studies ... I traveled to Europe for the first time when I was 19. I visited Paris and London and Rome … I wanted to study theater, but I wasn’t good at it … During my time at Victoria College, I didn’t read, nor was I interested in learning. However, at the Faculty of Arts, I began to read voraciously … In 1954, I graduated from the Department of Architecture …
– 1956 –
I entered the army, the maintenance corps in Abbasiyya … This was my first meeting – acquaintance through experience, not merely reading – with people in all their classes, factions and actual cultures. Conscripted, you are assembled with your colleagues, with all types, in one place. You're all wearing the same uniform whether you like it or not. You have to get along with everybody and understand them. After a while, you find that you’ve gotten used to them, and become one of them … During that critical experience, I became accustomed to a regimen and the strength of physical labor. During that time, I temporarily distanced myself from reading and writing and drawing. It’s like you’ve taken a forced vacation from all of this so your mind can go off in a completely different direction … That full year of military service gave me the opportunity to think about what I could do afterward …
– 1959 –
One day, I got the courage up to knock on the door of Salāh Abū Sayf … I told him, “I want to work in film.” I said that after I introduced myself, not forgetting to mention that I was his neighbor. We lived in the same street in Zamalek … Salāh Abū Sayf welcomed me, and afterwards I was with him daily in the studio …
In the first film, al-Futuwwa [The Bully], in about ’57 or ’58 (sic, 1954), I was a semi-spectator. I simply recorded the elapsed time of each shot. After that, I worked with him as an assistant director in the films al-Wisāda al-Khāliya [The Empty Pillow], al-Tarīq al-Masdūd [The Alley], and Ana Hurra [I Am Free]. After that I worked with the director [Henri] Barakāt, then with the director Hilmī Halīm in Hikāyat Hubb. In that film I did the sets because the set designer was away … The sets worked well, and apparently caught the eye of others, for after that I was contracted to do the sets of three other films…
– 1961 –
I started working on the sets of Salāh al-Dīn al-Ayyūbī which ‘Izz al-Dīn Dhū al-Fiqār was directing, but the project stopped when he died. Then I worked on Wa Islāmāh, taking the place of my teacher Waliy al-Dīn Samīh, who had gone abroad. I also did the sets and costumes. The film was directed by an American by the name of Andrew Martin in 1960. He’s a decent director, but when you direct a historical film, you must have precise knowledge of customs and dialects. In my opinion, the experiment didn’t succeed because the cast spoke Arabic, which the director didn’t understand, and so wasn’t able to appreciate, and so it was difficult for him to guide them.
– 1966 –
After Cleopatra (1963) and before Pharaoh (1966), I designed the sets for a number of films, including: Shafīqa al-Qibtiyya (1963), al-Khatāya (1962), Almaz wa ‘Abdū al-Hāmulī, Rābī‘a al-‘Adawiyya (1963), Amīrat al-‘Arab (1963), Amīr al-dahā’ (1964), Bayn al-Qasrayn (1964), and al-Sammān wa-l-Kharīf (1967). It is noteworthy that the events of most of these films necessitated historical sets. My success in Wa Islāmāh and Cleopatra was the reason behind that: after those two films, I had gained the confidence of producers to work on a range of historical films.
– 1967 –
I worked with Rossellini on a film about civilization. Rossellini influenced me like no other: not in terms of formal production, but intellectually. He was great due to his cinematic vision, which was simple while at the same time profound. The credit goes to him for my being able to realize my desire to switch to the craft of directing.
The desire to direct cinema had been pulling on me for a long time... And I had discovered that I was wasting my time working on sets … I would make walls and windows and paint them and that would wear me out. Then the sets wouldn’t be used the way l’d anticipated … I thought the time had come to say what I believed and I began to write al-Mūmiyā’ [The Mummy]. Something powerful drove me to write, regardless of whether or not the film got produced … Writing the script took about a year and a half … During that time, I quit all my other jobs and my financial situation became serious. But I found myself unable to work on anything but the script of my film … I received some offers, with fantastic salaries, to design and produce the sets of films. But I knew that if I accepted them, I’d be lying to them and to myself.... After finishing writing the film, I began to search for a way to produce it … It so happened that I was working at the time with Rossellini on the film on civilization – as I have already mentioned … I gave him a copy which, once he read it, he immediately took to Dr. Tharwat ‘Akkāsha, the Minister of Culture at the time. Rossellini told him: “How is it that you let this screenplay sit? Why aren’t you producing it immediately?” The Minister asked who the writer was. When Rossellini mentioned my name, Dr. ‘Akkāsha said he didn't know who I was. And Rossellini answered: “How could you know him before he’s made a film? Let him make it. Then you will know him very well.” Dr. ‘Akkāsha read the screenplay and liked it. In this way, the script was added to the cinema establishment’s roster of projects.
