Shadi Abdel Salam carried two cultures within him: he was born and raised in Alexandria, and his mother and maternal ancestors came from Al-Minieh. He travelled in two worlds: that of the cosmopolitan city of Alexandria and its rich Hellenic heritage, and that of Al-Minieh, the pearl of Upper Egypt, imbued with traditions and customs drawing their rigidity from distant pharaonic origins. Although he looked like a noble cavalier, with matching gentleman-like qualities, fluent in English, French and Italian, he always remained that austere son of Upper Egypt, linked to his ancestors who lie inside the tombs dug into the hills of Thebes by a very long history. It was his own personal way of solving this difficult equation: no one could match his knowledge of all the novelties of the century, while his daily activities and his personality evoked those of an actual pharaoh, reincarnated in the 20th century.
Shadi Abdel Salam was born during the flamboyant period of the Egyptian renaissance which took off after the revolution of 1919 and was started by the ‘Urabi revolt. Some exceptional personalities surfaced during that time: Rifa’a al-Tahtawi, Qasim Amin, Sheikh Abdou, and giants of thought and literature such as Abbas Mahmoud al-Aqqad, Taha Hussein or Tawfiq al-Hakim, leading artists and scientists such as the music composer Sayed Darwish, the sculptor Mahmoud Mukhtar and the architect Hassan Fathy, not to mention the golden-age Cairo University generation and that of the economic school of Talaat Harb and Banque Misr. A brilliant time, which Tawfiq al-Hakim tried to describe in his novel The Return of the Spirit, in which he expressed the resurrection of the Egyptian national soul after the revolution of 1919 via this quote from the Book of the Dead:
When time becomes immortality
We will see you again
For you are inexorably heading towards this place
Where All is in One...
Shadi Abdel Salam lived this period intensely. It came full circle with the revolution of 23 July 1952 and the radical changes it produced in Egyptian society. But he always believed in the continuity of Egyptian civilization, a belief that destroys the assertion of colonizers for whom Egyptian life today bears no resemblance to the past. Shadi Abdel Salam’s conviction has stayed the same: in Egyptian history, continuity is the absolute rule, and breaks are mere accidents. Egypt is enriched with tributary civilizations, but Egypt remains itself.
For Shadi Abdel Salam, egyptianity was both a responsibility and a mission. It throbs throughout his work. He lived the artificial contradictions of that time, contradictions we could summarize in the following two questions: Is Egypt Arab or Muslim? And to what extent is the pharaonic period similar to contemporary events? The criteria concerning these questions had become confused, and Shadi Abdel Salam was able to pose them again thanks to his – prize-winning – attempts to revive Egypt’s unity and permanence. For him, modern Egypt cannot be reduced to the revolutions of 1952 or 1919, nor to the ‘Urabi revolution of 1882. It cannot be reduced to either the reign of the Mamelukes, the Ptolemaic era or the various pharaonic dynasties. It doesn’t give more importance to or isolate any era. Egypt’s unity originated before the advent of the first pharaonic dynasty, and its consolidation has never ceased since.
When, in 1954, Shadi Abdel Salam finished his architectural studies at the Academy of Fine Arts, where Ramses Wassef, Hassan Fathy and Wali Eddine Sameh were his professors, he decided to become a filmmaker. Cinema would become his major preoccupation and a way for him to express his view of his country’s civilization and deepen his perception of national heritage. From 1957 to 1959, he was assistant to Salah Abu Seif, Helmy Halim and Henry Barakat, for the films The Empty Pillow, The Barred Road, I Am Free, A Love Story and Have Pity on my Love. Then, he designed the décors and costumes for many films: Sword of Islam, Saladin, Almaz and Abdul Hamuli, Chafika the Copt Girl, Antar the Black Prince, Rabia Al Adawiyya, Princess of the Arabs, The Crafty One, The Sin, Between Two Palaces, City Lights, Al saman wal kharif.
By entering this field, Shadi Abdel Salam revolutionized set design in Egyptian cinema. His décors and costumes managed to convey the atmosphere of an era. Every detail had its meaning and significance: the architecture of the locations, the shape of the columns, the door handles, the domes, the glass, the stripes on the djellabas and the moiré of hats and scarves, as well as all kinds of clothing accessories.
Shadi Abdel Salam’s cinematographic work is characterized by its unity of style and by the simplicity of its design, always at the service of the action, by the attention paid to architectural details, the harmonization of different elements in the image and the importance given to the geography of a certain location with a view to authenticity. As artistic advisor to the Polish director Jerzy Kawalerowicz for his film Pharaoh, Shadi Abdel Salam demonstrated a deep knowledge of pharaonic civilization, unlike the Cleopatra of American film studios. The latter relies on cheap and preposterous dazzle, and lacks historical verisimilitude; it comes across as a mixture of different styles and denotes a clear lack of knowledge about the history of the pharaohs.
In 1967, Roberto Rossellini chose him as an adviser for a film on Egyptian civilization that he was about to direct. Shadi took the opportunity to show Rossellini a film project for which he had written the script: The Mummy. The Italian master was enthusiastic. The film was produced in 1969, under the patronage of the Minister of Culture at the time, Sarwat Okacha. Abdel Salam wanted to show how modern Egyptians could reappropriate their historical roots and lift their heads again.
The filmmaker gathered around him a group of recent graduates of Cairo’s High Film Institute and made them aware of their country’s tradition by taking a fresh look at things and intuiting the nobility of the past and the possibility of becoming part of its continuation.
He relentlessly tried to deliver his message by presenting films that illustrate the history of his country to catch the attention of contemporary Egyptians, and by explaining the different stages of Egyptian civilization and its past greatness. He fought tenaciously to get his film Akhenaton produced, in which he would recount the religious revolution of the pharaoh that shook the entire East by way of the conflict between Akhenaton and the priests of Amun. In this project, Shadi Abdel Salam rebelled against the idea of historical breaks – an idea which, according to him, prevents Egypt from recognizing its pre-Islamic heritage – inviting new generations to understand the meaning and scope of this heritage, so that they could discover their most profound identity and be legitimately proud of their ancient civilization. This hope was blocked from all sides. Shadi Abdel Salam passed away on 8 October 1986, without having realized his big dream of reviving Egypt’s avant-garde role.
This text originally appeared as ‘Le chevalier du cinéma égyptien’, in Magda Wassef, Salah Marei, ed. Chadi Abdel Salam, le Pharaon du cinéma égyptien (Paris: Librairie Ima, 1996).
With thanks to Magda Wassef.
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