Abdel Halim Nasr
History has it that the first scientific investigation into the natural phenomenon of vision and reflection, hence lens, aperture and projection, is to be found in the great optical treatise of the Arab philosopher Alhazen who died in Cairo in AD 1083. However, if the esoterics of photography are as deeply rooted in Arab soil as in Italian history, it was not until the turn of the last century, and through the portal of Alexandria that natives from both cultures teamed together to give us the art of photography.
From black-tent still photography to the early experiments with the motion camera, it is to the salad days of the light-reflecting, glass-ceiling, green-houses that were the primitive studios of the Alexandrian school of simple, basic photography that we owe some of our first and best home grown top of the crop cinematographers. If not state of the art technology by today’s standards, the city’s special studio system based on dexterity and versatility of talent and role, its master and apprentice division of labour was a forerunner of the modern day incubator concept. It fostered talents which were to provide Egyptian cinema with a long list of potential artists and technicians.
Although primitive, this Alexandrian school of cinema with its masters, its teachers, its disciples and its pupils counted among its graduates a keen Alexandrian who was soon on his way to his postgraduate and professional days in the city that was later to become the capital of Egyptian and Arab cinema. Eventually leaving the shores of Alexandria, Noah’s Ark of cinematographers sailed to Cairo and Studio Misr. Amidst the cast and crew his face stands out from among the crowd of mostly foreign nationals, and he would one day stand at the helm steering the national industry to land on the ground we tread today.
Abdel Halim Nasr was initiated into cinema in the Alexandria that harboured talents but lost them to the lure of the promise and the city lights of the capital. He trained at the hands of the Italian studio owner Alvise Orfanelli where he spent his formative years in this most prolific studio and later gained his right to an autonomous future with the help and support of Togo Mizrahi to whom he remained faithfully indebted.
If not many Egyptian talents were hatched, or for that matter, actively encouraged, it is to Nasr’s credit that he managed his odyssey into the world against all odds, landing jobs and earning renown. But it is also thanks to Togo, for bridging what at times looked like a cultural divide and making for creedal healing, the role Mizrahi played in his career was of primordial importance.
From the obscurity of his dark room days of apprenticeship and learning to the lights of the professional studios of the capital shone this Egyptian star of cinema photography with an illustrious career. If directors of photography are often overlooked and their work overshadowed by a long list of credits topped by director and acting stars, Abdel Halim Nasr belongs to a generation when the man behind the camera was the hand that rocked the cradle. It is from those days that we trace his career.
Writing about the ‘Ostaz’, or the ‘Master’ as he was called by his followers and fellow photographers, Said el Shimi mentions the ground-breaking achievement of Nasr as primarily to have broken the foreign monopoly on the art of cinematic photography. This, however, should in no way undermine Shimi’s recognition of the importance of the ‘founding fathers’ of the craft; even calling theirs ‘The Classical School’ that laid the infrastructure of all the schools to come.
To borrow a phrase often used in the trade: it was from under Alvise’s cloak that Abdel Halim Nasr emerged as one of Egypt’s foremost photographers in his own right.
Born in 1913 in Kafr el Zayyat where he attended school and where his father owned a small photography shop, the young Abdo, as he was known to friends, would finish his homework and rush to his father’s studio where he would spend a great deal of time. He had grown fond of the smell of chemicals and the special atmosphere of the dark room and the red light bulb so typical of the time. Sensing this eagerness his father assigned him tasks in the processing laboratory and the young apprentice was always willing to comply.
At seventeen his mind was already set that this was the career he would like to pursue, and for which a move to Alexandria would be necessary. The dream of leaving for the city that he knew only from brief vacations in the summer finally came true; and with it a dream job with one of the city’s major studios owned by the Italian Egyptian Alvise Orfanelli who had owned a photo shop there since 1919. Nasr was quick to learn and Orfanelli no sooner found that out than Nasr became an important aid in spite of his young age. He was given signs to write out on celluloid, with words such as: ‘entre-acte’ (interval) and ‘prochainement’ (forthcoming attraction) etc, all of which, in retrospect, seems easy but the fact remains that he was the only one allowed to handle those screens apart from the master.