– 1968 –
I first read the story of the discovery of mummies in Dayr alBahrī in 1956. And it became the subject of my first film. Back in 1963, while I was in Poland working on Pharaoh, my longing for Egypt during one very cold winter night drove me to think about the idea. I thought to myself: “Where is this aspect of Egypt?” From there the journey of The Mummy took off in my mind. In 1965, its first form appeared: a poem about forty lines long which I wrote in a foreign tongue. It’s not a poem in the real sense of the word, but it is a composition closely resembling poetry. After that, I started writing the scenario. At first, it was a traditional, realist film that I called Buried Again and then Wanys. But I wasn’t in a hurry and was searching for the form that would mesh completely with how I expressed myself.
In March of 1968, I began shooting with ‘Abd al-‘Azīz Fahmī, whom I consider my eye, and the cinematographer Mustafa Imām, who is my right hand, and my friends and students, Sāmī ‘Awf, my second assistant, and Salāh Mir‘ī and ‘Unsa Abū Sayf who are set designers. They are the best of the young generation working in Egyptian cinema today. I wrote the screenplay before the Fifth of June 1967, and started shooting on March 22, 1968. That date [’67) had a huge effect whether or not that’s clear within the film. At the time, I was embarrassed to look into the mirror. On December 12, 1968 my father died, and that affected me immensely. My father meant more to me than a father.
– 1969 –
The Mummy is but twenty-four hours which represent a moment of consciousness or conscience that had yet to evolve in 1881, i.e., one year before English colonialism creeps across Egypt. In reality, I try to express a universal issue in Egyptian form: the landscape, life and history that I know and am most sensitive to.
– 1969 –
Since I was appointed director of the Center for Documentary Film, my basic goal has been more to find authentic filmmakers than to make so many films or produce routine programs. The poverty of cinema sterns from the lack of cinematic personages, or, as they say in France, the absence of a discourse that could create a milieu of intellectual filmmakers. I’ve always stipulated that a director must come up with his own ideas, that he never ought to borrow those of others. Only then will a cinematic author come into being.
– 1970 –
The Complaints of the Eloquent Peasant is a persistent cry for justice. Just so you know, the papyrus that contains this legend is four thousand years old. The issue in the film is not merely history or resurrecting a papyrus with a particular value – despite how very valuable it is in itself! But rather it’s a cry for justice, a cry that persists throughout the ages. What moved me was the value of the papyrus itself; it is four thousand years old and written in a logic which we could say is modern. A wonderful, transparent literary text. It’s the first story found in history. Of course, there were fables and myths before it, but these all belonged to religion. This story has no connection to religion. It is a social problem, that of a simple farmer taking his produce to market. Thieves rob him. He asks justice to take its course. But since justice is silent, he attacks it. He shouts in the face of power. He demands that power be responsible, while clarifying the characteristics of the just ruler … and so on, until he gets his justice. The very first autonomous short story by a writer-thinker of his time.
– 1972 –
I had recently taken over as Director of the Center for Documentary Films when government officials thought that I should make a film showing the most prominent of the Ministry of Culture’s various activities in ballet, music, theater and the many artistic and cultural groups. The goal, of course, was to produce a publicity sort of film. At first I avoided the idea simply because I was told to do a film that didn’t originate with me. They told me: “You choose the topic. Present the activity and study it, then say what you think about it.” I accepted reluctantly. I spent a year filming the most prominent activity and then I stopped … The country was in a state of grief and revulsion because of the catastrophe of 1967 and I discovered that those who were taking up cultural work, besides the institutions, were individuals or children. I began to discover that a life was going on despite that nightmare. I realized that the film could give me the opportunity to expose the beautiful things in our lives which aren’t apparent because they are far from the lights; they haven’t found anyone to expose them and what has been exposed has been known only by a limited group. The film’s idea expanded in my view … It was no longer confined within the frame of various facets of the activities of the Ministry of Culture, but also included individuals with no connection to the Ministry, in order to say, “Despite everything, Cairo lives on, in its people. Culture and art breathe.” I made the film with no voice over, no commentary, and I didn’t try to invent a connection between the twelve individuals I presented during the forty-minute film.
