By Ibrahim Abdel Meguid
Akher Sa'a. No. 1042, 13 October 1954
Late last summer I took a stroll down Safia Zaghloul Street in Alexandria, as I am often wont to do whenever in the city; stopping by Ramleh Station to check out the book vendors. I will always remember the late ‘Am Sayed, who sold me books when I could afford to buy them, or just loaned them to me when I could not. May God rest his soul. Oftentimes, I take a different route, going in the other direction starting with Ramleh Station, crossing Safia Zaghloul and Rue Fouad and back down Nebi Daniel to Saad Zaghloul and back again to Ramleh Station where I would spend some time in Calatheia or Trianon.
Why for the life of me and how many times I take those roads, I often wonder … thousands of times, no doubt. I have done this ever since I was a child of five coming from Karmouz, until I left Alexandria at the age of twenty five and later on during all my uncountable visits. And although it seems to me always that I roam the streets aimlessly, the truth of the matter is that I had grown addicted to walking by the cinemas on those streets, stopping to inspect photos of actors and the posters in the window display at the entrance of Cinema Rialto.
Walking through Rue Fouad late last summer, I noticed the shut down of the cinema by that name, as well as Cinema Plaza; and on the following visit I noticed that the former was being transformed into a Wedding Hall. I later learned that the same fate awaited Plaza Cinema as well. I cringed as I always did each time I heard of what was befalling and becoming of cinemas in Alexandria.
I had long known that demolishing movie houses in all Arab countries was not a random act but a carefully planned conspiracy and business-minded strategy with locations used for more lucrative ventures. But more importantly, behind all this lurks a growing streak of ultra conservatism verging on radicalism that sees in the very art of cinema a threat of haram or what is forbidden by religion; a notion hitherto all too alien to us.
Those who hold those views could never imagine that someone like yours truly would suffer for the simple reason that it was in these very cinemas that I received my first initiation into the value of the imagination and the imaginary world. That by pulling down those edifices they deprive people of one of the greatest festive pleasures; for watching a movie at the cinema is greater and by far more enjoyable than watching it on television for the simple reason that in the cinema you watch a movie in a ritualistic group atmosphere amidst an awesome silence worthy of that art and in consummate oneness with the rest of the viewers.
Alas, those fine human emotions do not pose any hindrance to the ignorant desert Wahabi notions of haram and its sledgehammer. How many a cinema has been demolished in Alexandria? No less than thirty: starting with El Nasr Summer Cinema in Dekheila a long time ago, to Montaza Open Air Cinema, through El Helal in Qabbari and Cinema Misr in Karmouz on Nile Street (known as El Nil Cinema), Cinema el Gomhourya in Ragheb, Cinema Star in Mahatet Masr, Tatweeg in Anfoushi, Cleopatra in Farahda, Cinema Rex, Ritz, Alhambra, Cosmo, El Sharq, Park, Majestic in Manshieh and Ramleh Station, Cinema Qais, Cinema Laila in Bacos, Cinema Sporting, La Gaité and Odeon. Other second and third class cinemas have all been brought down and converted to buildings and malls or workshops and warehouses. All that in a city that has known the beginnings of cinema screening before any other in Egypt only one year after the first Lumière projection in Paris in the year 1985. A city that has witnessed the establishment of the first cinema studio in Egypt at the hands of Mohamed Bayoumi in the 1920's of the past century.
For me cinema was an important factor contributing to my cultural make up: for after a period during which my imagination soared in pursuit of mythology and larger-than-life heroes … followed knowledge. Nearly each movie had behind it a literary work that I sought and read. Cinema opened a door for me to world literature introducing me, for example, to Margaret Mitchell after watching Gone with the Wind, Herman Melville after I saw Moby Dick, Dostoevsky after The Brothers Karamazov, Greek mythology after the Hercules series of films, Tolstoy after Anna Karenina and Hemingway after A Farewell to Arms; which last film in particular I remember watching at Cinema Fouad when I was only twelve years old, it being my first experience of that particular theatre.
Every visit to a second or third class cinema had a story or anecdote involving me and my friends: starting with skipping school, tramhanging, buying tickets from the black market, making passes at the girls, smoking our first cigarettes and later buying books at Ramleh Station. With the amelioration of our finances, going to the movies became an experience in sensual pleasure: from selecting clothes and hairstyle, to wearing French cologne and polishing our shoes etc. At the guichet (ticket booth) of Cinema Plaza sat a pretty girl I will never forget, and in Cinema Metro sat an even prettier demoiselle; I wonder where they are today …
Cinema Alhambra was the students’ hideaway on Mondays, and Cinema Plaza was reserved for Thursdays. The Majestic always smelled bad, its only credit being its location right across from Mohamed Ahmed the famous ‘foul and falafel’ shop (ex Benjamin) which sold affordable sandwiches. Going to Cinema Royal, on the other hand, was always a treat since it was claimed that it imposed a formal dress code and that anyone not properly attired would be denied entry into its premises. God knows where on earth this rumour ever came from! Going to Cinema Amir was more like visiting a friend’s beautiful home, both small and cosy in spite of the air condition in summer. The ultimate in cinematic pleasure was a trip to the Metro Cinema which was the embodiment of a strange yet authentic experience that transported one to the heart of Hollywood and beyond.
No wonder then that those cinemas took center stage in my writings, especially in my novels: The House of Jasmine and Birds of Amber. As a preparatory stage schoolboy I was able to cite over a hundred film titles from memory, sometimes more … up to a hundred and fifty; had I not become a novelist, I may well have been a film historian! Yet however etched and engraved in my soul all this history is, today’s reality can boast no trace of this past splendour. The people of Alexandria have been deprived of, among other things, a source of endless pleasure with utmost spiritual and cultural impact.
Today in Alexandria only eight cinemas remain: Radio and Royal, the Compounds and one in Agami. Low income areas, in spite of their predominance and all the construction taking place there, have all, without exception, been deprived of them, thus leaving millions of Alexandrians with the only alternative form of much less delightful or meaningful entertainment that is the television set. For television, even at its best, can never hope to aspire to the level of entertainment the experience of going to the cinema can provide.
What a gaping difference between a pleasure hardly sought, experienced in the banal and mundane comfort of one’s home, and a pleasure sought and gone after even out of one’s way: the latter warms the heart and lights up the spirit with joy, from the moment one leaves the house through the whole séance at the movie, and after and beyond. It remains ingrained in the psyche, enriching the imagination, leaving unforgettable memories and the viewer avid for knowledge. One’s whole vision of the world is altered, and insight is gained.
Such was the influence of cinema on me, and so it remains to be with multitudes the world over, every single day, as long as cinemas continue to exist.
Now I question: who can make the case and advocate a cinema in every district, and who will champion the cause and implement it in our city, in Alexandria: City of Cinema ….
Alex Med Newsletter.
Issue 3. May – July 2006.