Later with the advent of American movies, Nasr was put in charge of fixing plates bearing French translations for those films. These would arrive already printed but needed transposing, and often they would get muddled up and be all the more confusing to sort out and make sense of for the spectator. Nasr toiled day and night in the studio and soon outside, when Orfanelli who was often commissioned to film school activities and sports events as for the city’s renowned Victoria College or Abassia School, would send Nasr to film instead. The young enthusiast would carry the heavy equipment and do his outdoor work, rushing back to the studio at the end of a hard day to work in the lab.
It was all interesting, but Nasr had one complaint that was so nagging that it cost him his job. He wished to have his wages supplemented by a couple of pounds, to raise his salary from 7 to 9 LE, not even daring to round it into a double digit. Unfortunately this ended his stint with Orfanelli who categorically refused even at the risk of the young man leaving him, which he threatened to do and, in fact, did.
With not a penny and many a regret for the job he lost, Nasr went for a long walk along the sea-front, his pockets empty save for a precious piece of paper signed by Alvise who had accorded him this certificate of merit stating that he had trained and worked at his studios. As he fumbled with the paper and stood lost in thought, a hand touched his shoulder: it was Togo Mizrahi.
It was this hand that not only lent him the bountiful sum of thirty pounds to subsist on for the next three months until Mizrahi came back from a trip abroad, but it also lent him the support and help to forge a career and a future first with him and later on his own. Nasr had worked with Mizrahi just once before and now Mizrahi wanted to work with him again; he had just been to the Alvise studio to look for him and having not found him there set out to find him.
And so Nasr’s career took a new turn. He became the one photographer to shoot most, if not all, of Togo’s films; starting with The Two Delegates, Doctor Farahat and The Sailor, after which his salary was augmented to 15 LE, a colossal sum for the mid 1930s. In fact, by the time Nasr left Togo his wages had reached 250 LE per month.
Nasr made headlines, literally. In 1935, the Arabic magazine El Aroussa issued an apology to the young and upcoming photographer who had written to the magazine offended that he had been deliberately ignored in a recent review of Togo’s The Sailor. The review had made only a passing allusion to the film’s photography that ignored the man behind the camera, only to fuel an underlying conflict that sometimes threatened to surface. Unfortunately this was a conflict that is only too easy to attribute to a rising nationalistic origin today, but the truth of the matter was not as grave as it might be made to seem and which can be an all too facile allegation.
The very candidness with which complaint and apology were conducted should really attest to the fact that it could be openly expressed and discussed, and that the magazine found no problem with issuing an apology. That such an incident may all too easily denote a certain refusal of ‘the other’, in that case the foreigner, has of course, been considered, but it has to be remembered that instead of the myopia of xenophobia this may well have been the artist wishing to be perceived and recognized. Patriotism apart, Nasr craved recognition and the right to exist independently of a patron and this was probably what fuelled his ire. He had, after all, never been averse to learning at the hands of the Italian or working for the Jew, even recognizing his deep indebtedness to the latter especially, without ever any shadow of reservation throughout his career.
At twenty two he was the youngest photographer in the business, and understandably a pride to the nation as he must have been, no doubt, to his teachers and his mentors. Over the years, Abdel Halim Nasr fine-tuned his work and gradually moved away from the classical school of photography of the older generation of Alexandrians. The technology of making cameras and film had made giant steps and he was in every position to make use of it; he traveled a great deal and was constantly exposed to the innovations that were taking place in the world.
He had a good eye for discovering new locations and it is said that he was responsible for making Mersa Matrouh a favourite spot for vacationers after making a film there The Love Shore. He had an eye for new stars and was the first to introduce Yousra and, earlier, Mariam Fakhr el Din to the screen. He was the first Egyptian to film underwater with the help of his brother Mohsen and his aide Kamal Selim, by using a specially manufactured buffer filter that he attached to the camera lens. It was a very primitive contraption that could not go deep below the surface of the water, but it did solve a problem and was his invention, after all, and a contribution. Nasr produced a number of films, directing only one in 1980, A Castle in the Air.