– 1973 –
A month after I began shooting Armies of the Sun, I didn't know what I was doing. The moment the fighting broke out, I was overwhelmed by the desire to volunteer. But my age didn’t permit me. I was no longer capable of carrying a weapon. So, instead, I took my camera and went to the front. The excitement filled me with such zeal and happiness that, for the first day, I forgot all about my camera. By my nature, I am slow, I like to study things. I don’t start something quickly, and my excitement usually takes time to show itself. There was nothing clear for me to work on. But what drew my eye was the happiness on the face of the soldiers despite all the hardships. The pontoon bridges had been deployed and soldiers were going back and forth to Sinai. And we saw how the fortified line with which the Israeli army had hid the soil of Sinai had been broken in more than one place where the advance of our soldiers had pierced through. That’s why the first thing that strikes you in the film is a smile. Maybe some would say that the film doesn’t have enough war and blood. But I don't like to lie … I discovered that the enemy is at a distance of ten kilometers, and a jet passes over like lightning-this is what modern warfare is like. What was the camera supposed to do?! It was impossible to shoot the actual fighting. How would you do it without acting it out and preparing beforehand? That’s something that can happen in a narrative film. But in this film, I wanted to sustain the sincerity of the actual, like a documentary should. For that reason, I focused my interest on the soldiers, their spirits, and that powerful unity obtained between hundreds of thousands who, in an instant, turned into a single column … I joined them in a conversation about their lives and feelings.
– 1975 –
I found out that I wasn’t living. I was dead. You stumble upon your truth there. You sense it deep-seated, extending in time … Four thousand, five thousand years. There you see Egyptian soldiers. Egyptians for real, as if history is in front of you, spilling out, alive, breathing-something indescribable … It compelled me to reexamine all my old positions, and that necessarily was reflected in the film itself. I could have presented anything that year, or the following, but each time I watched the humiliating retreat of the Armies of the Sun to their old lines, I would review the footage … I probably considered throwing most of it into the sea at one point … The expression had to take a genuine Egyptian shape, just like the Crossing [of the Suez Canal] had taken on a genuinely Egyptian shape.
– 1976 –
I’m asking the state to get involved in making film through highly-developed studios and modern labs, as well as through financing super productions that exceed the resources of individuals. And I’m asking the state to stop making the mistake of helping individuals to enrich themselves while making ridiculous films. The state should have a public sector in the cinema such that this sector is connected to the episodes which were there before it, namely the institutes of the Ministry of Culture. The state teaches the student in the Institute; after he graduates, the state is required to offer him a job in his special field of expertise in the public sector which it controls. Then it will be sure not to waste the money and effort it has expended in teaching its children. In sum, the film industry in Egypt cannot do without the state, just as the state shouldn’t desert cinema.
– 1977 –
I am working with three directors, Ibrāhīm al-Mūjī, ‘Ātif alTayyib and Muhammad Sha’bān, on a film on Edfu, which is a small village in the Sa‘īd, located between Luxor and Aswan, about 1000 kilometers from Cairo. Like most of the villages of the Sa‘īd, Edfu was originally built around an old temple, from the Third Century BC, which is itself built on the rubble of other, earlier temples, so that the history of this area goes back to five thousand years. We went to this village together, and we studied it – through our fieldwork and through academic sources. Each of us will direct a short film on it, presenting his particular point of view … This experiment is the beginning of a series of films entitled “The Cinematic Description of Egypt.” We are going to try to traverse the villages and cities of Egypt and, from their distinctive features, we will cinematically gather information on contemporary Egypt, its history, its social situation, its popular customs and arts … However, the information by itself won’t be enough. The sensations and particular point of view of each director will also be crucial … Through this project, we are trying to present the face of Egypt as we see it. Through this work, we are seeking a new cinematic form, perhaps more genuine and relevant to us than the forms transferred from Western cinema.
– 1980 –
The artist who imagines that in order to conquer Europe he has to make a film about the pharaohs or Egypt’s history is no greater than those who make gaudy plaster statues and run doggedly after tourists. If a tourist purchases something from him, it’s to get rid of him, not because the statue is worth anything in itself.
– 1982 –
I want a cinema that benefits people, that teaches them, but in an artful way. For this reason, I needed to find a new cinematic style. A film that is pedagogical without dryness … A film that offers information and cultivates the human hut that isn’t devoid of pleasure. A film with a highly developed narrative, whose content is simplified and free of clunky specialized idioms which might not reach the average viewer I’m looking for. In fact, I decided to address the typical Egyptian family whose members all sit in front of the television. I believe that if we as artists want a future, or if we want to evolve, we need to be interested in the Egyptian household, because that is the future. Ever since I began to work, I’ve had a cause: histories that have been hidden or lost … The people you see on the street and in houses and in the fields and the factories have a history. They have participated daily in forming life, indeed, in creating life; they have enriched humanity. How do we represent and remember their positive and powerful participation in life? First, they need to know who they are, what they were, and what they’ve contributed … We need to connect the person of today with the person of yesterday so we can present a person of tomorrow … That’s what motivates me.