A kind and affable man of few words, he helped many young photographers along with his two younger brothers Mohsen and Mahmoud, Mohamed Taher and fellow Alexandrian Abdel Moneim Bahnassi upon his arrival to Cairo fresh from Alexandria. He taught at The Cinema Institute of Cairo for two years, but a heavy workload and filming schedule made it too stressful for him to pursue a teaching career as well.
Constantly pre-occupied with the future of the industry, he regretted that much talk about a brighter future always amounted to little more than words in the absence of a government that would take concrete steps by way of providing funds, buildings and scholarship grants. He lamented the lack of initiative by government and individuals, and always lauded the early generation of filmmakers in Alexandria as pioneers who took the plunge and gambled with their money in a spirit of adventure he longed to see again. He also wished the team spirit that once inspired a generation would find its way again to the business without petty considerations and selfish motives that would jeopardize any hope of progress.
Nasr was convinced that it was in its photography that the forte of the Egyptian film lay, and that the credit that invariably went to directors was over-rated by the critics, and often unfair to the cinematography. In the absence of a good story which he cites as the weakest spot in Arabic films, it is the photography that saves the day by setting the pace and ensuring that the audience remains interested in the visual aspect at least of an otherwise mediocre work.
It was his belief that the dictatorship of the image in today’s world has left Egyptians lagging behind with their legacy of the word, a problem French cinema managed to circumvent resulting most recently in a brand new market only just re-opened in Egypt after years of total absence from the scene. His dream was to see the Egyptian film make it internationally and blamed its failure to do so, among other things, on the prevalent language of cinema.
Instead of emphasis on dialogue which is the stuff of theatre and which restricted the film’s chances of being truly appreciated, even considering translation and subtitles, he pleaded for a different cinema. This would be a cinema where the visual impact would act as a unifying force bringing viewers to the screen whatever their national background or their language, for his was the language that knew no frontiers, like the city where he grew up whose scalloped seashore and universal language of co-existence may well have painted the landscape of his vision.
1935: Doctor Farahat (el Doktor Farhât)
1935: Shalom the Dragoman (Shalom el tourgmân)
1935: The Sailor (el bahhâr)
1936: A Hundred Thousand Pounds (Mit alf guinih)
1936: Barrack Guard (Khafir el darak)
1937: Much Wealth is a Nuisance (el ‘Izz bahdalah)
1937: Seven o’clock (el Sâ‘ah Sab‘ah)
1938: The Telegram (el Telegraf)
1938: This is my nature! (Anâ tab ī Kidah)
1939: Osman and Ali (‘Othman wa ‘Ali)
1939: Lend me Three Pounds (Sallifnî talâtah guinîh)
1939: Children of the Beloved Ones (Khalaf el habâyib)
1940: The Chief Contractor (el Bâchmouqâwil)
1940: The Heart of a Woman (Qalb imira’ah)
1941: The Three Musketeers (el Foursân el thalâthah)
1941: Laila from the Countryside (Layla bint el rif)
1941: The Thousand and One Nights (Alf Lailah wa Lailah)
1941: Laila the School Girl (Layla bint el madâris)