– 1983 –
I was born in Minya and this region had a profound effect on me. When you read about Tell el-Amarna, you learn that it was the country of the sun. It was built according to the most beautiful architectural design. It was planned and had trees and gardens. I read about all that. But when you visit the region, you find it all debris. There’s no walls to be found. A real, moving tragedy. I’d read a lot about Tell el-Amarna and from that carne the idea of the film Akhenaton.
Akhenaton is a person with a fixed point of view; he has a powerful, immense vision. From this angle, he wasn’t suited to be a ruler. A ruler should be distinguished by cunning and a degree of slyness and trickery, a grasp of his situation: when to talk and when to be silent, when to fight and when to retreat. These are the qualities of a ruler. Akhenaton, on the contrary, had the traits of a philosopher; like the bullet which, when fired, can’t be recalled or re-aimed. This is his composition and his destiny. As I understand it, the most important aspect of Akhenaton’s character was his strength, his abounding strength and self-confidence. While in the eras that preceded him, the gods represented the highest ideals, which is why they were depicted; I believe that Akhenaton saw his life and his family as the highest ideal. When these gods disappeared during his reign, his family was depicted in all states of daily life. My film doesn’t look at Akhenaton as a person. It deals with the dynasty which preceded him and that which followed him. The film is completely ready to shoot. It could have been done years ago. For ten years I’ve been struggling to direct it and I hope to do it soon.
Before starting to shoot, I will teach the cast the gestures and rhythms of those who lived three thousand years ago. They will need to learn to walk barefoot very naturally in burning sands. I’ve asked the finest artisans in Moski in old Cairo to make for me exactly what was made for Tutankhamen … decorated with jewels … the very colors … the same weights … the same material, or something close to it. I am using the finest materials in order to approximate the real thing. I want you to understand me ... the actors aren’t professionals … I met the person who will play the role of Akhenaton while walking in the streets of Cairo … I’ve met more than one young woman who would work for the role of Nefertiti. Now I have to choose one of them … Most of those who act for me are inexperienced … I can influence them … They’re not tied to things that distance them from us … For this reason, when they decorate themselves with jewelry and wear wigs like the ancients – wigs made of wool – and Pharaonic robes made of Egyptian cotton or priestly garments made of cheetah skin … At that moment, the blood of our kings and queens and princes and soldiers and storytellers and writers will flow in their veins. It’s the blood of memory. They won’t be acting roles, they will be inheriting them.
– 1984 –
Sometimes we say, “We’re seven thousand years old and don’t even know it.” This phrase has very large implications. For if, of these seven thousand years, I only know forty, then I’m like the person who is thirty years old but only remembers the last five. The state of profound personal confusion from which he would be suffering can be compared to the [Nation-] State that is afflicted by the sickness of this memory loss. I believe that we have generations suffering from cultural and historical amnesia. We need to rekindle this memory so that as individuals we are able to say, “Tomorrow I shall do this,” while standing on solid ground. Without this, a person will not believe in his ideas, nor will he have an existence.
– 1985 –
The doctors operated to extract the tumor, ran all the tests, and the medical reports confirmed that it was a benign tumor. I admit that for a while I thought it was a malignant one. But I dispelled those thoughts, especially after the noticeable improvement in my health after the operation was performed. Thank God that I’m very well. I feel completely healed. Akhenaton is one hundred percent ready to go. I only need eight months to finish the costumes, the sets and casting. Then I begin shooting right away.
– 1985 –
I have delayed for so long. I don’t want to hide from you the fact that l’d been waiting for it for so many long years. So I am happy about it. I feel that its true place is in my heart. Anyway, this is the first time I’ve submitted one of my works to compete in a state contest. I don’t know if that’s because of laziness on my part, or ignorance on the part of others. Anyway, I wish that promotional contests were like achievements awards: where instead of individuals entering themselves in the competition, the state nominates you. But anyway, the state’s not at fault. There’s no government agency which could enumerate all the quality works of art.
– 1986 –
Throughout my life, I have safeguarded myself from the pollution of the commercial. I built myself up through reading, research and learning. Much of the time I was quite anxious because I wasn’t working … Life’s scope is so limited. I feel that I am full of many visions. I want to do something worthwhile in life … I always know that the lack of resources holds me back; I wish the government would adopt me. Work is life to me. I spend my days working very seriously on many things. I read. I write. I draw. I sculpt. I take pictures. And I store everything. I marshal my forces for the day I get to stand behind the camera to start Akhenaton. I feel that the people of my country don't know their history as well as they should. It’s important to me that I make them aware of even five hundred of the thousands of years of Egypt’s history. Others will have to make up the rest. I don’t make films that are commodities. I produce cinema as a record for future generations.
This text was originally published in Discourse: Journal for Theoretical Studies in Media and Culture 21, no. 1 (1999), Middle Eastern Films Before Thy Gaze Returns to Thee (Winter 1999), 127-139. This collection of excerpted interviews was published in al-Qāhira 159 (February 1996): 14-21, along with the following bibliography of the original publications from which they were taken.
‘Abd al-Mālik, Anwar. “Shādī ‘Abd al-Salām.” Majallat al-Yawm al-Sābi‘ 10 Nov. 1986.
–––––––. “lnhad fa-lan tafna.” Majallat al-Yawm al-Sābi‘ 10 Nov. 1986.
–––––––. “Ahlan ya Juyüsh al-Shams.” Majallat al-Yawm al-Sābi‘ 133 (Nov. 1986).
‘Abd al-Azīz, al-Fārūq. “Juyūsh al-Shams.” Majallat al-Talī‘ 11 Dec. 1975.
‘Abd al-Tawwāb, Ahmad. “Shādī ‘Abd al-Salām,” Majallat al-Taqaddum 76 (10 Apr.1981).
Abū ‘Awf, ‘Abd al-Rahmān. “Hiwār ma‘ al-mukhrij Shādī,” Majallat al-Bayān 113 (1 Aug. 1975).
–––––––. “Hadafi khalq bī’a sīnamā'iyya muthaqqafa,” Majallat Ruz al-Yusuf 2345 (21 May 1973): 48-49.
‘Anān, Layla. “Hal ta‘tarif Misr mithla Faransa bi-Shādī ‘Abd al-Salām.” Majallat Ruz al-Yusuf 3021 (5 May 1986).
‘Atiyya, Jamāl. “‘Ashr sanawāt min ajl fīlm Akhnatūn, aw ma’sāt al-bayt alkabīr,” Majallat al-Manār 1:8 (Aug. 1985).
Darwīsh, Mustafa. “al-Sīnamā wa-l-wa‘iy li-masīrat al-tārīkh.” al-Funūn 5:21 (July/Aug. 1984): 4-9.
Farīd, Samīr. “Hiwar ma‘ Shādī.” Nashrat Nādī al-Sīnamā 11 (1981-82).
Hennebelle, Guy (with the participation of Ola Balogun, François Chenu, et al.) “Chadi Abdel Salam: une brillante exception.” Les Cinémas Africains en 1972 (Paris: Société Africaine d’Édition, 1972).
Husayn, Ni‘matallah. “al-Jā’iza ta’akhkharat wa-makānuhā fī-qalbī.” Majal lat Ākhir Sā‘a 2646 (10 July 1985): 40.
al-Jundī, Mājida. “Lam ya‘ud yuhimmunī siwa al-‘ā’ila.” Majallat Ruz al-Yusuf 31 Mar. 1983.
Khalil, ‘Abd al-Nūr. “Hilm Akhnatūn yanzil ila ard al-wāqi‘,” Majallat alMusawwir 3168 (28 June 1985): 42-43.
al-Nahhas, Hāshim. “Shādī ‘Abd al-Salām wa-muhāwalā fī-ta’ sīl al-sīnamā al-misriyya.” Majallat Afāq ‘Arabiyya Aylūl 1977.
Qandīl, Muhammad. “al-Tumūh al-tashkīlī ‘inda Shādī ‘Abd al-Salām.” Majallat al-Musawwir 3008 (4 June 1982): 44-46.
al-Salamūnī, Sāmī. “Hiwār lam yunshar abadan.” al-Idhii'a wa-l-Tili:ftziyün 2693 (18Oct.1986): 18-21.
al-Tayyib, Majdī. “Yawm an tuhsa al-sinīn, sawfa natadhakkar Shādī ‘Abd al-Salām.” Majallat al-Qāhira 65 (15 Nov. 1986): 81-87.
With thanks to Elliott Colla an Mary Sweetman.
© Wayne State University Press
Milestones: Al-mummia takes place on Thursday 21 January 2021 at 19:30 on Sabzian. You can find more information on the event here.