1941: A Groom from Istanbul (‘Aris min Istânboul)
1942: Laila (Layla)
1942: Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (‘Ali Bâbâ wa-l-arba’in harâmi)
1942: Children of the Poor (Awlâd el fouqarâ’)
1942: Noble Girl (Bint dhawât)
1942: If I were Rich (Law kont ghanî)
1943: The Right Path (el Tariq el moustaqîm)
1943: Long live Women! (Tahyâ el sittât)
1943: Gawhara (Gawharah)
1943: The Accused (el Moutahamah)
1944: Who did it (Man el gani)
1944: Laila in the Dark (Layla fi-l-zalâm)
1944: Lies, Lies! (Kidb fi kidb)
1944: Nour Eddine and the Three Sailors (Nour Eddine wa-l-bahhârah el thalâthah)
1944: Mohamed Ali Street (Châri’ Mouhamad ‘Alî)
1944: Son of the Blacksmith (Ibn el hadâd)
1945: Sallama (Sallâmah)
1945: Long live Men! (Tahyâal-riggâlah)
1945: A Kiss in Lebanon (Qoublah fi Lebnân)
1945: Appearances (el Mazâhar)
1945: Dreams of Love (Ahlâm el Houbb)
1945: Love Story (Qesat gharâm)
1945: The Great Artist (el Fanân el ‘azîm)
1946: Glory and Tears (Magd wa domou’)
1946: Beauty Queen (Malikat el gamâl)
1946: The Orphan (el Yatîmah)
1946: Daughter of the East (Bint el Charq)
1946: I am not an Angel (Lasto Malâkan)
1946: Laila Daughter of the Wealthy (Layla bint el aghniyâ’)
1947: Cairo Baghdad (el Qahirah Baghdâd)
1947: My Heart is my Guide (Qalbî dalîlî)
1947: Fatma (Fâtmah)
1948: Boulboul Effendi (Boulboul afandî)
1948: The Divorce of Soad Hanem (Talâq Sou’âd hânem)
1948: Anbar (‘Anbar)
1949: Girls’ Flirtation (Ghazal el banât)
1949: The Eve of the Feast (Laylat el ‘eid)
1950: The Shore of Love (Châti’ el gharâm)
1950: The Last Lie (Âkher kidhbah)
1950: Yasmine (Yâsmîn)
1951: Night of Passion (Laylat gharâm)
1952: The Great Clown (el Mouharig el kabîr)
1952: Zeinab (Zeineb)
1952: The Monster (el Wahish)
1954: God Stand with us Please (Allah ma’anah)
1954: The Story of my Love (Qesat houbbî)
1956: How Can I Forget You (Izây ansâk)
1957: Port Said (Port Sa’îd)
1957: Sleepless (Lâ anâm)
1957: The Dealers of Death (Tougâr el Mawt)
1958: The Lady of the Palace (Sayidat el qasr)
1959: She Lived for Love (‘Âchat lil houbb)
1959: Swimmer in Fire (el Sabihah fil nâr)
1959: For My Love (Min agl houbbî)
1959: The Unknown Woman (el Mar’âh el maghoulah)
1960: A Heartless Man (Ragoul bila qalb)
1960: Love and Deprivation (Houbb wa Hirmân)
1960: Bahiyya (Bahiyyah)
1960: Three Heiresses (Thalath warithat)
1961: Love Beach (Châti’ el houbb)
1961: A Day in my Life (Youm min ‘omrî)
1961: A Woman and a Devil (Imra’ah wa chaytân)
1961: I will not Confess (Lan a’tarif)
1961: Without Tears (Bila doumou’)
1961: Do Not Let the Sun Set (La toutfi’ el chams)
1962: No Tomorrow (Yaum bila ghad)
1962: The Miracle (el Mou’gizah)
1963: No Time For Love (La waqt lil houbb)
1963: Shafiqa the Copt (Shafîqah el qebtiyyah)
1963: The Epitome of Happiness (Mountaha el farah)
1964: The Thousand and One Nights (Alf layla we layla)
1964: The Spy (el Gasous)
1965: The Mameluks (el Mamâlîk)
1965: In the Name of Love (Bi’sm el houbb)
1966: Naughty Men (Chaqâwet regâlah)
1966: Konouz (Konouz)
1966: The Yemeni Revolution (Thawret el Yaman)
- Daoud, Abd el Ghani. El Rahiloun fe Ma’at ‘Âm (1896- 1996). Cairo: Wezârat el Thaqafah, 1997.
- Shimi, Said. Tarikh el Tasweer el Cinema’i fi Misr: 1897-1966. Cairo: Ministry of Culture, National Council for Cinema, 1997.
- _____, ____. Itigahat el Ibda’ fil Soura el Cinemaiya el Misreyah. Cairo: Supreme Council for Culture, 2003.